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Gibson’s Movie About Jesus Sparks Internal Jewish Debate

October 8, 2003
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Movie star Mel Gibson’s controversial $25 million film about Jesus has sparked a new battle — among Jews.

For months, Gibson’s “The Passion” has spurred headlines from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times, from Fox News to The New Yorker, for its reportedly graphic portrayal of the last days of Jesus and its laying heavy blame for his death on the Jews.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the conflict between Gibson, who belongs to a traditionalist Catholic sect opposed to Vatican reforms in general, and some Jewish figures who warn the film will stir anti-Semitism by splicing together the most anti-Jewish portions of the New Testament gospels with extra-biblical writings of mystics who blamed all Jews for the crucifixion.

Now that debate is turning inward, as Jews point fingers at one another over the way they have dealt with Gibson and argue over just how Jews should deal with Christian portrayals of the Jesus story in popular culture.

The internal conflict over the Gibson movie, meanwhile, comes amid Jewish disagreement over the release of yet another movie about Jesus, “The Gospel of John,” which some Jews are calling a more sensitive portrayal of events.

On one side are figures such as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

They have led an unsuccessful campaign to confer with Gibson to discuss their concerns in the hope that he will tone down the film’s alleged anti-Jewish theme.

“We’re not into censorship, we’re into sensitivity,” Foxman told JTA.

On the other side stand those such as Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and Michael Medved, a conservative film critic and observant Jew, who say the drive to refocus “The Passion” will misfire — and badly.

“The Jewish response so far has been extraordinarily counterproductive of Jewish interests, short-sighted, ill- considered and irresponsible,” Medved said.

Christians may view the criticism by Foxman and others as “the Jews trying to stifle us from practicing our religion,” Eckstein said.

The storm swirling around “The Passion” intensified when the ADL convened nine Jesus scholars, most of them Catholics, who reviewed an initial screenplay of the movie this spring.

The panel declared that it was “neither a true rendition of the Gospel stories nor a historically accurate account of what could have happened in Jerusalem, on Passover,” when Pilate was prefect and Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest.

Gibson’s Icon Productions then charged that the historians illegally obtained a rough draft of the script, prompting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had reportedly lent the panel its blessings, to distance itself and officially reserve judgment pending the film’s opening.

Since then, Gibson has wrapped up production on the film in Italy and is applying the post-production touches to the film, said a spokesman, Alan Neirob.

Gibson’s movie company is still negotiating to find a distributor for the film, which is in Aramaic and Latin with English subtitles.

Meanwhile, Gibson has staged screenings of the movie for private groups of Christians and Jews. Some Christians have walked away declaring themselves enraptured, but Philadelphia’s Ukrainian Archbishop, Stefan Soroka, was not among them.

Soroka told the Catholic News Service that the film left him “uneasy” for its depiction of an “evil” high Jewish priest Caiaphas, who according to some New Testament accounts turned Jesus over to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate upon the Jews’ urging.

Such a story line will “have significant potential to incite hostility to Jews and Judaism,” he said.

The Second Vatican Council of 1964 reversed centuries of official church policy collectively blaming the Jews for Jesus’ crucifixion.

“What happened in His passion cannot be charged against all Jews without distinction to those then alive nor against the Jews of today,” the Vatican said in its historic document, Nostra Aetate.

Since then, many interfaith efforts have begun, and the current pope, John Paul II, has gone further, apologizing for church silence during the Holocaust and urging Catholic leaders to forge ties with Jews.

In recent weeks, two Vatican officials have praised the film, and one urged all cardinals and bishops to see it.

But Cardinal Walter Kasper, the pope’s top liaison to the Jewish community, said these were “purely personal” views that did not reflect Rome’s official stance of waiting for the film’s release to review it and of promoting reconciliation with Jews.

Among those attempting to meet with Gibson is Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious affairs adviser for the American Jewish Committee and a veteran of interfaith dialogue.

Rudin, one of a handful of Jewish officials who has seen the film, said the film’s depiction of the events surrounding Jesus’ death are historically inaccurate.

