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Protesting Gibson’s Passion Lacks Moral Legitimacy
by Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Toward Tradition
26 September 2003Rappi Daniel Lapin

Surely Jewish organizations would carry just a little more moral authority if they routinely protested all attacks on faith, not only those troubling to Judaism.

Never has a film aroused such hostile passion so long prior to its release as has Mel Gibson’s Passion. Many American Jews are alarmed by reports of what they view as potentially anti-Semitic content in this movie about the death of Jesus, which is due to be released during 2004. Clearly the crucifixion of Jesus is a sensitive topic, but prominent Christians who previewed it, including good friends like James Dobson and Michael Novak who have always demonstrated acute sensitivity to Jewish concerns, see it as a religiously inspiring movie, and refute charges that it is anti-Semitic. While most Jews are wisely waiting to see the film before responding, others are either prematurely condemning a movie they have yet to see or violating the confidentiality agreements they signed with Icon Productions.

As an Orthodox rabbi with a wary eye on Jewish history which has an ominous habit of repeating itself, I fear that these protests, well intentioned though some may be, are a mistake. I believe those who publicly protest Mel Gibson’s film lack moral legitimacy. What is more, I believe their actions are not only wrong but even recklessly ill-advised and shockingly imprudent. I address myself to all my fellow Jews when I say that your interests are not being served by many of those organizations and self appointed defenders who claim to be acting on your behalf. Just ask yourself who most jeopardizes Jewish safety today, Moslems or Christians?

For an explanation of why I believe that those Jews protesting Passion lack moral legitimacy we must take ourselves back in time to the fall of 1999. That was when Arnold Lehman, the Jewish director of the Brooklyn Museum presented a show called Sensation. It featured, from the collection of British Jew Charles Saatchi, several works which debased Catholicism, including Chris Ofili's dung-bedecked Madonna.

You may wonder why I highlight the Jewish ethnicity of the players in the Brooklyn Museum saga. My reason for doing so is that everyone else recognized that they were Jewish and there is merit in us knowing how we ourselves appear in the eyes of those among whom we live. This is especially true on those sad occasions when we violate what ancient Jewish wisdom commends as the practice of Kiddush HaShem, which is to say, conducting our public affairs in a way best calculated to bring credit upon us as a group. Maintaining warm relations with our non-Jewish friends is a traditional Jewish imperative and the raison d'être of the organization I serve, Toward Tradition.

This was not the first time that Arnold Lehman had chosen to offend Catholics. While he was director of the Baltimore Museum, in a display of gross insensitivity to that city’s Catholics, he screened Hell's Angel, a film denouncing Mother Teresa as a religious extremist and depicting her in obscenely uncomplimentary and ghoulish terms. I am sorry to have to tell you that no Jewish organizations protested this gratuitous insult of a universally respected Catholic icon.

Almost every Christian organization angrily denounced the vile bigotry sponsored by the Brooklyn Museum. Especially prominent was William Donohue, president of The Catholic League, a good friend who has always stood firmly with Jews in the fight against genuine anti-Semitism, yet now, in his fight against anti-Catholicism, he appealed to Jewish organizations in vain. Almost every Christian denomination helped vigorously protest the assault that the Brooklyn Museum carried out against the Catholic faith in such graphically abhorrent ways. Even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani expressed his outrage by trying to withhold money from the museum. Where was the Jewish expression of solidarity against such ugliness? Only a small group of Orthodox Jews joined their fellow Americans in protest at this literal defilement of Christianity with elephant feces. And were other Jews silent? No, unfortunately not. In actuality a small but disproportionately vocal number of them were defending the Brooklyn Museum and its director in the name of artistic freedom.

Here are a few of the names that were prominently defending the Brooklyn Museum’s flagrant anti-Christianism during fall 1999. Norman Siegel and Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Steven R. Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union, and lawyer Floyd Abrams, cousin of Elliot Abrams who holds the position of top advisor on Israel related matters in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Although at synagogues and around dinner tables revulsion at the Sensation exhibit was widespread, not very many Jews publicly supported our Catholic friends in the time of their pain.

