‘Passion’ Debate Risks Alienating Christian Allies

By Sara Liss

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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PALM BEACH, Fla. — Standing before a room full of Anti-Defamation League leaders at the Italian Renaissance-style Majestic Breakers hotel here, Rabbi Robert Levine appeared to be preaching to the converted as he tore into Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

But then Levine, the religious leader of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan and one of the featured speakers on a February 6 panel discussion about the controversial film, criticized the evangelical Christian community over its outspoken praise of Gibson’s cinematic depiction of the final hours of Jesus’s life.

“Segments of the Jewish community for several years have basked in the love of evangelicals and their support for Israel,” Levine said, during a question-and-answer session at the ADL‘s national executive conference. “I’m afraid this will serve as a wake-up call to the Jewish community as to who our friends really are.”

The remark drew a quick response from the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who had just delivered a speech condemning the film.

“Many in the evangelical community are reaching out at this moment,” Foxman told the 300-person crowd. “They are concerned about the relationships they have built, that they are proud of. Their love of Israel is not tied to this issue.”

Foxman may seem like an unlikely candidate to stick up for Gibson’s allies. But Foxman’s rush to quash any talk of a wider break with evangelicals highlights an awkward development facing Jewish leaders as they speak out against the film: The conservative Christian leaders and pundits hailing the movie are also among the loudest voices in defense of Israel and an aggressive war against Islamic fundamentalism.

Many of these Christian luminaries have strongly condemned Islamic and European antisemitism, but reject concerns that Gibson’s film could revive millennia-old charges of deicide against the Jewish people. This sentiment was conveyed in an open letter to the Jewish community released last week by William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a conservative group that speaks out on many social issues. He argued that fears over American Christian reaction to the film are unfair, since this country has virtually no history of violence against Jews.

“If the movie is likely to engender violence, then we should expect that when people finish watching it, they will be in a rage,” Donohue wrote. “But no one who has seen the film has experienced anything like anger.”

Critics of the film counter that it could fuel anti-Jewish hatred in the Arab world, where the crucifixion increasingly has been employed as a metaphor for the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israel.

Still, Foxman seemed to defend some conservative supporters of the film, arguing that they were starting to reach out to Jewish groups.

“I am not ready to abandon them, and I don’t [think] they’re abandoning us because we challenge on of their interests,” Foxman said during an interview during a lunch break at the conference. “They are concerned about the relationships they have built, that they are proud of. Their love of Israel is not tied to this issue.”

Foxman announced that two evangelical leaders, Franklin Graham, chief executive officer of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and political activist Gary Bauer, a Republican candidate for president in 2000, are assisting the ADL in efforts to ensure that the movie is not misinterpreted or misused as an antisemitic tool.

Jewish communal leaders, including Foxman, have suggested that Gibson add a short disclaimer to the end of the movie stating that the Jews did not kill Jesus — but so far both Gibson and his company Icon Productions have not responded to the idea.

In his speech, Foxman told the crowd that he is not satisfied by the news that Gibson has decided to cut a controversial scene in which a mob of Jews call for Jesus’ crucifixion.

“He’s playing with the public, he’s playing with the issue,” Foxman told this reporter. “It would make the film more sensitive, but it will take more than removing one scene to make this film sensitive.” The significance of cutting the scene was downplayed by another speaker at the ADL conference, the Rev. John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. During the conference, Pawlikowski also dubbed the film’s script “problematic,” and said Gibson cannot claim that his depiction of the story adheres to the Catholic Church’s guidelines for passion plays.

“The changes don’t mean anything unless the fundamental theme is changed,” Pawlikowski said. “Gibson has to acknowledge that the Jews didn’t kill Christ.”

Meanwhile, in his open letter, Donohue argued that it is the film‘s critics who need to display a higher level of understanding.

“Please understand that many Christians deeply resent the kinds of movies Hollywood has been releasing over the last few decades,” Donohue wrote. He added, “Now that they finally have a film they can be proud of, some are calling them bigots, if not thugs. Christian-Jewish relations have improved markedly over the past few decades, and in this regard no one has been more influential than Pope John Paul II. It would not only be unfortunate — it would be a travesty — if the reaction to a film about the death of Jesus were to undo the good that has been done. I pray it will not.”

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