For example, he said, the film overstates the authority the high Jewish priest Caiaphas held and made the Roman leader Pontius Pilate seem like a weak Hamlet figure.

Further, the film included “toxic” images of “conniving bloodthirsty Jews who used Roman power” to carry out the crucifixion, he said.

He said Soroka’s remarks are “very important” because he remains the first Catholic religious leader “who has spoken out so clearly in pointing out some of the flaws” of the film.

Rudin said the movie he watched is a celluloid update of the once-notorious German passion play from the town of Oberammergau, which, starting in the 15th century, ignited crusades against Jews. Hitler urged people to read or watch the play for its depiction “of the face of international Jewry.”

But that play began in recent years to be revised after Vatican calls for Catholic-Jewish rapprochement.

“The Passion” also seemed inspired by “stigmata,” or visions, of the 19th century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who blamed Jews for the crucifixion for all eternity, Rudin said.

Gibson himself admires the nun, according to a New Yorker account, and a Web site by film fans lists her as one inspiration.

Rabbi David Rosen, senior rabbi at Houston’s Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the largest Conservative synagogue in the United States, said the film left him “disturbed” after a screening in Houston.

“The film is almost unwatchable in its portrayal of Roman brutality, but you are never allowed to forget that the brutality could have stopped at any point if the high priest had just said enough,” said Rosen.

Rosen believes Jewish and Christian leaders should begin meeting to prepare study guides to deal with issues the film raises.

While it will unlikely spur new anti-Semitism, the movie “will confuse people about the role of Jews in the film and how they are portrayed in the Gospels,” he said.

For his part, Foxman, who has not seen the movie, said he hoped to convince Gibson to film a spot to tack onto the end of his Jesus movie saying “Some out there believe Jews are guilty of his suffering — but don’t believe that.”

Others, such as Medved, contend the Jewish community should steer clear of Gibson’s movie.

Were some film producers planning an adaptation of the Book of Esther — which Medved said is the case — Jews should certainly weigh in.

“But it’s a terrible position for us to claim how to tell Christians what to believe.”

Eckstein also maintains that it’s not Jews but Christians whose reactions to the film remain most relevant.

“I would want to know: What do those Christians who devoted the last three decades to interfaith relations, what are their kishkes telling them, rather than Abe Foxman’s view,” he said, using the Yiddish word for guts.

Foxman said Eckstein has “spent a lifetime” building Christian-Jewish ties and he “has a lot at stake in the relationship.”

Eckstein admits that is true: In the past year his group helped raise $20 million from Christian groups for Israel, and more than $100 million for Israel and Jewish causes in the last decade.

Meanwhile, some of the same Jewish players had a different take on another new Jesus movie.

The recently released film, “The Gospel of John,” a literal, word-for-word translation of that New Testament story, has the backing of a Canadian group that includes several Jews, among them Garth Drabinsky, a producer, and Sandy Pearl, the executive producer.

Foxman pointed to “The Gospel of John” as a “sensitive” treatment of the Jesus story, in apparent contrast to Gibson’s film.

The new movie portrays the Jewish leadership of the time as facing “a very difficult dilemma” by being caught between the “necessity of keeping the peace” with the Roman authorities and “somebody who seems dangerous” to Rome, said Alan Segal, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard College in New York and a consultant to the movie.

Further, he said, it downplays the violence surrounding the crucifixion and relies on a word-for-word translation of the story, rather than adapting the story to a dramatic script as Gibson has done.

Still, Segal said Jews “can’t avoid being concerned with what the Gospel says, especially the Gospel of John.”

“We are portrayed as the villain — the question is, what do you do to not make it a blanket condemnation?” Segal said.

But Medved said the ADL’s praise of the lesser-known Jesus film showed the “tremendous hypocrisy” of Jewish organizations.

While the credits in “The Gospel of John” were laden with Jewish names, Medved said, Gibson “made the mistake of not inviting that kind of Jewish participation.”

Foxman, however, dismissed Medved’s criticism. He said the ADL’s assessment of “The Gospel of John” had nothing to do with its Jewish credits.

“We don’t look at the names,” he said, noting that he didn’t even know there were Jews associated with the film.

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