ADL Interfaith Official Quits, Stance on Film Questioned

By Nacha Cattan

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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A leading critic of Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the death of Jesus has resigned from his post at the Anti-Defamation League.

Eugene Korn, the ADL’s director of interfaith affairs, told the Forward that his resignation last week represented a “mutual decision” resulting from his need for “a more reflective and contemplative environment.” Korn’s departure has some Jewish communal observers suggesting that a more diplomatic approach is needed in dealing with Gibson’s upcoming film, “The Passion of Christ.”

Though the organization’s strong rebuke of Gibson and his film was hailed by officials at several Jewish organizations, it has been criticized as counterproductive by an increasing number of communal experts.

“We have to ask questions in the Jewish community about the approach taken to this film,” said Elan Steinberg, the senior adviser to the World Jewish Congress. “Have we really examined the question of whether bringing greater publicity to the film, broad charges of antisemitism and perhaps disenchanting those who are our allies in many struggles should be done in such a cavalier way?”

Some sources familiar with the situation say that Korn was uncomfortable with the aggressive style of the ADL’s longtime national director, Abraham Foxman, on several interfaith issues, including the Gibson movie. Korn, who has been at the ADL for less than two years, declined to comment on the dynamic between himself and the group’s charismatic leader, though he acknowledged a “difference in style” between himself and the ADL. He did, however, insist that he agreed with the organization’s handling of “The Passion.” “Personally I think the strategy is correct,” Korn said. “I was one of the leaders of the strategy.”

The ADL did not return calls seeking comment.

Some critics argued that the ADL strategy might be backfiring. “I’m not sure if we’re not playing into [Gibson’s] hands,” said Gilbert Rosenthal, director of the National Council of Synagogues, a partnership run by the Reform and Conservative movements dedicated to interfaith dialogue. “He said he’s got millions of dollars in free publicity. I’d like to see statements from the Christian community on this.”

At the Reform movement’s biennial convention in Minneapolis last week, Hebrew Union College professor Rabbi Michael Cook warned that the Jewish community needed to abandon the strategy of loudly criticizing the movie or risk embarrassment when it hits theaters. According to Cook, who served on an interfaith panel of scholars co-convened by the ADL that drafted a critical assessment of a screenplay for the movie, Gibson is in the process of altering the film, and it will be less offensive than many have been predicting. Instead of acknowledging the degree to which he responded to his Jewish critics, Cook said, Gibson will point a derisive finger, asking what all the shouting was about.

These are just the latest statements from a growing list of critics who claim that defense organizations, including the ADL, are mistakenly attempting to discredit and strong-arm Gibson. Other critics include Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews; Michael Medved, a conservative film critic and Orthodox Jew; and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, a conservative group dedicated to forging better relations between Jews and Christians.

The ADL, and to a lesser extent the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have been at the forefront of the battle against Gibson’s film, which they say blames Jews for the death of Jesus and could stoke antisemitism. Gibson belongs to an ultra-traditionalist Catholic splinter sect that rejects Second Vatican Council reforms.

The ADL stirred controversy earlier this year when it co-convened a panel of Jewish and Catholic scholars to review an initial screenplay of the film and provide feedback to Gibson. Gibson charged that the script reviewed had been obtained illegally. Korn later attended a screening of a rough cut of the film, due out this spring, after which the ADL concluded that “The Passion” depicts Jews as responsible for Jesus’ death.

Some experts in Catholic-Jewish relations defended the ADL. “I think it’s important to confront these issues and alert the community,” said Seymour Reich, an ADL lay leader and past chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations.

Communal leaders praised Korn for his levelheaded and analytical approach to interfaith dialogue and lamented his absence at a crucial time for Catholic-Jewish relations.

“He had his own entree to the Vatican,” Reich said. “He could call up and speak directly to Cardinal [Walter] Kasper,” the top Vatican liaison to the Jewish community.

Reich said that he believed that Korn convinced Kasper to issue a statement saying that two church officials who praised the film were not speaking for the Vatican.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said that Korn is “a scholar in a field where there’s a paucity of scholars.”

Korn’s recently appointed counterpart at the American Jewish Committee, David Elcott, said: “Not having Gene, somebody of his caliber in that position, is not just a loss for the Jewish community, but for those who want to see religion and religious values working in a positive and constructive way. He has many contacts and our voice will not be as strong.”

Korn said he plans to consult with other Jewish organizations on inter-religious affairs, including local Jewish community relations councils.

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