NEW YORK (Jul. 21)
Protests by fundamentalist Christian groups over a controversial film biography of Jesus have taken on “anti-Semitic implications,” according to condemnatory statements released this week by national Jewish groups and the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles.
The statements refer to protests voiced by former Moral Majority leader Rev, Jerry Falwell and other fundamentalist Christians about “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a Universal Pictures film directed by Martin Scorsese and based on a novel by the late Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis.
Falwell and others have warned that the release of the film, scheduled for September, could lead to what he called “a wave of anti-Semitism in this country” because top executives of MCA, the entertainment conglomerate that owns Universal, are Jewish.
One group, the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles, has staged two protests in the past week against MCA Chairman Low Wasserman, carrying signs reading “Wasserman fans Christ-Killer image” and “Wasserman Endangers Israel,” and chanting “Paid for with Jewish money.”
At a demonstration Saturday outside of Universal’s offices, a plane overhead trailed a banner reading “Wasserman fans Jew-hatred w/ ‘Temptation”
At Tuesday’s protest outside Wasserman’s Beverly Hills home, one man portrayed a bloodied Jesus white another played a whip-carrying Wasserman stepping on his back.
According to a statement by the Rev. R. L. Hymers Jr., leader of the tabernacle, “The person lashing Christ is the way that extremists will see members of the Jewish community who either support or finance the film.”
THREATS, NOT WARNINGS
But Jewish groups are taking Falwell and Hymers’ statements less as warnings than as threats.
“Rev. Falwell’s irresponsible comments run the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy and threatening the nation’s religious pluralism,” according to a statement by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
Falwell’s constituents “would be far better served if he warned them against anti-Jewish prejudice rather than forecasting a wave of anti-Semitism,” Foxman added.
Leaders of the American Jewish Congress acknowledged in their statement that the film might offend some Christian believers, but said the constitutional right both to make and to protest the film “does not create license to engage in bigotry and use it as an opportunity for anti-Semitism.”
Falwell and Hymers “know very well that Universal Studios is a publicly held corporation, that its executives who happen to be Jewish are not ‘Jewish leaders’ but business men, that the film is based on a novel written by a Christian” and is directed by a Christian, said AJCongress President Robert Lifton and executive director Henry Siegman.
They added that a statement by Falwell saying he personally would not blame “Jewish leaders” was unconvincing.
In telephone interview Wednesday, Ira Silverman, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said that “to raise the issue of anti-Semitism in what might otherwise be a legitimate religious question over the merits of the film is a malicious act, or at best a mindless one.”
According to a spokesman for Universal, a screening of the film for New York-area Jewish leaders is being scheduled for mid-August.
Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony said in his statement, released Monday, that he “strongly oppose(s) the anti-Semitic implication that a few voices have raised in this matter, and I am hopeful that our excellent Jewish-Christian relationship will help diminish any suggestion that this film was produced to be ‘anti-Christian.’”
Mahony offered high praise of Wasserman, with whom he worked when Wasserman helped plan for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Los Angeles last year.
Mahony said he was confident that Wasserman “would not allow any film to be released through his studios which was offensive to a large segment of the film-going public.”
Mahony indicated, nonetheless, that the film is likely to be labeled “morally offensive” by the United States Catholic Conference.
SCORSESE STUDIED FOR PRIESTHOOD
Filmmaker Scorsese attended Catholic schools while growing up in New York and studied for the priesthood for a year while a teenager.
A Universal statement released July 12 said that he “deeply believes that this film is a religious affirmation of faith.”
The Catholic response to the film has been muted compared to the reactions of fundamentalist leaders, like the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., who has threatened a boycott of Universal and all MCA subsidiaries should the film be shown.
Other critics include Morality in Media, a Jesuit group; the Eternal World Television Network; and the Campus Crusade for Christ, which offered to reimburse Universal for the film’s $10 million production costs, for the right to destroy all copies.
Universal declined the offer in full-page ads in four major newspapers Wednesday.
“The Twentieth Century has provided us with further evidence of the abuses which occur when monolithic authorities regulate artistic expression and religious belief, ” said an open letter addressed to Campus Crusade President Bill Bright, who was invited to, but did not attend, a July 12 screening of the film for religious groups.
“In the United States, no one sect or coalition has the power to set boundaries around each person’s freedom to explore religious and philosophical questions whether through speech, books or film.
“These freedoms protect us.
“They are precious.
“They are not for sale.”