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Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” Stirs Controversy Amid Charges of Anti-Semitism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March-April 2004

Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” has stirred widespread controversy, with some critics charging that it will stir anti-Semitism.  

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a press release before the movie was released, and after ADL had received an early, unauthorized copy of the script, declaring that the movie would “portray Jews as bloodthirsty, sadistic, and money-hungry enemies of Jesus.”  

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Weisenthal Center warned that the film “can fuel, trigger, stimulate, induce, rationalize, legitimate anti-Semitism.” Writing in The Washington Post (March 4, 2004), columnist Charles Krauthammer called the movie “a singular act of interreligious aggression,” and said of Gibson: “He openly rejects the Vatican II teaching and, using every possible technique of cinematic exaggeration, gives us the pre-Vatican II story of the villainous Jews.”  

With regard to Gibson’s declaration that he is simply telling the Gospel story, Krauthammer notes that, “In none of the Gospels does the high priest Caiaphas stand there with his cruel, impassive fellow priests witnessing the scourging. In Gibson”s movie they do. When it comes to the Jews, Gibson deviates from the Gospels ... time and again. He bends, he stretches, he makes stuff up. And these deviations point overwhelmingly in a single direction — the villainy and culpability of the Jews.”  

A number of Jewish observers took issue with the film’s critics.  

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, points to the failure of Jewish groups to oppose anti-Christian art, often created and promoted by Jewish artists. Writing in The American Enterprise (January/February 2004), he declares: “I believe those who publicly protest Mel Gibson’s film lack moral legitimacy. To understand this, we must take ourselves back in time to the fall of 1999. That was when Arnold Lehman, the Jewish director of the Brooklyn Museum, presented a show called ‘Sensation.’ It featured ... several works that debased Catholicism, including Chris Ofili’s dung-bedecked Madonna ... And the Brooklyn exhibit was not the first time that Arnold Lehman had chosen to offend Catholics. While he was director of the Baltimore Museum, in a display of gross insensitivity to that city’s Catholics, he screened ‘Hell Angel,’ a film denouncing Mother Theresa ... I am sorry to report that no Jewish organizations protested this gratuitous insult of a universally respected Catholic icon.”  

In Rabbi Lapin’s view, “The protests against ‘Passion’ are morally indefensible and ill-advised ... Do we really want to open up the Pandora’s Box of suggesting that any faith may demand the removal of material it finds offensive from the doctrines of any other faith? ... I think it far better that in the name of genuine Jewish-Christian friendship in America, we allow all faiths their beliefs, even if we find those beliefs troubling or at odds with our own views.”  

Movie critic Michael Medved, an Orthodox Jew, writes (The American Enterprise, January/February 2004): “When I watched the rough cut at the offices of Gibson’s Icon Entertainment International, I ... felt overwhelmed by its lyrical intensity and devastating immediacy: the suffering of Christ becomes almost unendurable ... The charges that the film emphasized the anti-Semitic elements of the Gospel story also struck me as wildly overblown ... Gibson’s film pointedly avoids ... inflammatory stereotypes. In fact, the words ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ seldom, if ever, appear in the subtitles ... Sadly, the battle over ‘The Passion’ may indeed provoke new hatred of the Jews. That hostility will center, however, not on a few remote and exotic figures who play villainous parts in a new motion picture, but on the reckless maneuvering of real-life Jewish leaders whose arrogance and short-sightedness has led them into a tragic, needless, no-win public relations war.”  

Columnist Don Feder,an Orthodox Jew, writing in Insight (March 16, 2004) asks: “Why can’t a Christian make a movie about his faith, which is true to his faith, without provoking charges of bigotry?” He writes “Jesus isn’t part of my religion. With all due respect to my Christian friends — who are legion — I do not believe Jesus was God incarnate. (In the words of the Shema, I believe God is One). I respect those who believe otherwise, as I hope they respect beliefs of mine with which they disagree. Still ... Christians and Jews worship the same God. We share a moral code going back to Sinai, as well as the moral teachings of the patriarchs and prophets. I have been humbled by the acts of loving kindness I have seen Christians perform. ... More power to Mel, I say. It’s rare to see a man with such power and influence willing to stand up for his faith in the face of a hostile culture. Instead of opposing him Jews should be looking for someone like him willing to propagate the wisdom, beauty and truth of Judaism.”  

Columnist Dennis Prager, writing in Moment (April 2004) notes that, “When watching ‘The Passion,’ Jews and Christians are watching two entirely different films. For two hours, Christians watch their Savior tortured and killed. For the same two hours, Jews are watching Jews arrange the torture and killing. Christians are watching Christ; Jews are watching Jews ... I cannot say I am happy this film was made. Nevertheless, if the vast majority of Christians and Jews of goodwill try to understand what film the other is watching, some good can result. Christians will better understand the fears bred in Jews by the horrific European Christian treatment of them. And Jews will better appreciate how wrong it is to equate America’s Christians — many of whom are the Jews’ best friends in a hostile world — with Europe’s anti-Semitism. The last thing Jews need is to create tension with their Christian friends ... Jews who want to fight anti-Semitism would do far better to invite Christians home to dinner than to attack a film some Christians will venerate.”  

According to a poll released by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, reports The Washington Times (March 17, 2004), “Mel Gibson’s new film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ may be reducing anti-Semitism ... Among the ... adults recently polled nationwide about the film, 83 percent said it did not make them blame contemporary Jews for Christ’s death; only 2 percent said the film made them more likely to hold today’s Jews responsible; and 9 percent said the film made them less likely to do so. ... Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says: ‘The majority of American Christians long ago rejected as unbiblical the idea of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus. They have a far deeper and more nuanced understanding of Scripture than many Jewish leaders give them credit for.’... A survey released by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews ... showed that only 1.7 percent of the respondents blamed Jews for Jesus’ death. Eighty four percent blamed ‘mankind,’ and 8 percent blamed ‘other’ people. About 85 percent of the respondents were evangelical Christians.”

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