In her letter last Wednesday, Lynne Heilbron claimed that the message of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is love and compassion rather than anti-Semitism.
I am glad that this was the significance she took from the film; however, her statements that "Jews were clamoring for the death of Christ" and "you cannot change history, what actually took place" are dangerous and, unfortunately, all too common views that I as a Jew feel compelled to address.
"The Passion" screenplay stays fairly true to the Gospel of Matthew, but it is essential that viewers understand the historical context in which this part of the New Testament was written. To begin, according to noted Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the word "Messiah" in those times meant not only a spiritual leader, but also a military leader who would lead the Jews in escaping foreign rule.
Because of this, Jesus was a significant political threat to Roman authorities, which is evident in their announcement of his crime as being the "King of the Jews." Pontius Pilate, who saw through Jesus' execution, was by other historical accounts a murderous ruler who was later replaced because of his cruelty.
The Gospel of Matthew was compiled about 55 years after Jesus' death. At that time, Roman law banned Christianity, and, given that they had crucified Jesus, had no reason to reverse the ban. Jesus' followers knew that the only way to convince the Romans otherwise was to absolve the empire of blame by claiming that the Jews had coerced Pilate into crucifying Jesus. Hence the gospel, which vilified the Jews and treated Pilate -- a brutal ruler with total power over Judea -- as an innocent sympathizer who was forced to yield to the whim of an angry mob.
The love and compassion for which Jesus yearned is the centerpiece of the New Testament; however, religious leaders of all faiths have warned us that its historical accounts, be it the circumstances surrounding Jesus' crucifixion, or, for example, Moses' parting of the Red Sea, should not be accepted as fact. The unfair attribution of Jesus' death solely to the Jews was the beginning of two millennia of anti-Semitism against the Jewish people.
Personally, I agree with Lynne Heilbron that "The Passion" is not anti-Semitic; it simply tells the story of Jesus as told in the gospel of Matthew. What is dangerous, however, is that while moviegoers such as Heilbron may take away a message of love and compassion, they also accept the story as fact.
Because of the extremely important nature of the subject at hand, it is essential that we take the initiative to educate ourselves about such matters rather than relying on only two sources -- Matthew and Mel Gibson -- as our teachers. I challenge all who go to see "The Passion" to follow up their viewing with a trip to the library. Those who blindly accept what has been portrayed onscreen have done nothing to help end 2,000 years of unjust hatred and persecution against the Jewish people. Sadly, Jesus' desire that we love our neighbors as we do ourselves seems to have truly fallen by the wayside.