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Passover And Easter: Uneasy Neighbours

A friend of mine sent me an email containing a series of letters to the editor that one of the English newspapers hadn’t published. While some were sort of stupid and others mildly amusing, one had me almost in tears. Like all good letters, it was simple, direct, and to the point:

“Did anyone else feel that Mel Gibson’s remake of the classic Life of Brian wasn’t anywhere near as funny as the original?”

I’m at a loss as to understand why the newspaper in question refused to publish the letter. But then again, I agree with the writer of the letter, so maybe I’m not the perfect judge of community standards in these circumstances. There are others who would probably take offence to the tone of the letter.

Most likely they would be the same crowd who had taken offence to the original movie. When it was released, Monty Python’s Life Of Brian was considered sacrilegious, blasphemous, and any of the other nasty words that people like to throw at works that make fun of their belief systems. Of course Mel’s film, The Passion, had its own detractors, who called it things like anti-Semitic and pornographic in its display of violence, so maybe it had more in common with the original than we thought.

I never had any desire to go see Mel’s film. Not being a Christian, the subject matter wasn’t exactly appealing to me and I figured I knew the story well enough already. Heck, the whole world knows the story whether we want to or not, so I couldn’t see much point in retelling it. But, like I said, I’m not a Christian, so it’s not for me to judge whether or not they want to make movies about their religion. (Please do me a favour and don’t write in telling me all the reasons for the need to tell this story over and over again or how well it did at the box office. E.T. did well at the box office and I couldn’t see the point in it either.)

Every year some church group or another does a Passion play in the community where I live, or a stations of the cross retelling, or something along those lines. We get a live television feed of the Pope addressing the faithful in St. Peter’s square for his Easter sermon, and we get images of pilgrims making their way through Jerusalem being shepherded by Israeli soldiers.

The irony of those visuals, Christian pilgrims being protected by the soldiers of the only Jewish state as they go to worship the person in whose name so many Jews have died seems to escape most people. Adding even more irony to the mix is the fact that at the same time Easter is being celebrated by Christians, Jewish people are celebrating Passover.

Passover, of course, is the celebration of Moses leading the Jewish people out of Egypt and bondage and into the promised land of Israel. That they had to smote a few thousand Canaanites who happened to be living there already seems to have been lost in the shuffle, but the Bible just sort of glosses over that little fact. That annoying little bit of history probably only merits a couple of versus in “Exodus.”

Passover is a holiday that commemorates freedom, the birth of the laws of Judaism (the Ten Commandments) and the trials that had to be overcome to achieve that freedom. The first two nights of the holiday (Jewish holidays start at sundown of the day prior to what would be called the first day) are marked with a serving of a meal, the Seder, in which the stages of the journey are ritually enacted through the foods eaten and the prayers and songs recited.

Now, according to what we are told, it was during Passover that Jesus was arrested, crucified, and resurrected. One could say the celebration of these events is the celebration of the birth of Christianity. As the cornerstone of this religion is a belief in these events and they are celebrated every year, it only makes sense that it be considered the beginning of the belief system.

Unfortunately instead of thinking of Passover with respect and fondness, at many periods throughout history, Christians have seized on it to search for excuses to attack or abuse Jews. The whole Christ-killer accusation has been so pervasive that in the 1960′s Lenny Bruce, the American comic and satirist, was still utilizing it for material.

First of all, Lenny confesses that, yes, he and his uncles took Christ down to the basement and worked him over a little too much. Then he tells his audience they should be grateful that they (Jews) killed Christ when they did. How would they have felt if it had happened in recent history and they all had to walk around wearing electric chairs around their necks?

Having not seen Mr. Gibson’s movie, I can’t comment on the anti-Semitic nature, but I’m sure the accusation is based on the fact that Jewish people have a very real reason to be afraid of the Christ-killer accusation. If, in any way, the movie depicted events that could leave that accusation as a conclusion, is it any wonder there would have been an outcry against it?

In the days of the Protestant Reformation, when the Catholic Church was lashing out at any “enemy” of Christianity, it was common for the ghettos, where Jews were confined, to be invaded during Passover/Easter. Some bright spin doctor of the day seized upon the story of marking the door jams with the blood of a lamb so the Angel of death would know not to take Jewish first born children during the plagues, and turned it into Matzah (unleavened bread eaten during Passover) being made with the blood of gentile children.

With the Jews mysteriously escaping the worst of the effects of the plague (having personal hygiene as part of your religion staves off a lot of waste-borne diseases) and the unrest of the times due to the reformation, it was easy to take such lies and make Jews scapegoats for the ails of society.

Although this was common practice during the year, Easter and Passover provided a means for whipping up mob violence and making Jewish life even more precarious. During the centuries of the Diaspora and even today for Jews who do not live in Israel, the end of the Seder is marked with the toast of “next year in Jerusalem.” During dark times it was a ray of hope symbolizing freedom and a return to the heart of their religion. As Moses led them out of slavery and into the freedom of Israel, they would hope to return to the city that was their icon of release from persecution.

The treatment of Jews over the years by followers of Christianity has not spoken well for the younger belief system’s tolerance of others. When I hear the bells pealing for Easter mass, I can’t help but think of other springs in different lands where those bells would call the faithful to acts of violence and hatred against people who’s only crime was to worship a different God.

We need far more movies like Life of Brian that laugh at the world, and far fewer movies like The Passion that remind us of the hatreds in the world. It doesn’t matter what its intent was, sometimes simply depicting the events is all it takes to fan the flames of old fears and old hatreds. I don’t see the necessity of that in any circumstances.

