When a few Jews in New York decided last week to dress up in concentration camp uniforms to protest the screening of “The Passion of the Christ,” they were hoping to make a point.
They also upset a lot of Jews.
The group — activists from Amcha-The Coalition for Jewish Concerns — argued that Mel Gibson’s controversial film, which many say blames the Jews for Jesus’ death, could inspire the type of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.
But many Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found that message — and the way the protesters sought to convey it — objectionable.
Aryeh Leifert, 25, an Orthodox rabbinical student, said he was incensed when he saw the yarmulke-clad protesters outside a theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side wearing the striped suits and yellow stars of concentration camp inmates. The protest took place the day the movie opened, on Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday.
“It was totally out of place and an embarrassment,” Leifert said. “I think their priorities were slightly out of wack. You have to be very careful when you use Holocaust imagery. Jews don’t automatically get a free pass.”
Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, said, “I do not want to have the lowest common denominator applied to the Holocaust.”
Though he did not see the protesters himself, Kent said that “the image of the Holocaust should stand by itself, because it was a unique experience in the history of mankind. By using it in these instances, we are diminishing the role of what really happened.”
Even the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who has been one of the most outspoken Jewish critics of “The Passion,” said the protesters went too far.
“I find that distasteful, and I find that inappropriate,” said Foxman, who is himself a survivor. “The only ones who have a right to wear concentration camp uniforms are survivors. Anybody else, I think, abuses it.”
Amcha officials defended their use of the uniforms to protest the Gibson film.
“We want people to realize the seriousness of the dangers that this movie might lead to,” said Amcha’s vice president, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who was among those donning the Holocaust-era garb. “Yes, this movie can inspire the type of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.”
He said the group rented the death-camp outfits from a costume store. He and the four or five others wearing the uniforms — there were about two dozen Amcha protesters in all — affixed the Holocaust-era yellow stars themselves.
“This is not something we take lightly. We have the highest respect for the victims of the Holocaust and the survivors of the Holocaust,” Herzfeld said. “We are so concerned about this movie — we want people to be concerned.”
Amcha officials said they received a deluge of hate mail after the demonstration. They turned over the correspondence, mostly in the form of anonymous e-mails, to police investigators.
“Whine, whine, whine. Is that all you Jews can do?” one e-mailer wrote. “I’m going to see ‘Passion’ five times and buy extra popcorn. All the attention you Christ hating whiners have brought to ‘Passion’ is going to make it one of the biggest revenue producing movies of all time.
“Whine some more for me, I love to hear your incessant whining,” the letter-writer continued. “At least you’re real good at something.”
Other e-mails were more explicit and profanity-laden, one calling Amcha’s president, Rabbi Avi Weiss, a “filthy kike” who deserves “whatever comes to you in way of punishment for your crimes against humanity and Christians.”
Weiss said the letters show the dangers inherent in the passions Gibson’s movie has stirred.
The Gibson movie “casts the Jews as the killers of Jesus,” Weiss said. “It is that lie that inspired not only the murder of millions of Jews throughout the centuries, but it’s that lie which planted the seed for the Shoah itself, and why we decided to wear those uniforms.”
Weiss said the uniforms were intended to dramatize the issue and provoke a response.
“I take responsibility for this. It was my concept,” he said. “When you’re outside, it is street theater. You’re going for the point of tension.”
Some survivors said the use of the uniforms was not only inappropriate, but could trigger unwanted emotions and painful memories for victims of Nazism.
“There are some people that were in camps and they have automatic stress disorders, and anything that reminds them of anti-Semitism sets them off,” said Leo Rechter, general secretary of the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors.
New Jersey psychologist Irit Felsen, a trauma expert who specializes in treating Holocaust survivors and their families, said the sight of concentration camp uniforms on a Manhattan street might trigger a traumatic response in a Holocaust survivor — but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
“I think it’s all judged by the meaning given to it,” Felsen said. “There’s no question about the fact that it can be a traumatic reminder, but so are many things. So is ‘Schindler’s List,’ ” she said, referring to Steven Spielberg’s famous Holocaust movie.
“The question is not how to protect survivors necessarily from arousal; the question is whether it’s in the service of a meaningful purpose,” she said.
Weiss insisted that it was.
“Much of my life I’ve spent on Shoah memory, and 1,500 years of Christian anti-Semitism planted the seed for the Shoah,” Weiss said. “I know that the Shoah did not occur in a vacuum. It occurred because of Christian anti-Semitism.”
Rechter disagreed that the Amcha demonstration served its intended purpose its organizers said they intended.
“There is no dearth of anti-Semitic films. By giving it publicity and complaining about it, it only made the public become more aware of it, and many attended out of curiosity,” he said. “I think it was helping Mel Gibson’s cause rather than our cause.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.