You may also remember Martin Scorsese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. Then too almost every Christian denomination protested Universal’s release of a movie so slanderous that had it been made about Moses, or say, Martin Luther King Junior, it would have provoked howls of anger from the entire country. As it was, Christians were left to defend their faith quite alone other than for one solitary courageous Jew, Dennis Prager. Most Americans knew that Universal was run by Lew Wasserman. Most Americans also knew Lew’s ethnicity. Perhaps many now wonder why Mel Gibson is not entitled to the same artistic freedom we accorded Lew Wasserman?

When the Weinstein brothers, through their Miramax films (named after their parents, Mira and Max Weinstein), distributed Priest in 1994, Catholics were again left to protest this unflattering depiction of their faith alone while many Jewish organizations proclaimed the primacy of artistic freedom. Surely Jewish organizations would carry just a little more moral authority if they routinely protested all attacks on faith, not only those troubling to Judaism.

Oddly enough, Jewish organizations did find one movie so offensive as to warrant protest. It was Disney’s Aladdin that was considered, by a Jewish organization, to be needlessly offensive to Arabs! It makes no sense at all for Jews to make a big fuss about a gentle lampooning of Arabia in a cartoon, while ignoring intentional and hurtful insults in major movies against the Christians who have demonstrated genuine friendship toward us.

Now I do have one possible explanation for why one might consider it more important to protest Passion. It is this: in Europe, anti-Semitic slander frequently resulted in Catholic mobs killing Jews. Our hyper-sensitivity has a long and painful background of real tragedy. In any event, Jewish moral prestige would stand taller if we were conspicuous in protesting movies that defame any religion. Furthermore, opponents of Passion argue that this movie might cause a backlash against the Jewish community. Yet when so-called art really does encourage violence, for Jewish spokesmen, artistic freedom seems to trump all other concerns. Here is what I mean.

During the nineties, record companies run by well known executives, including Michael Fuchs, Gerald Levin, and David Geffen, produced obscene records by artists like Geto Boys and Ice-T that advocated killing policemen and raping and murdering women. In spite of Congressional testimony showing that these songs really did influence teenage behavior, only William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker, head of the National Political Congress of Black Women, protested Time Warner. During that decade of shockingly hateful music that incited violence, our Jewish organizations only protested Michael Jackson’s song “They Don’t Care About Us” and the rap group Public Enemy’s single "Swindler's Lust," claiming that these songs were anti-Semitic. It is ignoble to ignore the wrongs done to others while loudly deploring those done to us.

In truth, however, even though Catholics did kill Jews in Europe, I do not believe that the often sad history of Jews in Europe is relevant now. Why not? Because in Europe, Catholic church officials wielded a rapacious combination of ecclesiastical and political power with which they frequently incited illiterate mobs to acts of anti-Jewish violence. In America, no clergyman secures political power along with his ordination certificate, and in America, if there are illiterate and dangerous thugs, Christianity is a cure not the cause. In America, few Jews have ever been murdered, mugged, robbed, or raped by Christians returning home from church on Sunday morning. America is history’s most philo-Semitic country, providing the most hospitable home for Jews in the past two thousand years. Suggesting equivalency between American Christians today and those of European history is to be offensive and ungrateful. Quite frankly, if it is appropriate to blame today’s American Christians for the sins of past Europeans, why isn’t it okay to blame today’s Jews for things that our ancestors may have done? Clearly both are wrong and doing so harms our relationships with one of the few groups still friendly toward us today. Jewish groups that fracture friendship between Christians and Jews are performing no valuable service to American Jews.

In any event, Jewish organizations protesting Passion are remarkably selective in their ire. It is so bizarre that the new movie Luther, which champions someone who was surely one of history’s most eloquent anti-Semites, gets a free pass from our self-appointed Jewish guardians. Only Gibson is evil, is that right?

