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Will Gibson Film on Jesus Poison Christian-jewish Ties?

January 28, 2004
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Jesus will appear on the Christian holy day of Ash Wednesday — thanks to Mel Gibson.

The Hollywood star directed and financed the $25 million epic “The Passion of the Christ,” which is emerging from a nearly yearlong media storm and is due to hit 2,000 screens nationwide Feb. 25.

That Gibson’s “The Passion” will premier is certain. The big question is how a reportedly gory film about the last 12 hours in Jesus’s life, in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles, will play at the local multiplex.

Many Jewish organizational leaders also are waiting to see if a movie they say scapegoats the Jews for the crucifixion will produce legions of Jew-hating moviegoers and poison Christian-Jewish relations for years to come.

“It makes the Romans look like lambs who are being forced” to punish Jesus, “and it shows the Jews as bloodthirsty and vengeful and unending in their desire to see him crucified,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League, said after emerging from a preview last week.

The movie debuts at a sensitive period in Catholic-Jewish relations. It also reflects a larger struggle within the Catholic Church over whether to continue promoting 40-year-old reforms that include renouncing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion, an issue Gibson apparently brings to the silver screen.

“Tied loosely to the film, there is enormous concern on both sides” of the Catholic-Jewish divide “about which direction the church will be going in the post-John Paul II era,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, a Seton Hall adjunct professor and longtime interfaith advocate. “There is contradictory data out there.”

Last week, some signs of hope about those ties surfaced in New York, where the World Jewish Congress hosted a two-day gathering that brought together 12 cardinals and six chief rabbis from nations as diverse as Angola and Ukraine with a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars.

The meeting was noteworthy not only for the unusual presence of leading papal contenders, but for the presence of top Orthodox Jewish figures as well.

WJC Chairman Israel Singer said that the conference helped “institutionalize” contacts that have warmed ever since the Vatican’s 1965 reforms, known as Nostra Aetate, dropped the teaching that charged Jews with collective responsibility for killing Jesus.

“The meeting was a sea change,” Singer said.

One participant, Father Patrick Desbois of Paris, said the meeting proved the church was committed to making inroads with Jews, in part because both conservative and progressive priests on both sides of the reform issue attended.

“Everybody thought that after John Paul there would be no more relations with Jews, but here we see the contrary,” Desbois said.

Korn, who also attended, agreed it was “enormously important.”

“The next pope could really signal a change in the priorities of the church,” he said. “This was a demonstration that there are partners on both sides who want the relationship to continue.”

But even as the interfaith talks took place, the Gibson movie continued to inflame new tensions.

David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, also saw the Jesus movie last week at one of the nation’s largest evangelical churches, in a Chicago suburb.

The movie shows the Jews as a “mob spitting, scratching, yelling, pummeling” at Jesus, “their faces contorted,” Elcott said. “This movie is an assault on our commitment to interreligious dialogue and respect.”

Such bitter reviews echoed earlier warnings by a few rabbis who had seen earlier film drafts. They saw them at previews Gibson’s associates staged, which largely preached to the converted — that is, evangelicals and political conservatives.

Running the carefully orchestrated public-relations campaign surrounding the film is a Christian group called Outreach, which runs a Web site promoting the movie and points to rave reviews from Christian clerics and Michael Medved, who is identified as a “Jewish film critic.”

Meanwhile, even as the bishops met with rabbis in New York, and the pope met with two top Israeli rabbis last week, another dispute erupted over whether the pope himself endorsed the movie.

A Wall Street Journal columnist was the first to report that an Icon producer succeeded in getting a copy of the movie to the pontiff, who viewed it and, according to an unnamed Vatican source, said, “It is as it was.”

Other reports echoed that account, but a senior Vatican aide to the pontiff later dismissed the report, saying the pope “does not give judgments on art.”

Ironically, Gibson is a member of a Catholic fundamentalist sect that rejects Vatican authority and opposes its reforms, though Gibson has insisted he is not anti-Semitic.

Gibson “is as mensch as they get,” said Icon spokesman Alan Nierob. “He’s a wonderful person who’s just trying to make a good film.”

Nierob also dismissed any apparent contradiction between Gibson’s opposition to the Vatican and Icon’s apparent quest for the church’s imprimatur.

“It’s just a matter of building support,” he said.

In fact, the past year’s worth of media scrutiny has only helped “in terms of interest awareness” for the movie, Nierob said, and the Outreach Web site is even taking advance ticket orders.

Some think the Jewish attention to the film has only aggravated the situation.

Some Jewish groups “blundered” by helping generate such buzz for a movie that would likely have found few fans, said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the WJC.

“I don’t remember the last blockbuster in Aramaic,” Steinberg said.

Some signs of goodwill have cropped up in the past year related to the movie.

A group of Catholic and Jewish scholars who specialize in the study of the historical Jesus, and whose views Gibson rejects, criticized the movie as retrograde.

Recently, the Center for Christian-Jewish Relations at Boston College, a liberal Jesuit institution, issued “Facts, Faith and Film-making: Jesus’ Passion and Its Portrayal,” a guide intended to counter the film’s potential impact.

At the same time, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued “The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus,” a collection of church papers intended to “end prejudices against Jews and Judaism.”

While the furor over the movie is likely to continue, interfaith activists remain confident that it won’t adversely affect progress in Catholic-Jewish relations.

Catholic-Jewish ties “will continue,” Korn said. “There are partners on both sides who want it to.”

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