Denunciations of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ by some influential organizations in the Jewish community reached their crescendo long before the movie's release, and began even before he had finished filming it. This proves that the charges of anti-Semitism surrounding this project for more than a year arose not from an honest assessment of the film, but from political prejudice and organizational imperatives.
The nastiness commenced with a New York Times article in March 2003, while Gibson was filming his epic in Italy. Writer Christopher Noxon acknowledged a family feud with Gibson: The journalist's father had agitated against construction of a traditionalist Catholic church in Malibu that Gibson funded with several million dollars. Still smarting from the loss of this battle, unable to speak to the star or to see excerpts of his film, the reporter focused on Gibson's then 84-year-old father, Hutton Gibson. The article highlighted the elderly curmudgeon's outrageous views—including his belief that the deadly planes of 9/11 had been "remote-controlled" to fly into the World Trade Center's towers, and his opinion that the commonly accepted figure of 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust is exaggerated.
The resulting article led to horrified speculation that Mel Gibson, as well as his father, was a "Holocaust denier"—a charge that both Gibsons repudiated—and gave rise to the supposition that his film about Jesus expressed a Jew-hating agenda. After all, the few facts known about the project before its completion made it sound eccentric and excessive.
The star invested nearly $25 million of his money in the film. At one time he suggested that the dialogue, almost entirely in Aramaic with a smattering of Latin, would appear without subtitles. Reports from the set suggested that leading man Jim Caviezel (The Thin Red Line), another devout Catholic, had become so immersed in his role that he suffered significant injury while filming the torture of Christ. The rumors about the movie reached such intensity that The New Republic published "Mad Mel," an attack by Paula Fredriksen, a professor at Boston University who had not seen the picture.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the world's most prominent watchdog on anti-Semitism, got hold of an early draft of Gibson's script (before its translation into Aramaic) and assembled a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars to evaluate it. Those academics (including Fredriksen) apparently believed that Gibson welcomed their review, but he and his colleagues at Icon Entertainment insist that they never wanted anyone to see the "stolen" script, which has been changed in many of its essential elements; they threatened legal action over the screenplay's unauthorized release. As hostility intensified, the scholars predictably agreed that the screenplay was "replete with objectionable elements that would promote anti-Semitism." In an impassioned, accusatory June 24 news release, the ADL expressed concerns that The Passion would "portray Jews as bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus."
Politics and the Squirm Factor
At this point, I became involved in the controversy. As a film critic and nationally syndicated radio host who also happens to be an observant Jew and longtime president of an Orthodox congregation, I felt heartsick over the denunciations of an unfinished movie almost no one had seen. In the past, I've supported and spoken for the ADL and I recognize its importance to the Jewish community.
Concerned about the unnecessary crisis, I called the ADL office in New York City to say that the angry tone of its press statements would eliminate any chance that Gibson would cooperate in making adjustments to his movie. I also invited ADL director Abraham Foxman to discuss his concerns on my radio show, but he repeatedly declined. In discussing the issue on the air, and in my USA Today column, I emphasized that the attacks on Gibson seemed premature and unfair, especially when connected with the guilt-by-association campaign focusing on his father. Did the star's critics honestly expect him to make some public denunciation of his own parent in order to distance himself from accusations of bigotry?
I've also expressed my conviction that the attacks on an unseen movie reflected the predominantly liberal political orientation of the ADL and other groups that represent the Jewish establishment. Numerous commentators have noted recent shifts in the allegiance of Jewish voters. George W. Bush has won greater popularity in the Jewish community than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, and fervent support for Israel by evangelicals has produced a friendly alliance between them and committed Jews. The ADL, which has been bitterly critical of the so-called Christian Right, clearly looks askance at this coalition. Could the recriminations over The Passion divide Jews from the Christian conservatives most likely to embrace the film?
The warmth of that embrace became apparent in July, as soon as Gibson began showing a rough cut of his movie to select religious and entertainment figures. Clergy from Protestant denominations hailed the movie for its power, intensity, and faithfulness to the Gospels.
When I watched a nearly finished version of the movie at the offices of Icon Entertainment, I also felt overwhelmed by its lyrical sweep and devastating immediacy. Unlike most biblical films, with their stilted dialogue and cheesy miracles, The Passion of The Christ offered a convincing, richly imagined recreation of first-century Judea and heartfelt performances.
