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Op-Ed

Why 'The Passion' Still Troubles Me

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on December 30, 2004

It is now some 10 months since Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" opened in the United States, and a week since its opening in Israel.

It is a good time to look back at the controversy surrounding the movie, which may be revived surrounding the lead-up to the February Oscar Awards.

We need to distinguish between the movie itself and its impact.

In its depiction of Jews and how it attempts to turn back the clock on the many positive changes the Catholic Church has made in the last half-century, the film could not have been worse.

Gibson not only blames the Jews for the persecution and death of Jesus, but along the way he plays into and reinforces the stereotypes of Jews that have haunted our people for two millennia.

At the core of anti-Semitism, and what makes it different from other forms of ethnic or religious hatred, is the image of the Jew as alien, conspiratorial and mystically all-powerful.

This is the thinking behind medieval charges of Jews poisoning the wells and causing the plague, of the infamous Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, of Hitler's and Goebbels' propaganda.

In his depiction of the Jews as representing the devil, as being more powerful, somehow, than the Romans themselves, Gibson is doing exactly what the Vatican has been trying to get away from.

This is no accident since he is well known for opposing the major changes in Catholic teaching that emerged from the historic Vatican II meetings in the 1960s.

Gibson may well have the modern Vatican as his primary target but, as is often the case, the Jews pay the price.

So the film is what is.

I think it is useful for Jews, including in Israel, to see the film – despite the understandable feeling of not wanting to contribute to Gibson's overflowing coffers.

Only by viewing it can one understand how offensive it is.

As to its impact, I never predicted that the film would lead to pogroms, of which I have nevertheless been accused.

I did express serious concern – especially at a time when anti-Semitism in the world was surging and where even in the United States one quarter of Americans held Jews accountable for the death of Jesus – that Gibson's movie would reinforce and rationalize old views about Jews that legitimize anti-Semitism.

I am thankful that there were few anti-Semitic incidents in America following viewings. It is rare, particularly in the US, where people are bombarded with untold numbers of cultural images, for any one event to set off bigoted or violent behavior.

The truth is that American attitudes toward Jews have significantly improved. Still, as I repeatedly said throughout the 1990s, when many people were challenging ADL's continuing focus on anti-Semitism as a potential threat, there is no reason to be complacent.

It has been said that Gibson's film represents the greatest tool for evangelization that has ever existed. Indeed, more people will see it than all the passion plays from the Middle Ages to today.

With the release of the DVD, potentially millions of schoolchildren will – through the years – be exposed to the film's vile notions of Jews surrounding the death of Jesus.

Should attitudes toward Jews harden, which has happened before, the impact of the film could play a part.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of American clergymen chose not to speak out about the way Jews were depicted. I understand the reluctance to criticize a movie which deals with Christianity's sacred event, but I am far less patient with the absence of empathy for Jewish distress considering the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

Ironically, Europeans and Arabs, each in their own way, were more direct about the movie than Americans, who tended to deny any anti-Jewish element. German and French clergy, for example, were opposed to the movie's showing because they said it revives the old scapegoating of Jews.

In the Arab world, which is now being inundated with classic anti-Jewish images, the reaction was: Christians, we told you so. Now you see again what the Jews are about.

It's much like what Syrian President Bashar Assad said with the pope at his side in Damascus several years ago: Christians and Muslims both should see what the Jews are, from their treatment of Palestinians and from their role in the death of the Christian savior.

Finally, I have no regrets about speaking up about the dangers of this film because when faced with these kinds of images, we must not stay silent.

For the record: Before speaking publicly, I spent months trying to get Gibson to consider making changes that would have still enabled him to make a powerful film about the death of Jesus, without blackening the Jews.

Only when Gibson made it clear that he was not interested in such sensitivities and claimed that he was simply telling it like it was did I conclude there was no option but to speak openly.

It was not my public statements that led to the movie's spectacular box-office success, but Gibson's marketing campaign and the evangelical community's missionizing zeal to have it seen by millions.

In the final analysis, we as a people are better off standing up to hate than doing nothing.

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The truth is that American attitudes toward Jews have significantly improved. Still, as I repeatedly said throughout the 1990s, when many people were challenging ADL's continuing focus on anti-Semitism as a potential threat, there is no reason to be complacent.

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