About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://www.communistvampires.com/author.htm Thomas M. Sipos

    As it happens…

    1. I’m a huge Monty Python fan (like many, I can recite whole scenes) who loved The Life of Brian.

    2. I was very impressed by Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It was the first film I saw that humanized Jesus so that I empathized with him (rather than saw him as an admirable cardboard figure), until…

    3. I saw and was deeply moved by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Not like any Jesus film before it, it was in no way redundant, nor anti-Semetic. Powerful and profound and well worth seeing.

    So I loved all three works. Go figure.

    Incidentally, in Monty Python: The Case Against (a history of the censorship of Python), the Pythons state in an interview that they’d initially intended to satirize Jesus in The Life of Brian, but that after scouring the New Testament, they were unable to find any fault in Jesus to satirize. They came away impressed.

    So instead they decided to satirize the followers of all religions. Brian is not Jesus, which the Pythons take pains to make clear in the film.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Richard, I remember well my father telling me about how the Poles and Russians would scream HEP! HEP! (an acronym fo the Latin “Hierusalyma Est Perdita – Jerusalem is lost) and attack Jewish villages in pogroms in prewar WWI Russia-Poland where he lived. These usually took place at Easter.

    Maybe that is why I live here. I will never have to worry about a mob of crazed Christians attacking me or mine or care how they choose to celebrate Easter. I have not fogotten and I certainly do not forgive. Too much evil and death stemmed from Christian anti-Semitism to be forgotten or forgiven.

    Moadím l’SimHá from Jerusalem

  • http://www.communistvampires.com/author.htm Thomas M. Sipos

    Ruvy: “I have not fogotten and I certainly do not forgive. Too much evil and death stemmed from Christian anti-Semitism to be forgotten or forgiven.”

    Yet without continued Christian support (financial, diplomatic, and military aid), would there even be an Israel? Is no gratitude in order?

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    I will not hijack Richard’s fine piece with an analysis of Christian or American or European support for this country. I’ve written extensively on this elsewhere so I’ll send you there. Then come to one of my articles on Israel or the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel and continue your observations there.

    Go here and read the article and the comments to it. It will give you some background as to what is going on here. It will give you a reasonably clear view of how I view events in this land. The closest thing there that will provide some answer to your question will be in commnet #16, but I advise you to read through the whole thing and go to the links on Jewish Indianapolis that you find there.

  • Baronius

    Richard, you’re distorting history. European anti-semitism has been around for a long time, but it really blossomed in the 1800′s. Before then, the Jewish population was mistreated, sometimes horribly mistreated, by the Christian population. But the hope was to convert the Jewish people. They had souls to be saved.

    But in the 1800′s, as Europe became increasingly secular and nationalist, Judaism couldn’t be “fixed” by baptism. The Jewish population was now a threat, an internal enemy. This thinking was a result of the Enlightenment. It was one with the de-Christianization of Europe. The pogroms and death camps were political, never religious.

    Slight tangent – I’m fascinated by last names. There were pockets in Europe that resisted the use of last names up until the Napoleanic Wars. Mostly Jewish. See, there wasn’t much risk having a first name like Jacob. Having a last name was a risk, because it meant accurate government records.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Baronius, think of several guys at a barbecue. they are all working on the same piece of meat, but they all have different approaches and the approaches are intertwined. In the end, the meat gets cooked though.

    That is what European anti-Semitism was and still is, for that matter. Europeans had several reasons for hating Jews and for killing them. The most basic one was that, according to the Christians, we killed their god. This was the bottom line reason. Every Easter, that bottom line reason was brought out into the churches all over Europe and preached on. That started the fire on the barbecue.

    All the other things you describe are spices to flavor the meat, different approaches to cooking it, so to speak. But Christian anti-Semitism lit the flame that eventually resuted in the fires of Auschwitz.

  • Baronius

    Ruvy, I’m not surprised that you and I disagree on this. If I may be so bold, I think we’re equally sensitive on this subject, but from different angles. But we both agree that Christians’ treatment of Jews has at times been horrible.

    My earlier post was just following (which is to say plagarizing) Hannah Arendt. Ultimately, though, I believe that anti-semitism is literally diabolical. There’s no earthly reason that the Alabaman farmer, the French intellectual, and the Yemeni cleric would all come up with the same idea, one that’s so clearly stupid and evil. Just as the persistence of the Jewish people is a proof of God, so the persistence of anti-semitism is a proof of the devil.

    A supernatural view of anti-semitism probably diminishes the tendency to see European history as a continuity. But it also makes each act that much more heart-breaking. The thought of a fellow Christian falling for such evil makes me want to cry. When you hear about things like the Japanese Nazi Party, you realize that every human activity somehow attracts the stench of anti-semitism, and how diligent we all have to be against it.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Baronius,

    Personally, I find the “devil made me do it” argument a bit disingenuous, but it is not the kind of thing worth arguing over. They stem from different world views, originiating in different concepts of sin and how susceptible man is to commit sin. With different motivations in hand, we yet appear to be on the same side of the fence.

  • http://www.historytimes.com History Buff

    Having a sense of humour (especialy when it comes to things religious) is pretty needful, especially these days.

    What is frustrating is that so many within modern Christian Groups seem not to understand the fundamental fact that Jesus is Jewish and celebrated Passover himself (see ‘The Last Seder’ etc) and yet between Easter and Passover the twain shall never meet – sad.

    We have shared many a wonderful Seder with Jewish friends (even tho’ practising Christians)… go figure!

    Ollie

  • Jim

    What a pointless article and discussion. Luke Warm – spat out.