Again, why would the soon to be released new movie, The Gospel of John, be utterly immune to the censoring tactics of certain Jewish organizations? After all, the soundtrack includes virtually every word of the Gospel, including the most unflattering descriptions of Jewish priests and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, along with implications of their complicity in the Crucifixion, yet not a peep of Jewish organizational protest. Could their conspicuous silence possibly have anything to do with the ethnicity of the producers of The Gospel of John? These include Garth Drabinsky, Sandy Pearl, Joel Michaels, Myron Gottleib, and Martin Katz. So if Jews quote the Gospel it is art but if Mel Gibson does the same, it is anti-Semitism? The Talmudic distinction eludes me. It probably eludes most Christians too.

These protests against Passion are not only morally indefensible, but they are also stupid, for three reasons. The first reason is that they are unlikely to change the outcome of the film. Mr. Gibson is an artist and a Catholic of deep faith of which this movie is an expression. By all accounts, his motive in making this movie was not commercial. In addition, anyone who saw his Braveheart would suspect that Mel Gibson profoundly identified with the hero of that epic, who allowed himself to be violently disemboweled rather than betray his principles. Does anyone really believe that Gibson is likely to yield to threats from Jewish organizations? Do any Jews actually believe they are going to prevent millions of Christians from seeing this movie? I don’t think Jews should see this movie; it isn’t about our religion. However the millions of Christians who do see it will find themselves profoundly moved and uplifted by it.

The second and more important reason I consider these protests to be ill-advised. While Jews are telling Gibson that his movie contradicts historical records about who really killed Jesus, Vatican Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos has this to say:

Mr. Gibson has had to make many artistic choices in the way he portrays the characters and the events involved in the Passion, and he has complemented the Gospel narrative with the insights and reflections made by saints and mystics through the centuries. Mel Gibson not only closely follows the narrative of the Gospels, giving the viewer a new appreciation for those Biblical passages, but his artistic choices also make the film faithful to the meaning of the Gospels, as understood by the Church.

Do we really want to open up the Pandora’s Box of suggesting that any faith may demand the removal of material that it finds offensive from the doctrines of any other faith? Do we really want to return to those dark times when Catholic authorities attempted to strip from the Talmud those passages that they found offensive? Some of my Jewish readers may feel squeamish about my alluding to the existence of Talmudic passages uncomplimentary toward Jesus as well as descriptive of Jewish involvement in his crucifixion. However the truth is that anyone with Internet access can easily locate those passages in about ten seconds. I think it far better that in the name of genuine Jewish-Christian friendship in America, we allow all faiths their own beliefs even if we find those beliefs troubling or at odds with our own beliefs. This way we can all prosper safely under the constitutional protection of the United States of America.

Finally I believe the attacks on Mel Gibson are a mistake because while they may be in the interests of Jewish organizations who raise money with the specter of anti-Semitism, and while they may be in the interests of Jewish journalists at the New York Times and elsewhere who are trying to boost their careers, they are most decidedly not in the interests of most American Jews who go about their daily lives in comfortable harmony with their Christian fellow citizens. You see, many Christians see all this as attacks not just on Mel Gibson alone or as mere critiques of a movie, but with some justification in my view, they see them as attacks against all Christians. This is not so different from the way most people react to attack. We Jews usually feel that we have all been attacked even when only a few of us suffer assault on account of our faith.

Right now, the most serious peril threatening Jews, and indeed perhaps all of western civilization, is Islamic fundamentalism. In this titanic twenty-first century struggle that links Washington, DC with Jerusalem, our only steadfast allies have been Christians. In particular, those Christians that most ardently defend Israel and most reliably denounce anti-Semitism, happen to be those Christians most fervently committed to their faith. Jewish interests are best served by fostering friendship with Christians rather than cynically eroding them. Rejecting flagrant anti-Christianism on the part of Jews claiming to be acting on our behalf would be our wisest course as a community. Doing so would have one other advantage: it would also be doing the right thing.

Radio talk show host, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward Tradition, America’s leading bridge-builder; spanning the divide between Christians and Jews by sculpting ancient solutions to modern problems in areas of family, faith, and fortune.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin is President of Toward Tradition, America's leading bridge-builder; spanning the divide between Christians and Jews by sculpting ancient solutions to modern solutions to modern problems in areas of family, faith, and fortune.

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