But it remains a difficult movie for any committed Jew to watch. In discussing my reactions to his work after the screening, Gibson insisted that his movie is meant to make everyone uncomfortable, not just Jews. For Jews, however, there's a special squirm factor in watching the officials of a long-destroyed Temple, which we still revere as a holy gift from God, behaving in a selfish, officious, and sadistic manner. I might have preferred a movie version of the crucifixion that interpreted the Gospels to place primary blame for the death of Jesus on the Roman authorities.
Gibson, however, remained determined to bring to the screen what he considers the truth of the New Testament. Certainly, his account of the story—in which the Judean priests and the Judean mob force Pilate's hand in ordering the death of Christ—falls well within the Christian mainstream and corresponds to numerous references in the Gospels. Gibson's critics may resent these elements of the drama, but they must blame Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John rather than Mel. In the past, Passion plays aroused anti-Semitic rage by portraying the Judean officials who persecuted Christ as indistinguishable from contemporary Orthodox Jews, with their beards, hook noses, skullcaps, and prayer shawls. In The Passion of The Christ, however, Gibson emphasizes the Jewishness of Christ and his disciples more than he identifies the priests in the Temple with any current Jewish images. The film seemed to me so obviously free of anti-Semitic intent that I urged Gibson to show the rough cut to some of his Jewish critics as a means of reassuring them.
On August 8, Gibson and his associates traveled to Houston for a special screening of his still unfinished motion picture. More than 30 members of the Jewish community had been invited to the showing and subsequent discussion, along with 50 evangelical and Catholic leaders. Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the ADL (he has since resigned from the organization), signed a confidentiality agreement, as did other members of the audience, promising not to discuss what he had seen. This pledge did not prevent the rabbi from telling The Jewish Week within hours of the screening that the movie "portrays Jews in the worst way as the sinister enemies of God."
"Jews Horrified by Gibson's Jesus Film," proclaimed the headline of Jewish Week's article, while the Internet Movie Database announced its story with the line "Jews Slam Gibson Movie After First Screening." Korn reportedly engaged in an acrimonious exchange with Gibson after the showing and told the press that the star "seems to be callous to the fear and concerns of his critics."
There is, in fact, no basis whatever for this charge of "callousness." In more than a half dozen conversations with Gibson, I heard him express his passionate desire to avoid hurting the Jewish community or its members. He consistently declares that he always wanted his movie to unite people rather than divide them. Before the setback in Houston, Icon had announced plans for a "Jewish initiative" and had begun assembling lists of Jewish opinion leaders to respond to the film and to help shape study guides and educational materials to be distributed along with it. Those plans are now on hold because of Icon's sense of betrayal following the public relations disaster in Houston.
What did the ADL and its allies hope to accomplish with such bitter denunciations? The public condemnation of Gibson's movie made it less likely that he would re-edit the film to avoid offending the Jewish community. Given Gibson's often-expressed lofty intentions for his cinematic labor of love, how could he be seen as compromising his own vision of biblical truth for the sake of mollifying organizations and individuals who had already cried wolf over his alleged bigotry? Any perceived public surrender by Gibson to angry pressure from Jewish organizations would have thrown the integrity of his project into question.
Despite its acknowledged clout, the ADL could never hope to prevent tens of millions of Christians from applauding the film for what it is: an audacious and artful cinematic achievement that represents by far the most compelling motion picture adaptation of a biblical story ever attempted by Hollywood. Whether or not the final box office tally shows The Passion of The Christ as a major commercial success (and I believe the long-term odds stand heavily in its favor), the well-publicized charges of anti-Semitism seem counterproductive.
If the film becomes a hit, the overwrought Jewish critics of the film will have succeeded only in demonstrating their irrelevance. And if the movie flops at the box office and reaches only a limited audience, it can hardly make a significant contribution to anti-Semitism. What's more, diehard Jew haters might attempt to blame any failure of the film on a Jewish conspiracy against it—so that among some observers, at least, Jewish pressure groups would lose, even if they "win."
Fortunately, many organizations in the Jewish community have heeded the logic of such arguments and refused to participate in the campaign against the movie. This doesn't mean Jews will flock to see it, or hail its underlying messages, or sponsor benefit showings as synagogue fundraisers. The Passion of The Christ remains an inescapably Christian, not a Jewish, version of first-century events.
We Jews may take exception to the traditional Gospel version of the suffering and death of Jesus, but we must not take responsibility for deciding what Christians can and cannot believe. If we insist that committed Christians must disavow their sacred texts because of the shameful persecutions of the past, then we'll force a choice between faithfulness to Scripture and amiable relations with Jews. The notion that Christians cannot have one without spurning the other serves neither Jewish communal interests, nor the harmony of the larger community.
