COVER STORY: Reason to worry Jews ready for passions to flare as Gibsons film debuts

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The images are everywhere; the hype is surging. Media pundits are talking, and many Jewish leaders are worried.

It will be on 2,000 screens nationwide Wednesday, Feb. 25, many handpicked by actor-producer Mel Gibson in neighborhoods with a high concentration of evangelical Christians.

Will the combination of Jesus and Gibson really poison Jewish-Christian relations? What impact will a motion picture about the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life in Aramaic and Latin, with English subtitles, have on global anti-Semitism?

Rarely has a film aroused as much fear as Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Rabbi Harry Manhoff of San Leandro’s Temple Beth Sholom, a scholar of the Christian Bible, puts it this way:

“Will some see it as the Jews killed Christ? Sure. Will it spark new anti-Semitism? No. Old anti-Semitism? Yes, but it doesn’t take much to do that. How will the film play in Europe? It will make a bad situation worse.”

Behind the media feeding-frenzy are the facts.

The delicate history of Jews and evangelical Christians, Jews and Catholics, and Gibson’s own relationship to Christianity all play into how the film will be received.

David Elcott, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, saw “The Passion” at one of the nation’s largest evangelical churches, in a Chicago suburb. The movie shows the Jews as a “mob, spitting, scratching, yelling, pummeling” at Jesus, “their faces contorted,” he said. “This movie is an assault on our commitment to interreligious dialogue and respect.”

Others in the Jewish community are putting a more positive spin on the situation. Rita Semel, executive vice chair of the San Francisco Interfaith Council and former executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, sees “The Passion” controversy as more of an opportunity than a threat.

“Catholics, Protestants and Muslims are not monolithic or homogenous communities, any more than Jews are,” said Semel, who chairs the global council of the S.F.-based United Religious Initiative. “Mel Gibson may have provided an educable moment … There is much work to be done on behalf of a bleeding world. Let us be about that work, not denying our differences but learning about them and giving others the understanding we want for ourselves.”

The source of concern may come down to a single scene or a single line in the film. Experts perceive the bottom-line risk of “The Passion” as reviving the classic “blood libel” that has been the grist of anti-Semitism for centuries. According to Christian accounts of Jesus’ death, a Jewish mob pleads with the Roman leader of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, to crucify Jesus and shouts, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”

That sentence, found only in the Gospel of Matthew, has been used historically to accuse the Jewish people of collective responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. That perception, in turn, has triggered extensive pogroms and discrimination for the better part of 2,000 years.

In the version of “The Passion” that Elcott and other Jewish leaders have seen, the accusatory line from Matthew is included. Jewish and Christian leaders alike have pleaded with Gibson to remove that line and include some kind of disclaimer at the end of the film, explaining that although a particular group of Jews may have played a role in Jesus’ death, it is inaccurate to extend that blame to all Jews. In 1965, the Vatican reformed its doctrines to renounce the idea of collective blame, in a declaration titled Nostra Aetate.

At press time, Gibson said the line would not appear in subtitles but would still be spoken in Aramaic in the film. It was unclear whether any kind of postscript would be part of the final edit.

Meanwhile, Christian groups, especially evangelicals, are engaging in a massive grassroots marketing campaign around the film. Analysts say the movie could take in $15 million to $30 million its first week. According to USA Today, online ticket retailer Fandango says 43 percent of its sales in early February were advance purchases of “The Passion.” Theater exhibitors, including AMC Entertainment and the Regal chain, report selling tickets in blocks of hundreds and thousands, mostly to churches. Gibson is also personally involving himself in the marketing of the film, from which he expects to make a profit.

According to ABC News, churches around the country were given a training session with a CD on how to use “The Passion.” In a satellite link-up with Gibson, the actor encouraged them to spread the word.

Such efforts raise the eyebrows of Jewish groups, whose relations with evangelicals have been marked with conflicts. Not only have Jews been frequent targets for conversion but the Jewish blood libel occasionally rears its head in evangelical Christian discourse. In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for active efforts to continue the conversion of Jews.

While relations have generally achieved greater harmony recently, galvanized by evangelical support for Israel, the marketing and distribution of “The Passion” creates an opportunity for retrograde attitudes to re-emerge.

According to Jonathan Bernstein, local director of the Anti-Defamation League, “A lot of well-intentioned, respectful Christian people aren’t seeing the problems this movie will cause. I think it will be worse when the film comes out.”

