Howard Rotberg
Howard RotbergCourtesy

Jewish American actor Joshua Malina, known for his roles on TV series such as The West Wing, The Big Bang Theory, Scandal and Shameless, called on Hollywood recently to "cancel" filmmaker and actor Mel Gibson over his alleged antisemitism.

Writing an article for The Atlantic, the actor responded to news of Gibson directing the fifth installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise, saying that he is a "well-known Jew-hater" and that "you couldn’t pay me enough to work with Mel Gibson."

Some might remember that when Mel Gibson was stopped in Los Angeles for drunk driving in 2006, he let loose with a torrent of antisemitic rants, including a claim that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world". Sometimes a drunkard says exactly what he thinks but wouldn’t say if he was sober.

Mel Gibson
Mel GibsonReuters

I have always been a keen student of history, taking seriously the dictum that those who do not learn from history will be compelled to relive it Good historical movies can be built on thorough historical grounding, but where the director or writer have an inadequate grasp of the subject, or some ulterior, even nefarious, agenda, the viewer becomes subject to disconcerting manipulation, in ways both subtle and unsubtle, as only the medium of film can accomplish.

Somewhere along the line our cultural practices have shifted. The public high school that my son attended only required him to take one history course in four years. While history books are finding limited audience, superstar movie moguls have unlimited access to cinema financing, and stand supreme as arbiters of the cultural, social and political stories that are deemed suitable for the masses of movie-goers.

In general, I have not been overly concerned about the various oddball notions of history and culture found in any particular movies, as I always believed that we have a repository of views of historical fact in our universities, and that, in the end, disputants can turn to reputable professors whose truth will set us free. Not any more. Today, truth to these professors is often just one “narrative” among others, and having the correct ideology trumps truth itself.

Absent universal moral truths, the study and understanding of matters historical, cultural and political places us, dangerously, in a world that holds that all opinions on these matters are equally valid or favors the “oppressed" while.trumpeting intersectionality. The left alleges “anti-racism” and “equity” as the only justifiable goals.

There would be no great problem with all of this relativism in a world filled with moral and non-violent souls, ready to co-exist with every “other”, and taking responsibility for their failings.

However, in a world once again threatened by aggressive totalitarianism, how do we react, and how does our media achieve an understanding of the relevance of successful historical approaches to totalitarianism? If the study of history at one time imbued us with moral certainty that, for example, Nazis could not be dealt with by appeasement, yet we have no intellectual or moral agreement on who are the new Nazis, and no historical knowledge about what constitutes appeasement or submission, and how they encourage aggressors, then what are we to do?

I suggest that we pay close attention to the antisemitism that has arisen and become prevalent, understand it, and then combat it, for the evil relativism that it is. And so, as Gibson has been seeking to rehabilitate his image, and there are rumours about a sequel to his movie The Passion of the Christ, let us look back at his movie to see what we can learn.

The Passion supposedly shows the last twelve hours, up to the crucifixion, of Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem. Mel Gibson claims that The Passion is “meant to just tell the truth.”

Ultimately, however, The Passion, passes from religiosity into ideological anti-Semitism for three main reasons:

Firstly, it is bad history and bad Gospel, in that it adopts certain anti-Semitic notions that are outside the Gospels, and plays up a story that under-represents the role of the Romans, especially Pontius Pilate, and over-represents the role of the Jews, in the crucifixion of Jesus. The effect is a reversal of the progress made in Christian-Jewish relations since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, which had absolved the Jews of collective responsibility for the death of Jesus and the charge of deicide.

Second, by an almost pornographic standard of sadism, it uses the medium of film and its special effects to sensationalize the suffering of Jesus, even beyond the worst excesses of European Catholic Clergy and the Passion plays of places like Oberammergau, Germany.

Gibson, then, is firmly in the tradition of Adolf Hitler who was also a minimizer of the responsibility of Pilate – Hitler once said that the Roman governor stands out “like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry.” Hitler also had this comment on the Passion Play at Oberammergau: “(it is) a convincing portrayal of the menace of Jewry.”

