Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is set to open in Brazil early next month — and Rabbi Henry Sobel is worried.
Sobel, the religious leader of Brazil’s Congregacao Israelita Paulista, the largest synagogue in Latin America, fears that the film about Jesus’ death will inflame antisemitism in his country, where 95% of the 170 million population is Catholic and less than 0.5% is Jewish. A religious leader in Sao Paulo for 34 years, Sobel said that many of his fellow countrymen are poor, uneducated and unaware of the developments in recent decades in Vatican doctrine regarding Jews, including the church’s rejection of the notion that the Jewish people were collectively guilty of decide.
“I am very much concerned,” Sobel said during a telephone interview last week, just days before the film’s February 25 opening in American theaters.
“Many Brazilians don’t have the background or the historical perspective that we talk about in the United States,” said Sobel, adding that the problem extends beyond his country’s borders. “In my mind, a film which portrays Jews as bloodthirsty and vengeful can very easily generate antisemitism among the masses throughout Latin America.”
Sobel is among several Jewish leaders around the world bracing for their countries’ premieres of Gibson’s $30 million self-financed biblical epic. While no serious observer believes there will be pogroms in the streets of America because of the movie, some warn that the real danger for Jews lies in Europe and Latin America, where antisemitism is already on a dangerous upswing because of the Middle East conflict.
Several Jewish organizations have also raised concerns about how the movie will be received throughout the Muslim world, where radical Islamic forces increasingly have been employing ancient Christian anti-Jewish stereotypes. “Our greatest fear is that this will be shown throughout the Middle East” as an example of Jewish treachery, said Anti-Defamation League spokeswoman Myrna Shinbaum.
According to Yehudit Barsky, director of the American Jewish Committee’s division on Middle East and International Terrorism, Islam Online published a story last week that downplayed the Holocaust, while perpetuating the Muslim canard that Jews have killed Islamic prophets.
While Jewish groups are unsure of how to deal with the film’s impact in the Muslim world, Jewish communal leaders in several heavily Christian countries, including Brazil, Canada and Australia, have taken proactive steps to engage their Catholic and Protestant counterparts to help minimize negative repercussions from the film.
In an e-mail to the Forward, Piotr Kadlcik, the new president of the Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Poland, wrote that the film “is a great challenge for the church, and it will require a clear message covering the issue of Jews. Without it, this movie may cause problems for us.”
The International Council of Christians and Jews, representing Jewish-Christian dialogue groups in 32 countries, also said it is “deeply concerned” about the film. “Viewers need to be aware that the film does not reflect the current theological and historical perspective of Jews and Judaism held by most Christian bodies, Roman Catholic and Protestant,” the organization stated in a press release issued this month.
Despite such worries, Jewish communal officials in some countries were more circumspect about their plans and opinions, taking a wait-and-see approach to the film. “The Passion” opens in Europe and other parts of the world in March and April, a Gibson spokesman confirmed.
A spokeswoman for England’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks declined to discuss the film or the controversy until its release there on March 26. A representative of the Board of Deputies of British Jews said the organization has been in contact with church groups and the Council of Christians and Jews. “Due to the controversial reporting on the film, we are unable to comment until we have seen it ourselves,” she said.
Communal leaders in France and Germany seem to be adopting a similar approach, eschewing any sort of preemptive campaign.
Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said that he has heard no concerns about the movie from WJC affiliates around the world. “It has made not a ripple,” he said.
But Manuel Prutschi, national executive director pro tem of the Canadian Jewish Congress, an affiliate of WJC, said his group is concerned that the movie “could have a negative impact on the Jewish community itself and also could be a source of tension and a setback between Christians and Jews.” The Canadian group has been working with Christian organizations to sponsor discussion groups and conferences about the film.
In Australia, where Gibson was raised, Jewish communal leaders are wary.
Two members of the management committee of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the country’s leading elected Jewish body, saw the film as guests of the Australian government and “were repulsed by the violence,” said Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, in an interview with the Forward.
“They said that it could be used by antisemites to rationalize their bigotry and, as with all Passion plays, had the potential to foment ill will towards Jews.”
Jones said he was working with Catholic and Protestant groups to educate the Australian public and minimize negative consequences from Gibson’s film.
Now that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is actually playing in theaters (it opened Wednesday), Americans have the luxury of seeing the film before arguing about it. Perhaps the harshest newspaper review so far of the cinematic depiction of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life came from Jami Bernard in the New York Daily News. She slammed Gibson’s work as “the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II.” … With critics like Bernard pulling no punches, Gibson’s defenders are coming out swinging. Bill Garner published a cartoon in the Washington Times depicting Gibson’s detractors nailing him to a cross. Conservative pundit Michael Medved continued to condemn Jewish groups over their aggressively critical approach toward Gibson and his film, during an interview on CNN. … The Anti-Defamation League, meanwhile, was raising concerns about the 25% of Americans who, according to a recent poll, say the Jews were responsible for the original crucifixion. … The executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, seemed unconcerned that the film could trigger antisemitism. Instead, he issued a statement warning that the film could weaken the religious faith of Jews. “If Jews see the film and identify with the image of Jesus, they will dis-identify with their own God-given Jewish identity,” Weinreb warned. “The result might be inner doubts about their Judaism.” To ward off such a turn of events, leaders of the O.U. appealed to member synagogues to prepare what they called “an antidote to the potential challenge the film will create.” … Cardinal Jean Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, issued a joint statement with World Jewish Congress chairman Israel Singer: “In the last half century, Catholics and Jews have worked successfully to build respectful religious relations,” they declared. “We will not allow the controversy surrounding the film to damage [these] relations. Our faith, mutual respect, and understanding are stronger than any tempest that might damage these relations.”… Gibson’s controversial father, Hutton Gibson, was sounding a less conciliatory note. On the eve of film’s release, he reportedly stated that the Holocaust was a “fiction” and that Jews are conspiring to take over the world. The elder Gibson told one radio interviewer that the Jews are “after one world religion and one world government,” and said that someone should “hang” Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. The remarks were condemned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.