Even as conservative Protestant groups rush to embrace the film, much of the early support for it has centered on the Catholic Church, in which Gibson himself has returned to active participation.

The movie debuts at a sensitive period in Catholic-Jewish relations. It also reflects a larger struggle within the Catholic Church over whether to continue promoting 39-year-old reforms that include renouncing the notion of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion, an issue Gibson apparently brings to the silver screen.

“Tied loosely to the film, there is enormous concern on both sides” of the Catholic-Jewish divide “about which direction the church will be going in the post-John Paul II era,” said Rabbi Eugene Korn, a Seton Hall adjunct professor and longtime interfaith advocate.

Some encouraging interfaith signs recently surfaced in New York, where the World Jewish Congress hosted a two-day gathering that brought together 12 cardinals and six chief rabbis from nations as diverse as Angola and Ukraine with a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars.

World Jewish Congress Chairman Israel Singer said that the conference helped “institutionalize” contacts that have warmed ever since the Vatican’s 1965 reforms.

Bitter reviews of “The Passion” from some Jewish leaders warn, however, that the film’s rejection of those reforms could set back whatever progress has been made between the two faiths.

One of the most striking comments came from the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, who spoke to The New Yorker after viewing a rough print.

“The film can fuel, trigger, stimulate, induce, rationalize, legitimize anti-Semitism,” Foxman said.

Foxman has qualified his remarks to indicate that he does not think that Gibson or the film as a whole is explicitly anti-Semitic. His concerns stem from specific scenes and from perceptions of the film, which could be manipulated to anti-Semitic ends.

The ADL leader’s remarks also have been tempered somewhat by other rabbis and Jewish leaders who have seen versions of the film at previews Gibson’s associates staged, which largely preached to the converted — evangelicals and political conservatives.

Orthodox Rabbi Daniel Lapin, of the Jewish-evangelical Christian alliance Toward Tradition, came out with a strong rebuttal to the concerns of Foxman and others. On Toward Tradition’s Web site, Lapin said: “Those Jewish organizations that have squandered both time and money futilely protesting ‘Passion,’ ostensibly in order to prevent pogroms in Pittsburgh, can hardly be proud of their performance. They failed at everything they attempted.”

No matter what Jewish pundits are thinking, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, hopes the film will allow the local Christian community “to be reminded of the real sensitivities in the Jewish community to the way Passion plays have historically fueled anti-Semitism at a time when our community has seen a rise in anti-Semitic sentiments.”

Meanwhile, even as Catholic officials met with rabbis in New York, and the pope met with two top Israeli rabbis in early February, another dispute erupted over whether the pope himself endorsed the movie.

A Wall Street Journal columnist was the first to report that one of the film’s producers succeeded in getting a copy of the movie to the pontiff, who viewed it and, according to an unnamed Vatican source, said, “It is as it was.”

Other reports echoed that account, but a senior Vatican aide to the pontiff later dismissed the report, saying the pope “does not give judgments on art.”

The role of the Catholic Church in “The Passion” controversy is complicated by Gibson’s own relationship to the faith. In an ABC interview with Diane Sawyer televised on Monday, Feb. 16, Gibson said that after hitting a point of “spiritual bankruptcy,” he turned to the Gospels and was inspired to make “The Passion.”

The actor-director belongs to an offshoot of standard Catholicism called the Traditionalists, religious conservatives who reject the Vatican’s 1965 reforms, say Mass in Latin and have an ambiguous relationship with the papacy in general.

Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is a leader in the movement and has made statements that are anti-Semitic and that deny the Holocaust. According to The New York Times, the elder Gibson has also said he doubts the role of al-Qaida in the 9/11 terror attacks.

The younger Gibson has drawn criticism from the Jewish community for minimizing the particularity of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust during a Reader’s Digest interview with Peggy Noonan.

“War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century 20 million people died in the Soviet Union.”

In his interview with Sawyer, however, Gibson seemed to modify his position: “It was an atrocity of monumental proportion.”

Gibson appeared on the show with Maia Morgenstern, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, who portrays Mary in the film. Wearing a prominent Star of David, she voiced her support for Gibson, saying that she didn’t find the film to be anti-Semitic.

With all of these factors in play before the release of the movie, the controversy boils down to how Gibson will respond to pleas by Jewish and other religious leaders to film a postscript to “The Passion.”

Whether the controversy vaporizes or boils over will be unclear until showtime, Wednesday, Feb. 25.

Jay Schwartz is a staff writer for j. and Joe Berkofsky is a staff writer for JTA.

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