Fuss over Passion fuels growing war of words in France

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paris | When distributors across Europe announced dates for premiere screenings of “The Passion of the Christ,” one country was noticeably absent from the list.

Despite breaking some box-office marks in its first five days in the United States, the film could find no distributor initially in France. Word quickly spread that the country’s Jewish community was seeking to prevent the film from being shown.

The allegations proved to be unfounded and the film will premiere in Paris in April to coincide with the Easter holiday.

But talk of a highly influential Jewish lobby intent on censoring material has suddenly become a subject of legitimate debate.

Indeed, such accusations did not abate even when it became clear that major distributors in France were prevented from seeing an advance of the film by its producers, Icon, who appear to have utilized a premeditated marketing strategy to raise the film’s profile in advance of its premiere.

The spat over Mel Gibson’s film — which a number of American Jewish organizations have accused of fomenting anti-Semitism — follows a similar debate over a well-known French comedian currently facing charges of racial incitement after he performed an allegedly anti-Semitic sketch on live, prime-time television.

In an episode of the popular talk show “You Can’t Please Everybody” last December, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala entered the TV studio dressed as a fervently religious Jew, and then made a number of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel comments. He then exited to the word “Israheil” accompanied by a Hitler salute.

Since the sketch, and further comments by the comic describing Jewish leaders as “slave-traders converted into bankers,” Dieudonne has been virtually unable to perform in France.

In addition, French-speaking venues in Belgium and Switzerland have also been reluctant to allow him to take the stage.

Initially, a number of Jewish organizations were behind calls to boycott the comic while the president of Likud France, Alex Moise, publicly admitted that he had influenced the cancellation of one of Dieudonne’s shows at the coastal resort of Deauville in northern France.

Within a few weeks, Dieudonne appearances were canceled at other French venues. Although the comic did go ahead with a performance in Lyon, the event was interrupted when protesters poured acid on the stage.

That act led to a highly publicized cancellation at the Olympia Theater in Paris last month after the theater said it could not guarantee the safety of its staff and audience.

Taken together, the rows over “The Passion” and the Dieudonne affair have drawn widespread criticism. Some French media outlets have come close to labeling the disputes as Jewish attacks on freedom of speech.

In an editorial in the leading daily Le Figaro, Michel Schifres wrote that France, a “Christian land and secular nation,” was doubly confronted by “an attack on freedom of expression.”

While Dieudonne was unable to perform “not for lack of public but by a ban,” Gibson’s film was prevented “not by indifference but by a fault in distribution,” he said.

Perhaps of more concern to Jews in France has been a recent tendency to satirize claims of anti-Semitism, as if the community were complaining too often and picking the wrong targets.

That was exemplified earlier this month when the country’s most popular satire show led one of its episodes with a puppet representing a Portuguese building worker offering comments on Israel’s West Bank security fence.

The comments were followed by a news-presenter puppet saying that the show had chosen the Portuguese worker because anti-Portuguese racism was OK while the show would have been accused of anti-Semitism if it had depicted a Palestinian instead.

Some Jewish commentators have encouraged Jewish organizations to tread carefully in order to avoid inspiring anti-Semitism.

Both the movie and the Dieudonne ban at the Olympia Theater had “a common denominator, anti-Semitism,” wrote Elisabeth Schemla, editor and founder of the online news site www.proche-orient.info.

But that was not all they had in common, she said, because in both cases, French Jewish organizations had gone “blow for blow” with their aggressors and had won.

This pointed to an efficient and new “Jewish lobby,” Schemla wrote.

Nevertheless, even though these efforts by the French Jewish community have been successful in influencing people, they do not always appear to be winning friends in the process.

Schemla further implied that this newly vocal pressure group should be careful not to incur a backlash by overstepping “the line between the tolerable and the intolerable.”

Recent failures to stop Dieudonne, however, have not persuaded Jewish organizations from joining the call to prevent the showing of a pro-Palestinian film entitled “Route 181” at a film festival in Paris this week.

Those calls have been largely successful. The organizers of the festival at the Centre Pompidou cut a number of showings, citing fears of public order disturbances.

In a statement, the center said that not only would it be showing the film just once, but it would also be handing out leaflets during the performance to explain the dangers “of only presenting a single, unilateral viewpoint.”