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Why some Jews fear The Passion
Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism.
The Passion of the Christ scares Abraham Foxman. The Anti-Defamation League's national director, currently cast in the role of reluctant film critic, has spent months warning anyone and everyone that The Passion will dramatically strain Christian-Jewish relations and revive age-old Christian hatred for Jews. While most Christians in the West balk at this suggestion, Foxman cannot be dissuaded. He knows the grim history.
"For almost 2,000 years in Western civilization, four words legitimized, rationalized, and fueled anti-Semitism: 'The Jews killed Christ,'" Foxman told the ADL national executive committee during a February meeting. "For hundreds of years those four words—acted out, spoken out, sermonized out—inspired and legitimized pogroms, inquisitions and expulsions."
When Foxman envisions Christ's crucifixion, he does not think about love, forgiveness, or hope. He recalls the Holocaust and Hitler's chilling praise for the famed Oberammergau Passion Play in 1934. He does not weep with unexplainable sadness and joy at the sight of humanity's Savior suffering an undeserved death. He'll never forget the horrifying tales of czarist-era Russian Jews fleeing bloodthirsty gangs bent on Holy Week revenge.
"Read the e-mails, read the Web sites encouraging people to see the film," Foxman warned. "How fragile it is out there. What a reservoir of hatred!"
Hatred? Can we possibly be thinking of the same event? How can he watch Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, the ultimate triumph over death and evil, and think of hatred? The answer to this question is impossible for Christians to fully understand. Sadly, the history of Passion play depictions has been marred by shocking violence against Jews.
"The menace of Jewry"
With the bubonic plague once again sweeping across Europe in 1633, the town leaders of Oberammergau, a Bavarian village, gathered together to beseech God for a miracle. If the Lord would spare little Oberammergau, they promised to thank him by performing a play every 10 years to commemorate Jesus' crucifixion.
After this vow, not one Oberammergau villager died of the plague. The town first performed the play in 1634. More than 350 years later, Oberammergau still remembers its promise. In 2000, nearly half of the town's 5,000 residents participated in the fortieth Oberammergau Passion Play, which drew nearly a half million tourists from around the world.
Yet in the late 1970s, Oberammergau began to draw the ADL's ire. Sensitized by the Holocaust, Jews, especially in Germany, turned a more skeptical eye on Passion plays. Oberammergau, in particular, had been a source of tangible pain. Adolf Hitler had visited the 1934 performance, giving it his eager blessing. "It is vital that the Passion play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the time of the Romans," Hitler had said. "There one sees Pontius Pilate, a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."
To make matters worse, the Dachau concentration camp had performed its horrific duty not far from Oberammergau. While Hitler's brand of murderous anti-Semitism owed far more to scientific determinism than Christianity, he preyed on a history of faith-based persecution. When convenient, Hitler and his Nazi henchmen dredged up the anti-Semitic writings of an elderly Martin Luther to justify their hatred for Jews.
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