The day after Mel Gibson raked in $25 million with the launch of his blood-and-gore Crucifixion film, an overflow crowd of 400 flocked to the Center for Jewish History on February 26 for a forum on “Religion, Responsibilities and Relations: Responses to Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion.’” Sponsored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the American Jewish Historical Society, the civil presentation, with occasional touches of wry humor by the five panelists, was moderated by Edward Rothstein, critic at large for the New York Times.
“This is not a religious film.… It’s ‘Braveheart’ comes to the Crucifixion… a war movie!” declared Peter Boyer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. “Gibson sees the world as vast warring realms… as many Christians do.… Gibson’s Jesus… rises with a determined face — you have no doubt he’s going out to conduct war.”
Born in Gulfport, Miss., Boyer confided: “I go to mainline churches where Satan, Heaven and Hell [are] not mentioned. I attended a Congregationalist church for two years where even Jesus wasn’t mentioned.… But a lot of folks in the country, who see [critics] as elites, a kind of secular priesthood who decide what is good and bad… [to their] unsophisticated readings of the Gospels… antisemitism is a bomb going off in a bus in Tel Aviv… not the Sunday school lesson.”
“I am half-Sicilian, raised a pre-Vatican II Catholic and a volunteer Jew,” said Paula Fredriksen, a William Goodwin Aurelio professor of the appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. “Gibson has pulled off an ecumenical cross-marketing coup. He has taken this… fairly old-fashioned, quintessentially Roman Catholic fixation on blood and pain and sold it to millions of Sun Belt Protestants.… [Never] have so many Baptists known the date of Ash Wednesday.”
Fredriksen, whose books include “From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus,” said, “The first-century Christ, presented primarily in the Four Gospels… redeemed not through his suffering but through his death and resurrection, which promised his return.” She was appalled by Gibson’s portrayal of the Jews: “big noses, bad teeth… the [Jewish] soldiers arresting party look like visiting Romulan dignitaries.… Mel, the noble Catholic, will cash in!… Is Mel Gibson an antisemite? Who cares! What matters is the film is potentially inflammatory.”
“I’m here to say that Mel Gibson made an egregious movie for undermining the relationship between Jews and Christians,” declared Rabbi Eugene Korn, former Anti-Defamation League director of interfaith affairs.
While praising “the Church for [its] ridding of teachings of antisemitic elements,” Korn cited the movie as “a reversion to the worst depiction of Jews since the Middle Ages,” and posited, “Can Christianity tell its story without demonizing the Jews?” Apropos the Passion’s “toxic history,” Korn said: “In 1539 the municipal officers of Rome canceled the Passion play. Why? Because five years previously… when the people of Rome heard the characters as Jews shout, ‘Crucify him… may his blood be upon us… and our children!,’ that day was when Romans began to sack the Jewish ghetto of Rome.”
“I loved the movie!” proclaimed Deal Hudson, publisher of the Catholic monthly Crisis Magazine and a former Southern Baptist. “We have the right to defend… our tradition… to speak our minds…. Antisemitism was revolting, abhorrent… something always just below the surface ….,” said Hudson, “But the Jews of the time played a significant role in the death of Jesus. I do not see this as stereotyping. This is a work of art, not theology…. It is highly unlikely… worse than tragic… if it caused antisemitism.”
Sister Mary Boys, the Skinner and McAlpin professor of practical theology at the Union Theological Seminary, took Gibson to task for his portrayal of the Sanhedrin as “sadomasochists… the Jews as malevolent.… He distorted history to show Pilate as sensitive, discussing the ‘nature of truth’ with his wife… who does not appear in the Gospels!”
Boys vehemently asserted: “Christians [must be] willing to face the fact that the Passion and the death of Jesus… have for centuries legitimized violence against Jews.” She recounted a recent phone call from a Holocaust survivor from Poland: “The woman told me: ‘It brought back nightmares I had forgotten… of angry children in Poland throwing stones at me on Easter Sunday.’”
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Jerry Daniels, a marathoner who has dedicated his runs to protesting antisemitism, has been writing to President Jacques Chirac of France about attacks on Jewish communities at Montepellier, Toulouse, Lyon, Strasbourg, etc.
Daniels told me last week that he had sent Chirac a New Year’s greeting in which he informed the president that he had donated a stove to the Southwest Indians in his honor. Chirac acknowleged this gesture with a handwritten note: “I was very touched by the wishes you were kind enough to send and thank you warmly…. May 2004 be… a good year, rich in hopes and confidence in France…. A France that bears a message of peace and concord in the world.”
Daniels later faxed me the February 3 letter he received recently from Gerard Marchand, Chirac’s chief of staff. It said: “Your letter has reached the President… After the arson attack which destroyed the Merkaz Hatorah school in Gagny on November 15, M. Jacques Chirac declared: ‘….I solemnly condemn, in the name of the nation, every act of anti-Semitism…. Through acts of anti-Semitism, the fundamental rights of each citizen are attacked…. When a Jew is attacked in France, understand that it is all of France that is being attacked….’ You may be quite sure that the Head of State is absolutely determined to combat all forms of anti-Semitism without fail.”