Movie Could Resurrect Old Charges Against Jews

By Daniel Treiman

Published March 21, 2003, issue of March 21, 2003.
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Silver screen star Mel Gibson is raising red flags for some Jewish groups, who fear that a movie he is making will resurrect the age-old charge that Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death.

The heads of the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center questioned Gibson’s motives after a March 9 New York Times Magazine article on the relationship between his latest project, “The Passion” — a film about the final hours of Jesus’ life — and his involvement in a small, ultra-traditionalist Catholic splinter sect that rejects many Second Vatican Council reforms. The reforms, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s, updated church liturgy, encouraging Mass to be said in the vernacular rather than Latin, and repudiated many traditional anti-Jewish teachings.

While Gibson has said the crucifixion is “not a Christian vs. Jew thing,” other remarks, combined with his apparent antipathy toward at least some Second Vatican Council reforms, have fueled fears that the film may resurrect anti-Jewish teachings.

“The principal cause of antisemitism in the last 20 centuries has been the charge of deicide,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. “So to the extent that anyone goes back to the good old days, there are all these concerns about that because the good old days were bad old days to the Jews.”

“Mel Gibson is an icon,” said the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman. “He’s an icon in the film world, in the celebrity world. If he produces a Passion play with all the classical standard stereotypic images of blaming the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Christ, it may have greater reverberations than Vatican II because we’re dealing in pop culture.”

“I’m nervous about it,” said Eugene Fisher, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Fisher said that if Gibson handles the materials from the Gospels there could be a danger of creating a “rather serious collective guilt polemic,” which he said would be “teaching Christians wrongly about what the Gospels say.” But Fisher said that he does not know enough yet to judge what Gibson is going to do with the film.

The Times Magazine article, for which Gibson was not interviewed, cited remarks by Gibson’s father, Hutton, a vituperative critic of current church leadership known for spouting conspiracy theories, denying that the Holocaust occurred.

The younger Gibson has been quoted in press accounts disparaging the Vatican, calling it a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” He has also attacked the Second Vatican Council reforms generally, blaming them for having “corrupted the institution of the church.” Press reports on the controversy have cited friends of the younger Gibson who say that the actor does not share all of his father’s views. Gibson’s publicist did not return calls from the Forward seeking comment.

The Times Magazine article also cited remarks by another breakaway traditionalist Catholic, Gary Giuffre, who said the younger Gibson had told him about his plans for the movie. Giuffre, according to the article, “says, the film will lay the blame for the death of Christ where it belongs,” which, the article noted, “some traditionalists believe means the Jewish authorities who presided over his trial and delivered him to the Romans to be crucified.”

Gibson has made no secret that his own religious passion is driving the effort to make “The Passion,” which he is currently filming in Italy. His production company is reportedly funding the project to the tune of $25 million, without the backing of a studio, and he has said that it will be filmed entirely in Latin and Aramaic — and he hopes to release it without subtitles. Gibson is directing the film, but will not appear in it. The script is reportedly based upon the Gospels, as well as a pair of mystical accounts written by 17th- and 19th-century nuns.

Asked in January on the Fox News Network’s “The O’Reilly Factor” whether his film would upset Jews, Gibson replied, “It may. It’s not meant to. I think it’s meant to just tell the truth. I want to be as truthful as possible. But, when you look at the reasons behind why Christ came, why he was crucified, he died for all mankind and he suffered for all mankind, so that, really, anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability.”

This month he told Zenit, a Catholic news agency, that “this isn’t a story about Jews vs. Christians. Jesus himself was a Jew, his mother was a Jew and so were his 12 Apostles. It’s true that, as the Bible says, ‘He came unto his own and his own received him not.’ I can’t hide that. But that doesn’t mean that the sins of the past were any worse than the sins of the present. Christ paid the price for all our sins.” This month, he told The Wall Street Journal, “Looking at Christ’s crucifixion, I look at my own culpability first.”

Foxman and Hier said that Gibson has not done enough to allay Jewish concerns about the film. Hier also called the work by the 17th-century nun that Gibson is using as a source “an offensive book to Jews, a very harsh portrayal of the attitude of the Jews toward Christ and implicating indirectly in his death all of the Jews.”

Dramatic depictions of Jesus’ death have always been a touchy subject for Jews, who historically have been portrayed by them in a negative light. Just last year, Foxman sent a letter of protest regarding a Christian Broadcasting Network Easter cartoon that he said was “saturated with sinister caricatures of Jews.”

But some scholars have said that the Gospels themselves are historically inaccurate and inherently problematic in their portrayals of Jews.

John Dominic Crossan, a professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and author of “Who Killed Jesus?: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus ” (HarperCollins, 1995), said that the troubling rhetoric in the Gospels about the role of Jews in Jesus’ death, particularly in the Gospel of John, was the result of “a very nasty fight” between “Christian Jews” and “other Jews,” rather than an accurate reflection of what transpired.

But, he said, “there is no way that I know of telling that story as its told in the Gospels — that’s dramatized — without reviving all the canards about the Jews did this or the Jews did that.”

Fisher, however, said he believed the Gospels could be dramatized sensitively by showing the accurate historical context to help people understand why the Gospels differ from one another as well to ensure that Jews are not painted in a negative light. “The Passion story is not inherently anti-Jewish. The guy who makes the decision [to kill Jesus] is not a Jew. He’s a Roman, and he was a dictator, he was a governor, this was not exactly a democratic process. The Gospels were very clear in portraying the people of Jerusalem weeping over Jesus as he is carrying the cross. That should be portrayed very strongly. The Jewishness of Jesus should be portrayed, that he is not outside his community or rejected by it.”

Rabbi Leon Klenicki, who as director of the ADL’s Department of Interfaith Affairs from 1973 to 2001 worked with Christians to try to make sure that Passion plays did not portray Jews in a negative light, said that it was important “to explain the text while the Passion is going on.”

“There is a tendency in the Catholic Church and many Christian denominations to try to explain the text to avoid antisemitism,” he said. “But the danger is there all time — in the text itself.”

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