Why the Jews are wrong

Observations on Mel Gibson and <em>The Passion</em>

The claim by some in the Jewish community that The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic is both paranoid and hysterical. Before anyone accuses me of being anti-Semitic, allow me to present my credentials: I regularly address Jewish groups such as JACS and B'nai B'rith, I have been a member of Conservative Friends of Israel, the Holocaust was a theme of my last novel and I have had opprobrium heaped on my head for defending some of Ariel Sharon's activities. It would be hard to find someone more pro-Jewish, but my modest contribution to Judaeo-Christian relations is now under threat as I feel so offended and insulted by the ludicrous outcry that greeted the filming of the most sacred part of the New Testament.

What with Pharaoh, the diaspora, the pogroms and the Holocaust, it is not surprising that Jews are alert for any outbreak of ill-feeling; and the rest of us should be vigilant on their behalf. But there is a line between alertness and over-sensitivity, and they have well and truly crossed it in their reaction to this film. They cannot credibly propose to make it a crime to deny the reality of the Holocaust, while themselves denying the reality of a shameful episode in their history. You do not have to believe that Jesus was the Messiah to recognise the illegality of His trial or to wince at His suffering. A bit of wincing would not come amiss from the leaders of the Jewish community whose principal concern appears to be not that Christ suffered, but that Mel Gibson should have the gall to portray those sufferings.

I have little patience with the fashion of apologising for historical events for which current leaders have absolutely no responsibility. I do not believe that Britain should apologise for its empire or the Pope for the crusades or Italy for Nero. It is a childish, fatuous, self-indulgent process, and so the last thing I want is for modern Jews to apologise for the iniquities of the first-century Sanhedrin. But equally, they cannot expect that uniquely they should be protected from examination of the exploits of their ancestors.

If you believe this film should not be shown, then you must believe the Bible should not be read. The Church should defend Mel Gibson's offering with vigour, rather than its customary whimper that it doesn't want anyone to be upset.

If I thought there was a current of anti- Semitism in the film I would not take this attitude, but there is not. Short of pretending that the events took place somewhere other than the Holy Land and that the Sanhedrin was not a Jewish court, it is difficult to see how Gibson could give the Jews a fairer deal. He is much harsher on the Romans who, laughing and gloating, inflict the brutality; stresses that Christ himself was a Jew and omits from the subtitles the most damning line of all: "His blood be on us and on our children."

It is a powerful, moving film that every Christian over the age of 18 and not of a nervous disposition should see. The violence is occasionally excessive, and I admit to closing my eyes more than once. But scourging, crowning with thorns and crucifixion would have been pretty violent, and throughout it all the words of the Pope echoed in my mind: "It is as it was."

The theme of forgiveness is strong, with a flashback to the Sermon on the Mount. In that, and other flashbacks, Christ is shown as young and vibrant, exuding energy as well as holiness, reminding us that He was only 33 when He died. At the final scene, when we saw the stone rolling away from inside the tomb and the risen Christ, unmarked, walking towards it, I wanted to cheer, to say: "Well done, You deserved that." It was perhaps a mildly irreverent sentiment, but it leaves me wondering how anyone could leave the cinema unmoved.

I saw the film at a press preview and the watchers left in silence. The last time I can remember that happening was after Schindler's List.