Stunned silence followed last week's screening of Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ for a gathering of Christian leaders at the Calvary Assembly in Orlando.
As the lights came up, the silence was etched with stifled sobs and tears. The 3,000 Christian pastors, leaders, students and others who attended the preview of the film's graphic portrayal of the events leading up to the Crucifixion were visibly moved by the images that brought them closer than they may ever have been to bearing witness to the Passion of Jesus.
We were among those gathered in that audience, but as Jews familiar with the long and painful history of Passion Plays over nearly 2,000 years of persecution and pogroms against our people, our reactions to the film differed considerably. Our reactions were tinged with feelings of anger, disappointment and pain.
By all appearances, Mr. Gibson has moved ahead with his plans to base his film based on the traditional Passion Play narrative that blames Jews for the killing of Jesus. For those who will see this film, the poisonous accusation that the Jews were responsible for the killing of Jesus will be unambiguous and clear.
Mr. Gibson has produced his film with willful disregard for the opinions and outreach efforts of mainstream Jewish organizations and many Catholic and Jewish scholars. These mainstream religious leaders have continued to express concern about the impact of the film and its potential to turn back the clock on decades of positive interfaith dialogue and the Vatican II Council reforms of the Catholic Church. Their concerns, and ours, have gone unheeded.
If Mr. Gibson's Passion reaches theaters as scheduled on Feb. 25 in its present form, with its clear placing of blame for deicide on Jews, the ramifications of this film will reach far beyond Hollywood, with the potential to adversely affect years of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations and the possibility that it will fuel new anti-Semitism.
As an artist, Mr. Gibson has every right to present to the world his religious vision. In his statements to the press and public forums, Mr. Gibson has indicated that he is attempting to present an accurate and authentic rendering of the New Testament narrative of the final 12 hours of the life of Jesus.
While Mr. Gibson relies on the Synoptic Gospels and John, he has filled in the lacunae with images and scenes that come from extra-biblical sources. His characters quote texts that were not used in that age, and his version rejects modern critical biblical scholarship. Historically, Passion Plays often were used as ways to teach the tenets of Christian faith. In doing so, they often have pitted Jesus against the forces of evil and the Jewish community that rejected him. Passion plays historically unleashed the torrents of hatred aimed at the Jews, who always were depicted as being in partnership with the devil and the reason for Jesus' death.
In Mr. Gibson's film, there is absolutely no ambiguity as to who is responsible for the death of Jesus -- it is the Jews. Roman soldiers are seen bribing Jews to come out en masse to his trial by the Sanhedrin, in the Jewish Temple and at night.
Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, calls for Jesus' death time and time again, and all the Jews (literally hundreds and hundreds) rally behind this cry. The compassionately portrayed Pontius Pilate does not want to harm Jesus, but the Jewish high priest, supported by the crowd of Jews, time and time again calls for Jesus' crucifixion.
Throughout more than two hours of brutal and bloody footage, only a handful of Jesus' followers shows any compassion. The Jews are portrayed continually as bloodthirsty and vengeful. Love and compassion are demonstrated by the Romans -- only a few sadistic Romans harm Jesus and only because the Jews made Pilate punish him.
Unfortunately, in order to see this film, which was billed as a rough cut (with only four weeks to go before its premiere), we had to go through stealth, as paid registrants to the conference and not as Mr. Gibson's invited guests. Our repeated attempts to view the film and quietly offer suggestions, including those offered by a group of seven Christian and Jewish scholars after reading an earlier script, have been rebuffed repeatedly by Mr. Gibson and his production company.
What we saw makes a mockery of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. What we saw negated the work of caring and dedicated people who have worked over decades to correct the misunderstandings and enmity of the past 1,900 years.
Given the history of Passion Plays in stirring violence and killing of Jews throughout centuries of persecution, the question arises: Will there be pogroms because of this film? We don't believe so. Our concern is that The Passion of The Christ could fuel the latent anti-Semitism that exists in the hearts of those people who hold Jews responsible for the death of Jesus, which always has been the source of Western anti-Semitism.
And while the film may be understood by viewers in the context of the wider discussion and controversy it has provoked in this country, we are also greatly concerned about how the film's portrayals of Jews will be received abroad, in Paris or Madrid, in Buenos Aires or Cairo, and in other regions of the world where the film may reach audiences already deeply infected with the disease of anti-Semitism.
There is still time for Mr. Gibson to change the way he is marketing this film so that it can be portrayed honestly as his own personal religious vision and not "historically accurate."
Regardless of which direction he chooses, mainstream Jewish leaders remain willing to continue the work of more than these past 40 years with our Christian partners to promote understanding and encourage dialogue and bring about a positive atmosphere free of the taint of anti-Semitism.