Until this week, families made queasy by the violence in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ” could take in Jesus’ flagellation and death in a kid-friendly cartoon version, “The Animated Passion Trilogy.”
The cartoon is an odd spinoff from Gibson’s film, which offended many in the Jewish community. But even stranger is that the animated version, with its own depiction of Jewish rabbis calling for Jesus’ death, was being distributed by one of the most Jewish companies in America.
Anchor Bay Entertainment, which began distributing the film in August, is a subsidiary of IDT Corporation, the Newark, N.J.-based telecommunications company that serves kosher food in its cafeteria and was founded by Orthodox philanthropist Howard Jonas.
After IDT was contacted by the Forward about the film this week, however, the company decided to pull “The Animated Passion” from further distribution. In an interview with the Forward, Jonas said that the film had not been reviewed by his company before the decision to distribute it had been made. But he is reversing that decision now.
“On the supposition that there is something antisemitic in it,” Jonas said, “we have told them to stop shipping movies until people here get a chance to see it.”
Though no commercial link exists between the Gibson film and the children’s film, the font and color scheme of the packaging, which was designed by Anchor Bay, is reminiscent of Gibson’s publicity materials.
“[Anchor Bay] thought they could sort of piggy-back on the fact that everyone wants to buy the Mel Gibson movie,” Jonas said.
Just a few months ago, Jewish communal leaders and media pundits — including the rabbi at Jonas’s synagogue in the Bronx, N.Y. — were roundly condemning Gibson’s film, warning that its release could trigger an anti-Jewish backlash.
While Jonas said he was concerned enough to pull “The Animated Passion,” he decried the Jewish response to Gibson’s film, particularly Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was one of the most visible critics of “The Passion of the Christ.”
“Foxman sees enemies under every table,” Jonas said, “even when enemies are Evangelical Christians who are our best friends.”
Foxman could not be reached for comment.
Jonas has tightened his own company’s links with Christian media companies during the last year. Last December, Jonas signed a deal with evangelical preacher Pat Robertson to produce family-friendly entertainment through IDT’s animation division. The agreement underscores the increasing links between Orthodox Jews and evangelicals over not only their shared interest in Israel, but also their shared religious values.
“We relish the opportunity to work with evangelicals,” Jonas said, “because we feel there is a higher moral content to the material they put out.”
Anchor Bay, though, does not focus exclusively on children’s material. On the same page as the company’s press release for “The Animated Passion” was a plug for the zombie flick “Dawn of the Dead,” with the tagline: “When there’s no more room in hell… the dead return to DVD.”
On “The Animated Passion,” Anchor Bay worked with NestFamily Entertainment, a Christian entertainment company that produced the three-disk set. NestFamily has been working on the script and voices for “The Animated Passion” for more than a decade. But the production was only executed in the last year, during the turmoil over Gibson’s film. The first of the three discs, titled “Worthy Is the Lamb,” covers the same territory as “The Passion of the Christ,” starting in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ending on Golgotha.
One of the sharpest critics of Gibson’s film was Avi Weiss, the rabbi at Jonas’s synagogue in the Bronx, who led a protest in Times Square involving concentration camp uniforms. Weiss declined to comment on the animated film distributed by Jonas before seeing it. But, Weiss said, in principle he did not object to presentations of The Passion, as long as they are handled in a sensitive manner.
NestFamily took a number of measures to avoid some of the problems with Gibson’s film. The animated production was supervised by a board of theologians, including Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that has raised millions of dollars for Israel from evangelicals. Eckstein declined to comment on the film or on his involvement in the board.
The cartoon features a preface stating that “Jewish life in the first century when these stories took place was very complex… Jesus and his disciples were, of course, Jews. So were righteous men like Rabbi Gamaliel.” The Anti-Defamation League had asked Gibson to include a postscript in his movie with a similar message after his film, but the Hollywood star refused.
The cartoon also leaves out one of the most controversial moments in Gibson’s film: The scene in which the chief rabbi, Caiaphas, says, “His blood be upon us.” The line, which is spoken in Aramaic but not subtitled in Gibson’s film, has been said to assign blame for Jesus’ death to the Jews in perpetuity.
Perhaps because of the fatigue from the controversy about Gibson’s film, the animated film received little notice since it was released. A brief mention in the Boston Herald warned only that “what may linger in young viewers’ minds are the shots of the Jewish mob clamoring for Jesus’ blood.”
The violence is mercifully attenuated from Gibson’s film. Only a few shots of lacerated skin are included. In the crucifixion scene, the shot turns away before the nail is driven through Jesus’ palm.