Third, the bona fides of the work should properly be assessed in the light of the profound anti-Semitism of Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton, and his son’s refusal to disassociate himself from it, as well as Mel’s comments amounting to Holocaust minimization.

So, in light of Gibson’s protestation that his movie is “meant to just tell the truth”, several examples of his untruth will have to suffice: First, is the representation of the Roman, Pontius Pilate, and then the Jewish “mob”. Let me use a scene description taken from a New York Times review article:

“The Roman leader Pontius Pilate is depicted as being reluctant to harm Jesus, who Pilate’s wife warns is holy. Largely to mollify a restive Jewish mob outside his window, Pilate agrees to a severe lashing and scourging of Jesus, but the crowd and the (Jewish) high priest demand more.

“Pilate says in Latin, ‘Ecce homo - Behold the man’ – displaying the broken and bleeding Jesus to the crowd. But the high priest insists, in Aramaic, ‘Crucify him.’ Pilate responds, ‘Isn’t this enough?’ The mob roars ‘No,’ and only then does the Roman leader agree to the Crucifixion.”

A picture of the vengeful Jewish mob, pushing the reluctant pious Pilate towards the Crucifixion... vengeful, money-grubbing Jews. The problem is that the whole scene is nonsense, what Rabbi Shmuly Boteach (who has written about the New Testament passion narratives) terms “an anti-Semitic lie, a cheap fabrication contradicted by all serious History of the time.”

You see, Pilate, according to all the serious sources, was, as Philo wrote, a man known for “corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people… continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties.” King Agrippa I wrote to the Emperor Caligula of Pilate’s “corruption… and his never-ending, and gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.”

While the Jews had a developed system of Justice which avoided the death penalty, it was in fact the Romans who used crucifixion routinely against self-proclaimed messiahs and other perceived trouble-makers, including Judah of Galilee, Theudas, and Benjamin the Egyptian. Yet we are given to believe that Jews suddenly decided to use a Roman sadistic form of capital punishment.

Never mind that Pilate was such a tyrant that the Romans called him back to Rome because of his behaviour.

Never mind that many scholars believe that in their portrayal of the Jews and the Romans, the Gospels, written during a time of Roman rule, naturally maximized the role of the Jews, and minimized the role of the Romans, in the death of Jesus, in order to curry favour with the Romans..

But, in his enthusiastic revisionism, Gibson (in another deviation from Scripture) even gives Pilate’s wife an uplifting role, as she appears at the scene to comfort Mary, and give her towels to wipe up Jesus’ blood. As Gibson comes up with events not found in Scripture, the question is obviously, where is he getting some of his material. For example, in the movie, a Jewish temple guard drops Jesus off a bridge. When Jesus is first brought before Pontius Pilate, Pilate beholds his bloody, bruised condition and asks members of the Sanhedrin if they always beat prisoners prior to trial.

The answer is that this material is all taken from an early 19th century work by a German nun, Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich, who wrote a book called The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which one reviewer says contains “lurid depictions of bloodthirsty and venal Jews”. A biographer (Rev. C. Schmoeger) quoted her as saying, “Jews in our country and elsewhere strangled Christian children and used their blood for all sorts of suspicious and diabolical practices.” Her book is also apparently the source of the movie’s scene where Jewish priests give out bribes for false testimony against Jesus.

Yet Gibson is so loyal to Emmerich that he carries around a piece of cloth from her habit, and has defended her to a writer from The New Yorker: “Why are they calling her a Nazi? Because modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church… it’s revisionism,” he claims.

The Passion treats the viewer to one of the bloodiest torture movies of mainstream cinema. As David Denby, writing in The New Yorker points out:

“Gibson, of course, is free to skip over the incomparable glories of Jesus’ temperament and to devote himself, as he does, to Jesus’ pain and martyrdom in the last twelve hours of his life. As a viewer, I am equally free to say that the movie Gibson has made from his personal obsessions is a sickening death trip, a grimly unilluminating procession of treachery, beatings, blood, and agony—and to say so without indulging in “anti-Christian sentiment” (Gibson’s term for what his critics are spreading)...Gibson is so thoroughly fixated on the scourging and crushing of Christ, and so meagrely involved in the spiritual meanings of the final hours, that he falls in danger of altering Jesus’ message of love into one of hate.”

