‘Passion’ Stand Mishandled, Some Jewish Leaders Say

Times Staff Writer

As Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” prepares to open this week, the American Jewish community is sharply debating whether publicizing fears that it could spark anti-Semitism was a tactical mistake that brought more attention to the movie.

Reflecting sharply divided opinion among American Jews, some leaders dismiss as overblown the worries that the film could reignite ancient but long discredited charges that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death.

“Most American Jews feel so comfortable in this country that they don’t anticipate anti-Semitism” from the film, said Howard I. Friedman, board chairman of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and former national president of the American Jewish Committee.

“Among Christians, I just don’t see much evidence of anti-Semitism and I see a great deal of goodwill.”

The American Jewish Committee has taken a deliberately low-key approach. Executive Director David A. Harris said the film’s portrayal of Jews was “pretty ugly” but that the committee did not believe it should do anything that might publicize the movie.


“It’s a fine line we have to walk,” Harris said. “The film is troubling and problematic, but we don’t want to bring attention to it and ensure its box-office success.”

Harvey J. Fields, rabbi emeritus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and a longtime interfaith leader, said charges of anti-Semitism were “off target” and that he was “disappointed and frankly embarrassed” at the way some Jewish leaders had condemned the film before its opening.

Fields, who had not seen the movie, specifically criticized activists such as Abraham H. Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who have led the charge against the film. He said they had used the issue of anti-Semitism “to attract attention to themselves and their organizations.”

“I think we have reached a point in this new millennium where we ought to be much more careful about screaming anti-Semitism in this world,” Fields said.

Hier, who in June co-wrote an early op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times raising concerns about the film, acknowledged that his actions may have boosted publicity for the movie but said he does not regret his outspokenness.

“The overriding issue for Jews in history is that too often we kept silent and we paid a great price, and I feel we should not do that again,” said Hier, who has seen the film twice.

Several Jews in the entertainment business have publicly defended the film, saying they did not view it as anti-Semitic. They include Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays Mary in “Passion” and whose parents are Holocaust survivors, along with producers Joel Silver (“The Matrix”) and Dean Devlin (“The Patriot”).

Devlin said Gibson specifically asked him to view the movie because “he knows I accuse practically every film of being anti-Semitic.” Devlin said he went in with a pen and paper to note down his objections but ended up with almost none.

“I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic,” Devlin said of the film. “I thought it was a beautiful picture of love and forgiveness and wasn’t about pointing any fingers at anyone. If someone sees this film as an indictment of Jews, they would have missed the whole point of the movie.”

Rabbi Marc Gellman of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, N.Y., who partners with a Roman Catholic priest in a syndicated national column and TV show called “The God Squad,” also said he did not believe Jews were particularly demonized in the film. The movie included Jews who objected to Jesus’ treatment, he said, and who helped carry the cross. He called the film a work of “stunning beauty and daring violence that forces all of us to grow up and learn to accept people who tell their own stories.”

Foxman, who sneaked into an early showing of the movie in Florida, also defended his criticism of Gibson and the film. He said he initially tried to work quietly behind the scenes, asking for a meeting with Gibson when word first reached him of potentially troubling content. “I’m still waiting,” he said.

The ADL chief said accusing Jews of deicide strikes a raw nerve among some because it has historically been used to justify persecution, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust.

“Central to Western civilization’s anti-Semitism of 2,000 years are those four words: ‘The Jews killed Christ,’ ” Foxman said.

The film, which opens Wednesday, details the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in what reviewers say are excruciatingly violent images. Gibson reportedly has removed the most controversial scene -- the so-called “blood curse,” in which Jews and their descendants are blamed for sending Jesus to his death -- and has repeatedly denied any anti-Semitic intentions.

Some Jewish leaders fret that their community’s objections to the movie could be seen as inappropriate meddling in the presentation of Christianity’s most sacred narrative. “Thoughtful and committed Christians are entitled to give their version of the Gospel,” said the Skirball’s Friedman, who had not seen the movie. “I am not afraid of that at all.”

Fields said he was most chagrined that the controversy may have torpedoed a chance to use the film as a moment for Christians and Jews to learn more about each other’s traditions. Nonetheless, he said he is trying to encourage his Jewish colleagues to view the film with Christian counterparts and set up discussions over the Passion’s painful associations for Jews and sacred meaning for Christians and the evolution of its presentation over the ages.

J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, a Jewish newspaper in New York, said part of the reaction against the film stemmed from deep anxieties among some Jews about what they see as rising anti-Semitism around the world.

Feeling Besieged

From backlash over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to a rise in hate crimes against Jews in Europe, to efforts several years ago at a U.N. conference in South Africa to declare Zionism a form of racism, some Jews feel besieged, he said.

“If Mel Gibson had made this film five years ago, the reaction would have been very different,” said Goldberg, who had not seen the movie.

Some Jewish leaders say they are more concerned that the film will unleash anti-Semitism in other countries than in the United States.

Both Jews and Christians say a belief in Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death is not widespread among Americans.

The Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the deicide charge during the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s and has issued guidelines on how to teach about the Passion. Amid the controversy over Gibson’s film, several Christian leaders have recently reiterated the mainstream teaching that Jesus freely went to his death to redeem the sins of the world and that all humankind is responsible.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for instance, issued a statement last month urging pastors to preach on the Passion during Lent, which begins Wednesday, “in ways that will not demean, malign or harm the Jewish people.”

Writing in the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s official newspaper, the Tidings, last week, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony reviewed the 1965 church document known as “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Time) that decried anti-Semitism and declared that any attempt to blame Jews or other particular groups for the Crucifixion would only “obscure a core gospel truth.”

David Lehrer, formerly western regional director of the Anti-Defamation League and now president of Community Advocates Inc., a human relations organization, said he had encountered only a few cases involving deicide charges in his 29 years of human rights work.

ADL surveys over 10 years have consistently concluded that religion is not a driver of anti-Semitic propensities. The organization does not even include the deicide charge as one of 11 indicators of bias against Jews, such as whether they are said to be too clannish, more loyal to Israel than America and to have too much power.

Foxman also acknowledged that those who believe that some Jews at the time were responsible for Jesus’ death are not necessarily anti-Semitic. He said a new ADL survey to be released today will show that 25% of those questioned said it was “probably true” that Jews were responsible. But only 12% to 15% of those surveyed were found to hold anti-Semitic attitudes. That proportion represents a decrease from the 17% found to do so in the ADL’s 2002 survey.

An ABC News poll last week, meanwhile, found that 8% of Americans surveyed said they believed Jews of today are responsible for Jesus’ death.

Efforts at Outreach

Several Jewish organizations are launching efforts at interfaith outreach as well as to teach Jews about the New Testament.

In response to the movie, the University of Judaism in Los Angeles recently held a panel discussion -- the first of three at area colleges -- of Christian and Jewish scholars about the Crucifixion.

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles this week is featuring a startling cover story with an image of Jesus and a piece by noted Christian author Jack Miles, “What Jews Need to Know about Jesus.” The piece explains the New Testament, Jesus’ background, the reasons Jews rejected him and the context for claims that the Gospels are anti-Semitic.

“The only important work that Jews know less about than the Torah are the Gospels,” Journal editor Rob Eshman wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Gibson’s movie won’t destroy decades of fruitful Christian-Jewish dialogue; it will simply prove how crucial that dialogue is.”