`Passion' sparks promise, protest

Film: Divisions over interpretation begin to crop up within the Christian and Jewish communities.

February 22, 2004|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

To Abraham H. Foxman, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ is a potentially dangerous film that threatens to incite anti-Semitism from Buenos Aires to Riyadh.

"At every single opportunity, Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion," the national director of the Anti-Defamation League has said.

But to Michael Medved, the problem is not Gibson's film, but the reaction of Jewish leaders like Foxman.

"Attacking Mel Gibson publicly was a lose-lose situation," said Medved, a conservative radio talk show host, Orthodox Jew and longtime film critic. "If on the one hand, you succeed in discrediting him and his movie, there are indeed millions of people who are going to hate and resent you. If, on the other hand, you don't succeed, then you have shown the Jewish community to look irrelevant or impotent."

Publicity surrounding The Passion, which opens in 2,800 theaters Wednesday, has undoubtedly divided many Jews and Christians. But the film has also exposed differences within each faith that transcend the issue of who bears ultimate responsibility for the death of Jesus.

For some Jews, the movie raises difficult questions about the threat of anti-Semitism, the best way to combat it and the role of religion in public life.

The film has divided Christians as well. Worried that it could damage Jewish-Christian relations, some church leaders are holding interfaith forums. Meanwhile, evangelicals are embracing The Passion as an unprecedented spiritual marketing tool.

Early controversy

The issue emerged last year, long before the movie's release. A panel of interfaith scholars obtained a script for The Passion and voiced concern that the film could rekindle the age-old charge that the Jews killed Christ - a theme in medieval Passion plays traditionally used to incite violence against Jews.

Gibson fired back, claiming the script had been stolen, and threatened a lawsuit. He ultimately forced an apology from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had overseen the panel.

Although Jewish leaders have been careful not to call the film or Gibson anti-Semitic, the Anti-Defamation League said The Passion could be used to incite hatred of Jews in parts of the world - particularly Europe and the Middle East - where anti-Semitism is on the rise.

Within the Jewish community, however, a small but vocal group criticized this approach as an overreaction that played right into Gibson's hands. How else, they ask, could a movie in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles rate a Hollywood-blockbuster opening with a projected five-day gross of as much as $40 million.

"The Jewish response heretofore has been one of panic, and I really do think that in many respects it was counterproductive," said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who lives in Israel and is the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. "The reaction gave far, far more publicity to this movie than would otherwise be the case."

`No apologies'

Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior inter-religious adviser to the American Jewish Committee and critic of The Passion, disputes that assessment. He insists Gibson's name alone would have given the film plenty of box office muscle. Had Jewish groups not expressed concern, Rudin says, fellow Jews would have accused them of shirking their duties.

"I have no apologies for anything I've done," Rudin said. "This was being pumped up before Jews ever heard about it."

Rudin says part of the disagreement in the Jewish community is driven by cultural politics and theological differences. Some politically conservative Jews see evangelical Christians as allies on issues of morality and share a desire to see faith - Christian or Jewish - play a more central role in public life.

"It's a mirror image of the Culture War," said Rudin, referring to the Jewish community.

Medved agrees. In addition to criticizing the Anti-Defamation League's approach to The Passion, Medved opposes the group's support for gay rights and abortion rights. Those positions, he says, alienate Christian conservatives, who are among Israel's strongest defenders.

"The Anti-Defamation League has come too frequently to identify Jewish interests with liberal interests," said Medved, whose nationally syndicated radio program reaches 154 cities. "For many Jews who are traditionally observant, it's obvious that we feel more common ground on issues such as gay marriage with some of our evangelical neighbors than we do with some of our Reform Jewish brothers and sisters."

Anti-Semitism doubted

Even those concerned about the film's historical and theological accuracy doubt that people will use it to spur anti-Semitism. One of them is Alan F. Segal, a professor of Jewish studies at Barnard College who consulted on the recent film The Gospel of John, a literal rendering of that New Testament text.

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