Throughout my life I have paid good money to see innumerable films that have dehumanized Muslims in the most overt and ingenious ways possible. I have also seen a great many television programs, books, newspaper articles and high-minded literary journals do the same. I have witnessed my father—-who is Muslim and who, in my imagination, is the actor playing the roll of the Muslim man in each and every scenario—-eat an insect, rape a woman, dismember the limbs of an innocent man, harass Indiana Jones, drive a taxi without shaving or showering, rule despotically over third-world countries, manage a deli, plot to poison the entire earth and, most recently, sell newspapers at a corner news stand. (This is a partial list.) So ubiquitous are these images of my father that they are not seen as fictitious by millions of my countrymen, but as established fact. Which may explain why they are never decried by anyone other than Muslims themselves.
My mother, on the other hand, who is Jewish, and who has been estranged from my father for thirty-five years, has enjoyed an altogether different portrayal of herself, a sentimental portrayal and far less entertaining. My mother, as Hollywood has taught me, is long-suffering. She has accepted her fate, a miserable and pathetic fate, to be sure, but hers nonetheless, and one she would not dare attempt to alter through physical violence. My mother is also patient, intelligent, virtuous, noble, and she often wears glasses and plays a musical instrument, most likely the violin. It is true, yes, she is not terribly attractive, but at least we need not worry about her smelling bad. All of this to say, throughout my life I have paid good money to see innumerable films that have dehumanized my mother. I would argue that these are anti-Semitic depictions because they deny my mother the full scope of her humanity, which must include violence and hatred and deceit. But because this is such a benign, subtle form of anti-Semitism it is celebrated, including by Jews themselves.
These contradictory depictions of my parents in popular American culture has left me in schizophrenic possession of two halves which are equally covetous of what the other has procured. My Muslim-half wants what the pity and protection that it perceives Americans have afforded to my Jewish-half. It wants Hollywood to finally cast my father in the roll of the character who has undergone a great and prolonged injustice and who is now mourned by all. It wants the critics and intellectuals who have flocked to the defense of my mother, to champion the history and culture of my father.
But insofar as my Muslim-half has been scorned and derided by Americans, it wishes for the Jewish-half to be scorned and derided as well, and it is resentful that it is not.
It wishes for the same hand that has painted my Muslim-half as ugly, ignoble and villainous, to paint my Jewish-half in the same way. I want my mother to be shown taking up arms for her cause—-never mind if the cause is ignominious—-to thumb her nose at what Americans hold dear, to be single-minded in her pursuit, to be narcissistic, to be violent, to be hedonistic, to be ugly, to hold menial jobs, to eat like a savage, to ruin civilizations and frighten Americans in their sleep. After all, how could I accept a society that coddles my mother, but cuts a wide, humiliating swath through my father?
It was, therefore, with great delight that I watched as the Jews punch and slap Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the opening scene of “The Passion of the Christ.” The gasp of horror that emanated from the audience added to my thrill. In all my years of movie-going I had never had the chance to witness a Jew, identifying themselves as a Jew, behave so brazenly on screen. That is to say, I had never seen my Jewish-half assume the role of the heavy and alienate itself from the crowd. And after having cringed countless times while an audience roared with glee or disdain at my father, I welcomed this familiar feeling that was suddenly ascribed to my mother.
I’ve always been obsessed with the size of my mother’s nose and the size of my nose and the size of the noses of Jews in general, but the noses of the Jews in this film are not too terribly large. There are no hooked noses to be found except for the hooked nose that belongs to Peter, but he is a good Jew, and this seems to diminish the impact of his particular physical deformity. There are lots of long beards, of course, but as long beards go, these are well-kept. The Pharisees, while not handsome, muscular men, have all their white teeth and unblemished skin and clean clothes. And as Jesus drags his cross along the road to Calvary we are shown many pretty Jews, even sexy Jews, who champion Jesus and his plight. The message being, perhaps, that it is only Jews en route to Christianity who are pretty. (I have often wished I was a Jew en route to Christianity.) Mary is sexy, and so is the other Mary. Of course, the sexiest Jew of all is Jesus himself, and that’s no small matter. All of these good looks and sexy bodies were terribly disillusioning and disconcerting to me.
Moreover, to add to my disappointment, there are only a few, mild references to Jews as being avaricious or stingy. No insignificant matter in my experience, having often been accused of being parsimonious because of my ethnicity, and in turn accusing my mother of it. There is a certain matter about taxes which is discussed with Pontius Pilate, and there’s a finely rendered scene where Judas accepts his thirty pieces of silver from the Pharisees in exchange for his betrayal of Jesus. The bag of silver coins sails through the air in slow motion and then slips through Judas’s hands as the coins spill and clink along the ground. Judas kneels down and gathers them up, his humiliation made more exquisite by his wild, depraved countenance and hungry nature. I imagined my mother as Judas and this was a pleasure for me to watch. But the scene, ultimately, is too brief and there are so many well-intentioned citizens of Jerusalem that the actions of the bad Jews are thoroughly offset by those of the good Jews. And besides, the bulk of the film belongs to the Romans, not the Jews, who beat Jesus so unmercilessly and with such a determined, sado-masochistic, single-mindedness that I could not help but wonder why it was the Jews and not the Romans who have been indicted. The role of the torturer has always belonged to my father and I would have much preferred my mother to have had the chance at it.
As time goes on the chances get slimmer and slimmer of my father ever being able to ascend to the plateau of human in American society. I had hoped, therefore, that “The Passion of the Christ,” would have finally revealed the deep anti-Semitism in this country and allowed my Jewish-half to descend to the same level as my Muslim-half. There, in the close quarters of their non-Christian purgatory, the two could enjoy each other’s company, like, say, close friends, or brother and sister, or, perhaps, ultimately, husband and wife.