Two thumbs down. That was the consensus of a group of horrified Jewish interfaith and community leaders after watching a rough cut of Mel Gibson’s controversial "The Passion."
It was the first mainstream Jewish group to screen the Hollywood star’s gory recounting of the trial and death of Jesus.
After watching the subtitled drama last week, Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, warned that the anti-Jewish concepts he believes are in the film will feed anti-Semitism by promoting the 2,000-year-old charge of "Christ killers" against Jews.
"The tragic dimension to this movie is the way it portrays Jews in the worst way as the sinister enemies of God," Rabbi Korn told The Jewish Week.
He viewed the violent, nearly two-hour film, which Gibson scripted and directed, with about 30 other Jewish community members, as well as another 50 Evangelical and traditional Catholic leaders. The morning screening on Aug. 8 was hosted by Gibson at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
ADL national director Abraham Foxman, who was not at the screening, said: "The film unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus," a charge that led to the persecution and murder of Jews throughout the world over two millennia.
"If released in its present form," Foxman said, the film will fuel hatred by reinforcing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus "that many responsible churches have worked so hard to repudiate."
The founder of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Marvin Hier, told Reuters Tuesday that Gibson’s film has already sparked a wave of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Hier said his organization has received hate mail from people who had seen or heard about the movie, and who accused the Jews of killing God’s son.
"Are there any manifestations of hate so far? The answer is an unequivocal yes," the rabbi told Reuters. "We have had hate mail in the past. But never in spurts like this," he said.
Also panning the film was Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee.
"We have a very long record with Passion Plays (‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’) so I went in with an open mind," said Rabbi Rudin, who attended the Houston screening. "I came away very troubled because this movie as it stands has the potential to harm Christian-Jewish relations in many parts of the world.
"Therefore, we are officially requesting a meeting with the producers and director with the hope it will be changed so there will not be anti-Jewish elements in it," he said.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gibson’s production company accused Rabbi Korn of violating a confidentiality agreement he signed promising not to discuss the movie.
"We came to Houston and opened the door, in the spirit of collaboration and dialogue, to some people who were claiming that they had been kept out," said Paul Lauer, marketing director for Icon Productions, during a phone interview. "And what we get in return is a breach of confidentiality, and instead of taking up the issues with us, they issue a press statement blasting the film on a number of levels that were taken out of context.
"The most important thing we are trying to do, which the ADL still has not recognized and is not cooperating [on], is trying to build a dialogue of understanding around the film," he said.
Foxman responded that Gibson supporters who saw the movie and signed the confidentiality agreement have for weeks been praising the film on television, in newspapers and on the Internet.
But Foxman said he wants to meet with Gibson to try and explain "why we are so concerned and so anxious. My hand is outstretched."
Rabbis Rudin and Korn stressed that this is not a disagreement between Jews and Gibson.
"Many theologically informed Catholics and Protestants have expressed the same concerns regarding anti-Semitism, and that this film may undermine Christian-Jewish dialogue and could turn back the clock on decades of positive progress in interfaith relations," Rabbi Korn said.
Outlining the worst offenses, Rabbi Korn said Gibson’s film:
# Reinforces the ancient Christ-killer charge by portraying "Jewish authorities and the Jewish ‘mob’ as forcing the decision to torture and execute Jesus, thus assuming responsibility for the execution."
# "Relies on sinister medieval stereotypes, portraying Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of God who lack compassion and humanity."
# "Relies on historical errors, chief among them its depiction of the Jewish high priest controlling Pontius Pilate."
# "Portrays Jews who adhere to their Jewish faith as enemies of God and the locus of evil."
Rabbi Korn and Gibson had an acrimonious exchange during a question-and-answer period after the screening.
"I appealed to him as a man of faith and on the basis of moral responsibility," Rabbi Korn said. "He said, ‘this is the truth as he knows it,’ " referring to the film. "He said he understands Jesus because he is being persecuted. He seems to be callous to the fear and concerns of the critics."
"I came away with the feeling he’s playing off the conservative Christians against the liberal Christians, and the Jews against the Christian community in general," Rabbi Korn charged. "He said in so many words, he considers the teachings of the Catholic Church to be illegitimate revisionism."
Rabbi Korn was referring to Gibson’s belief as an ultratraditional Catholic that Church reforms adopted by the Vatican II conference are not legitimate, including the historic Nostra Aetate document in 1965 that repudiates the deicide charge against Jews.
That belief highlights an internal Christian theological struggle.
"If one rejects Vatican II and the body of Church teachings since then about our relationship with Jews, one must accept the anti-Jewish teachings that were part of Christianity," Catholic scholar Sister Mary Boys of Union Theological Seminary told The Jewish Week Tuesday.
Dr. Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian Jewish Learning at Boston College (and like Sister Boys and Rabbi Korn members of an ad hoc team of interfaith scholars who panned an early Gibson script) said Tuesday: "If Gibson’s revisionism remark is meant to challenge [Catholic] teaching, and that is being expressed cinematically, then I think there will be major criticisms by Catholic leaders when it comes out."
Lauer disputed reports that Gibson was insensitive at the screening. So did Houston businessman Leo Linbeck, who helped organize the screening and moderated the Q&A session.
"My sense was that Mel Gibson really does care," Linbeck, a Roman Catholic, told The Jewish Week. "I thought to call him callous was a mischaracterization of what I saw. I saw someone who cared about the reaction of the Jewish community and wanted to have a reasoned discussion to understand the concerns of the community."
Observers agreed there was an array of reactions to the film.
A Jewish participant said, "When the movie was over, there were two films: Jews saw it one way and Christians another. Christians were deeply moved. People were crying. It was a very powerful movie, very spiritual."
One Christian said, "In Houston we have 300 murders every year, but this murder is the only one we ever have to see."
Other Christians, however, reacted negatively to the "gratuitous violence," one viewer said. "There’s whippings, beatings, blood, it goes on and one for an hour and a half."
The film is due out next February on Ash Wednesday. (Lauer confirmed that Icon Productions has a first refusal distribution deal with Twentieth Century Fox.)
A Houston participant told The Jewish Week that Gibson told the group "he felt his career was at an end because of [the controversy surrounding] this movie.
" The star of "Braveheart" and "Lethal Weapon" also revealed he was lost in his life until restored by his faith.
Rabbi Korn said for him, the worst moment in the film came during an interchange between Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate and Jesus after Jesus has been tortured. "Pilate says he doesn’t want to execute Jesus, and Jesus tells him, ‘The greater responsibility will be on those who served me up to you," meaning the Jews.
The screening apparently confirmed the fears of some Catholic and Jewish leaders who for two months have expressed concern about anti-Jewish sentiments embedded in the film that could inflame anti-Semitism around the world.
Conversely, Christian evangelicals and anti-Vatican II Catholics like Gibson have been hailing the movie during a nationwide tour of screenings Gibson has been hosting in recent weeks to selected friendly audiences.