What Makes Jews Nervous
In the midst of all the confusion and panic concerning this profound movie, Christians should keep in mind three factors that have contributed to the Jewish unease about Mel Gibson's well-intentioned project.
First, we live at a moment of rising anti-Semitism in every corner of the world, as highlighted in numerous articles and the important book The Return of Anti-Semitism by Gabriel Schoenfeld (Encounter, 2003). Synagogues recently have been bombed in Turkey, set aflame in France, defaced and sprayed with gunfire in California. Hostility to Jews, and conspiracy theories about Jewish power, have received prominent exposure, even in respectable media (especially in Europe). But the new wave of Jew hatred is not arising from believing Christian communities.
The new anti-Semitism emerges mostly from the Muslim world, of course, and from Israel's ideological enemies, especially among Marxist atheists. The Christians most likely to be stirred by Gibson's movie have played no role at all in the current anti-Semitic agitation and, in fact, have by and large aligned themselves in support of Israel and in defense of Jews.
The second factor making Jews nervous about Gibson and his movie concerns Mel's outspoken identification with a Catholic traditionalism that rejects many of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. All Jewish leaders feel grateful to that reform-minded body of 40 years ago because it put a formal end to the Catholic perception of collective Jewish guilt for the crime of deicide. That Catholic traditionalists oppose some innovations by the Second Vatican Council (in particular its move away from the Latin Mass) doesn't mean they reject all of its changes.
Concerning the issue of blaming contemporary Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, Gibson has made clear in private conversation and in several on-the-record public statements that his personal thinking is far more closely aligned with contemporary church teaching than with the older doctrine that led to so much persecution of European Jewish communities.
Finally, many Jews feel a visceral fear of intense Christian religiosity based upon the long history of anti-Semitic depredations. In medieval Europe, Easter always marked the favorite occasion for anti-Jewish pogroms and riots. As recently as the late 19th century, impassioned believers in Russia, Germany, Poland, and many other nations—stirred by the recollection of Christ's suffering—destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and lives in spasms of rage.
In this context, many Jewish observers worry because The Passion of The Christ is such a powerful piece of cinematic storytelling: if Christian fervor led in the past to persecution of Jews, isn't the movie inherently dangerous because of the likelihood that it will inspire that sort of emotional reaction?
The many Jews who react in this fearful manner to the prospect of deepening Christian commitment in the United States have allowed the past to blind them to the present—and the future. In today's America, the notably philo-Semitic tone of born-again Christianity makes it more common for Christians to support and defend their Jewish neighbors than to persecute them. American Christians emphasize the Jewish roots of Jesus more strongly than ever before—a trend very much echoed in Mel Gibson's movie. Contrary to the fears and expectations of some Jewish leaders, an agnostic, left-leaning college professor at an Ivy League university is much more likely than a Southern Baptist preacher to harbor anti-Jewish attitudes.
If nothing else, the bitter disputes and free-floating anxiety over The Passion of The Christ should help enlighten the Jewish community to the identity of our true enemies today—and our truest friends. A sane perspective on the public reaction to the movie's artistry and message may yet help Gibson achieve his original goal of promoting unity, rather than division, among Christians, Jews, and the rest of humanity.
Michael Medved is a best-selling author, USA Today columnist, and radio talk show host whose program airs in more than 150 markets and on the Internet.
Photos by Ken Duncan. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers. © Icon Distribution. All rights reserved.
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CT's coverage of The Passion includes:
The Passion of Mel Gibson | Why evangelicals are cheering a movie with profoundly Catholic sensibilities. (Feb. 20, 2004)
Mel, Mary, and Mothers | The mother of Jesus was still a mom (Feb. 20, 2004)
Why some Jews fear The Passion | Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism. (Feb. 20, 2004)
Film Forum: The First Official Passion of The Christ Reviews … and 50 First Dates | Moviegoers must wait a few more days for The Passion of The Christ, but the reviews are already coming in. Plus: Mel Gibson talks to PrimeTime, and the Passion debates continue. Meanwhile, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore have 50 First Dates, and one Christian film critic wonders why viewers are ignoring Peter Pan. (Feb. 19, 2004)
The Good News of God's Wrath | At the heart of the universe, there is a just and gracious God. (Feb. 23, 2004)
'Dude, That Was Graphic' | Mel Gibson talks about The Passion of The Christ (Feb. 23, 2004)
Behind the Scenes of The Passion | On the set with Holly McClure (Feb. 23, 2004)
Behind the Scenes of The Passion Part 2 | On the set with Holly McClure (Feb. 24, 2004)