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
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
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.
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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
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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