Fallout over ‘Passion’ deepens

Times Staff Writers

The controversy over Mel Gibson’s upcoming film “The Passion of the Christ” deepened Thursday as two Jewish organizations announced that members had gained admittance to early screenings of the movie and found it painful, offensive and capable of stoking anti-Semitism.

On Thursday, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he had sneaked into a screening Wednesday at the Beyond All Limits Conference, a pastors’ gathering in Orlando, Fla. Foxman said he regretted the “stealth” of the maneuver but said it was necessary because Gibson had refused his requests to see the film.

Foxman said he paid a $295 registration fee and did not sign a confidentiality statement, which was a condition for seeing the film during the conference. On the screening guest list, Foxman listed himself as a member of the “church of truth,” a spokesman for Gibson said.

Foxman said in a statement that his group was “saddened and pained to find that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ continues its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus.”


The statement also said, “Will the film trigger pogroms against Jews? Our answer is probably not. Our concern is that ‘The Passion of the Christ’ could fuel latent anti-Semitism that exists in the hearts of those people who hold Jews responsible for the death of Jesus.”

In an interview about the film, Foxman added, "[Gibson is] hawking it on a commercial crusade to the churches of this country. That’s what makes it dangerous.”

Gibson’s spokesman, Alan Nierob, said the film’s makers stand by its depiction of the Passion as told in the Bible. Nierob, who is Jewish, says his client sees the film as a lesson in tolerance and love, not a film that will fuel anti-Semitic fervor.

“We respect the right to freedom of expression and expect the same in return,” said Nierob.

The Anti-Defamation League was not the only organization taking issue with the film after early screenings. “The film reasserts offensive stereotypes about Jews that Catholic and Protestant leaders have overwhelmingly rejected,” said David Elcott, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. director of interreligious affairs, who viewed the film by invitation in Chicago.

The biggest concern is the inclusion of Matthew 27:25, which blames Jews for Jesus’ death and which was reinterpreted by Vatican II in 1965, according to the statement. The deicide charge was not present in an earlier version of the film, viewed by Rabbi James Rudin, AJC’s senior interreligious advisor. The organization urged Gibson to reconsider this addition before the movie is released on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

“The presentation of alleged culpability of Jews -- and their ‘primary responsibility’ for the crucifixion of Jesus -- has been the core problem of all Passion Plays since their inception during the Middle Ages,” said Rudin in a statement.

During the historic Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Vatican issued a landmark statement, which absolved Jews as a people for the death of Jesus.

More recently, the Vatican issued a new catechism stressing that Jews were not responsible for the crucifixion. Moreover, Pope John Paul II established diplomatic relations with Israel, and became the first modern pope to visit a synagogue.

The Jewish leaders’ statements on the film, to be released next month in at least 2,000 screens across the U.S. and Canada, come as the Vatican is scrambling to clarify whether Pope John Paul II endorsed the film, as reported by some news organizations in December.

Last month, the ailing pontiff was quoted as having said after a private screening of the film that “it is as it was.” Asked Dec. 19 whether the quote was reliable, Vatican press secretary Joaquin Navarro-Valls told The Times, “I think you can consider that quote as accurate.” This week, the pope’s personal secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, told the Catholic News Service that “the Holy Father told no one his opinion of the [Gibson] film.”

On Thursday, the Vatican, which has been in the midst of talks on anti-Semitism, issued a statement that the pope “does not make public judgments on artistic works.”

Since December, Gibson’s camp has been in contact with Vatican representatives who continue to confirm that what the pope said was accurate, according to a statement from Gibson’s production company, Icon Entertainment.

“We have had and continue to have friendly and open communication with the Vatican. Both Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz and Joaquin Navarro-Valls have been very supportive of this project,” read the statement. “We received written permission to publicize the pope’s comment on the film, ‘It is as it was.’ Unless we receive an official indication to the contrary, we will continue to stand by the statement.”

Gibson, whose film reflects his “traditionalist” non-mainstream Catholic views, has invested $25 million of his own money in the film. He predicted on Wednesday before an audience of 4,500 evangelical Christians in Orlando that the controversy over the film would only grow once it is released. “I anticipate the worst is yet to come,” he told the audience. “I hope I’m wrong, I hope I’m wrong.”

Also on Thursday, PAX-TV announced it will broadcast a one-hour Icon special about “The Passion of the Christ” on Feb. 22.

In response to the ADL’s concerns, PAX-TV Chairman Bud Paxson said Thursday, “I don’t agree with them. This film has nothing to do with persecuting anybody. I saw it with a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest, we discussed it for an hour afterward, and we found nothing wrong with the film.”


Times staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.