You heard it here first: Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is good for the Jews.
So says demographer Gary Tobin, whose San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research released a new poll this week concluding that the movie changed Christian attitudes toward Jews and the crucifixion for the better.
“In general, people are less inclined to see Jews as responsible for killing Christ” after seeing the movie, Tobin said.
That finding contrasts sharply with dire warnings from some Jewish leaders and groups before the movie opened. Critics said Gibson’s skewed portrayal — in which Jews pushed the Roman leadership into crucifying Jesus — could inflame anti-Semitism, if not domestically than abroad, where anti-Semitism is more prevalent.
In a random national survey of 1,003 adults conducted by Tobin’s group March 5-9, nearly two weeks after the movie’s premiere, 12 percent of the 146 people who had seen “The Passion” said it made them “less likely” to blame Jews today for the crucifixion, compared to 5 percent who said they were “more likely” to blame all Jews for killing Jesus.
Conducted by the Pennsylvania-based International Communications Research, a research firm that has conducted surveys for ABC News and The Washington Post, the poll found that 16 percent of Americans said they had seen the Gibson movie, which raked in more than $264 million in its first three weeks after opening Feb. 25.
A Gallup poll taken March 5-7 found that 11 percent of Americans had seen the movie, and 34 percent more said they planned to see it in theaters.
In Tobin’s survey, 9 percent of those who either had seen the movie or were familiar with it due to the “buzz” surrounding it said the movie made them less likely to hold Jews responsible for Jesus’s death; 2 percent said they were more likely to blame Jews; 83 percent said their opinions about Jews remained unchanged.
In February, an ABC News poll found that 8 percent of Americans blamed all Jews, historically and today, for killing Jesus.
Tobin said movie has become such a phenomenon “that you don’t have to have seen the film for it to influence your thinking.”
Sid Groeneman, who worked on the Tobin poll, said the disparity in blame between the ABC polls and Tobin’s may be due to different wording. The earlier poll asked if Jews “bear responsibility for” the crucifixion, while the Tobin poll asked if they “should be held responsible,” signaling retribution may be necessary, he said.
Tobin’s poll comes after an online survey by the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, a group devoted to interfaith ties and support for Israel, conducted an online survey showing a minority of Christians blame Jews for the crucifixion.
The survey, held Feb. 26-March 3, the days immediately after the movie opened, found that only 1.7 percent of 2,500 participants said Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, while 84 percent said “mankind” was to blame.
Most participants were evangelical Christians, many of whom endorsed the Gibson movie, said the group’s president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who is Orthodox.
“Despite the near-hysterical warnings issued by some Jewish groups in the wake of ‘The Passion,’ we must remember that the danger for Jews does not lie in Christians believing that certain Jewish authorities, acting to preserve their own power, desired the death of Jesus,” Eckstein said.
Instead, the threat “lies in the abhorrent notion that Jews today have blood on their hands because of the actions of a corrupt few 2,000 years ago.” The group’s survey shows “it is precisely this belief that the vast majority of Christians reject,” he said.
In the movie, the scene in question indeed carries the infamous blood libel that for centuries sparked Christian attacks against Jews.
The scene shows the Roman leader, Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of Jesus’s blood, while the Jewish high priest Caiaphas turns to the Jewish mob demanding Jesus be killed and says in Aramaic, “His blood is on us.”
Unlike the rest of the subtitled movie, that line was not translated, though the word “yadaim,” or “hands” in Aramaic and Hebrew, is clear.
Besides earning Gibson a princely $70 million profit so far on his $30 million investment, the movie has been the subject of intense media scrutiny, appearing on the covers of numerous magazines, the front pages of countless newspapers, and winning saturation coverage by major broadcast and cable television networks.
Some have called Gibson’s publicity strategy for the movie a model of marketing that will be studied for years to come. Even the Tobin poll received substantial media play, appearing on CNN hours after its release.
Among the leading critics of the film was Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who failed to convince Gibson to add a postscript to the movie saying that many Jews were crucified during the Roman occupation of ancient Israel, and that the Jews were not to blame for Jesus’ death.
“I hope he’s right,” Foxman said of Tobin’s survey, but “I think it’s a little too early to come to any conclusions.”
“I’m not sure I really understand what these findings mean, based on that 146 people saw it,” he added.
The Tobin poll carried a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for those who saw the film, to 3.7 points to those who saw or knew about the film.
The ADL will conduct its own follow-up polls about the movie in the next few months, Foxman said.
Since the film’s opening, Foxman said the ADL has received more than a dozen reports of students in public schools being called Christ-killers by classmates. Six name-calling incidents occurred in one Midwestern community, he said.
But Foxman added that such incidents surface occasionally, and the ADL was only starting to examine the reports to determine whether they were connected to the movie.
For his part, Tobin said the ADL and others were right to focus attention on the movie. After seeing the movie Monday, Tobin said he found it “full of anti-Semitic images.”
“The film blames Jews in ways that are associated with anti-Semitic beliefs,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean people are coming away from the movie with anti-Semitic views.”