Gibson himself states: (in his interview with Diane Sawyer)

“I wanted it to be shocking. And I wanted it to be extreme.... So that they see the enormity — the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule.”

Shocking it is. Film critic Roger Ebert stated: “The movie is 126 minutes long, and I would guess that at least 100 of those minutes, maybe more, are concerned specifically and graphically with the details of the torture and death of Jesus. This is the most violent film I have ever seen.” All the more effective in making the viewer understand just exactly what, in Mel Gibson’s opinion, these Jews did . And what if other groups start making torture movies showing fabricated scenes of their political or religious adversaries scourging their people for 100 minutes?

As stated above, in the face of so much inaccuracy despite his pledge to “tell the truth”, it is fair to examine Mel Gibson’s belief system. And, while we do not like to taint a son with the beliefs of his father, it is fair game to see if the son has distanced himself from the father’s anti-Semitic diatribes.

In a radio interview on a syndicated radio program called Speak Your Piece, on the eve of the movie’s release, Hutton Gibson showed that he believed in just about every major anti-Semitic myth:

-On the “Jewish conspiracy” – “They’re after one world religion and one world government. That’s why they’ve attacked the Catholic Church so strongly, to ultimately take control over it by their doctrine.”

-On the Jews as Communists – “The Jews weren’t in the army much in World War 1 because they were fomenting a revolt in Russia.”

-On the Jews as Antichrist – “They must have revenge. You know they caused the Roman persecutions too… The Jews were notable for getting the wood to burn the Christians… a labor of love you might say.

-On Holocaust denial - “It’s all – maybe not all fiction – but most of it is.”

The problem with Mel is that when given the opportunity to reject his father’s notions, he declined to do so. (When ABC’s Diane Sawyer gave him the opening, he sternly told her, “Don’t go there.”)

More revealing still is a careful reading of Mel’s own words on the Holocaust. When asked by Peggy Noonan of Reader’s Digest whether the Holocaust happened, Mel answered in the affirmative, but qualified his words with the following, “Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century 20 million people died in the Soviet Union.”

The obvious problem with Mel Gibson’s pronouncement on whether the Holocaust “happened”, is that he takes the common path of Holocaust deniers, by portraying the Holocaust as just one of several “atrocities” – as opposed to an intentional and ordered German policy of genocidal extermination – that was somehow just a by-product of “War” which is of course “horrible”.

Notice that he is happy to give the number of Ukrainians starved to death, but neatly avoids the question of how many Jews perished in the Holocaust, lest he give it the authority of fact. The reasons for Holocaust denial, minimization, or equivocation are all the same – beware of a people so corrupt, so conniving that they have manufactured facts about the Holocaust. As postulated by a seriously hateful (and Jewish!) academic named Norman Finkelstein, Jews have created a “Holocaust Industry” which allows this vengeful, money-grubbing people to extort money from Europeans - and use Holocaust memorials to prop up support for a Nazi-like Israel.

Of course, the background of both Hutton and Mel Gibson is that they are part of a break-away Roman Catholic sect, called Traditionalists. This sect broke off from mainstream Catholicism after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which did away with celebrating mass in Latin only and the abstention of eating meat on Fridays. Rejecting the authority of the Pope, they also implicitly deny the other important reform of the Second Vatican Council – the absolving of the Jews from the crime of deicide. Shlomo Svesnik has called the Traditionalists a “fascistic cult” in his website at

To be sure, however, Mel Gibson, one of the Traditionalists, has used his considerable cinematic skill to create a plague on a culture which should no longer be subject to “traditionalist” anti-Semitic canards about the death of Jesus. The “traditional” first step in anti-Semitism is to brand the Jews as vengeful “Christ-killers”, and The Passion does the job very well.

The twin attempts to malign Jews and their state- from Mel Gibson on the right to Islamist-supporters on the Left - have made antisemitism acceptable again We should all be passionate in fighting those hate-filled canards.

Howard Rotberg writes on ideologies, political culture and values. This is excerpted from his book, Tolerism: The Ideology Revealed.