ADL and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

January 02, 2013

Q. What is the basis for ADL's concerns about Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"?

A. We first learned about Mr. Gibson's plans to make a film based on the final hours of Jesus' life in a New York Times Magazine article that appeared in February 2003. An early version of the script was shared with us. In August 2003, an ADL representative saw a rough cut in Houston. On January 21, we saw a version of the film at a screening in Orlando, Florida. We had hoped to see the film at Mr. Gibson's invitation, but we have had our requests denied, so we viewed it at a pastors' convention, at which Mr. Gibson was present.

Q. What was your impression of the film?

A. This film, which was theatrically released in the U.S. on Ash Wednesday, February 25, 2004, contains the same problematic aspects as earlier versions. We were saddened and pained to find that "The Passion of the Christ" continues its unambiguous portrayal of Jews as being responsible for the death of Jesus. There is no question in this film about who is responsible. At every single opportunity, Mr. Gibson's film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion.

Q. ADL has said the film could fuel anti-Semitism. How so?

A. We fear the consequences of this film. There will be many people who are not so familiar with the Gospel narratives and might believe that everything they see on the film derives directly from the New Testament. Much of what is on the screen is Mr. Gibson's artistic vision and finds its genesis in extra-Biblical sources. We are also concerned about those who already are disposed unfavorably toward Jews and will use this to fan the flames of hatred.

Q. Mel Gibson has stated that many people are calling him an anti-Semite. What is ADL's position?

A. ADL and its representatives have never accused Mr. Gibson of being an anti-Semite. We do not know what is in his heart. We only know what he has put on the movie screen. The images there show Romans who behave with compassion toward Jesus. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, constantly expresses his reticence to harm Jesus. The Jews, on the other hand, are depicted as blood-thirsty. The Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, is shown as bullying Pilate, and the hundreds and hundreds of amassed Jews demanding Jesus' death.

Q. Is the film faithful to the Bible and accepted Christian teachings?

A. The script is based upon the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and John. But in order to weave together the story, these different texts must be harmonized and holes in the story must be filled in. The Biblical text tries to project a story of faith, but some of the narratives also reflect the growing schism between the Church and the Jewish people. Modern scholars have taught that the Gospel narratives must be taught responsibly. Since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960's the Catholic Church has taught that the Jews of Jesus' time, as well as the Jews of today cannot be held responsible for the death of Jesus.

Q. Are Jewish fears about the film exaggerated? After all, it is only a movie.

A. It has been said that Mr. Gibson's film represents the greatest tool for evangelization that has ever existed. Indeed, more people will see this film than all the Passion Plays from the Middle Ages to today. It is not just the film in movie theatres that has raised our concern, but the market for DVD copies (no doubt with additional footage and deleted scenes). These will be shown in youth gatherings, religious schools and other places without regard to modern scholarship and teachings. Further, we are concerned about the film's impact in Europe, South America and the Middle East, places where anti-Semitism already exists.

As anti-Semitism increases around the globe, many are using the age-old deicide charge to legitimize and foment hatred against Jews. Our concerns have already become an excuse for an outpouring of anti-Semitism. Since going public with our concerns about the film, ADL and other Jewish organizations have been flooded with hate-filled e-mails, letters and phone calls.

Q. Have you tried to discuss this with Mel Gibson?

A. We have repeatedly tried to reach out to discuss this with Mr. Gibson and Icon Productions, without success.

Q. Who else shares ADL's objections?

A. The concerns are shared by responsible Catholic, Protestant and Jewish theologians, clergy and citizens. A committee of nine Jewish and Catholic scholars studied an early screenplay and unanimously found it to be historically inaccurate, unfaithful to the gospel narratives and to project a uniformly negative picture of Jews. Mr. Gibson and his Icon Productions were aware of and approved of the script study until they received its conclusions.

Q. Did ADL try to censor Mel Gibson

A. ADL never tried to "censor" the movie. We had requested a process similar to successful projects on the Oberammergau Passion Play and other sensitive artistic productions. ADL urged Mr. Gibson and Icon Productions to consult with interfaith professionals and New Testament experts to ensure a historically accurate and theologically responsible depiction of the crucifixion that is devoid of anti-Semitic dimensions. We asked Mr. Gibson to assume sensitivity and moral responsibility, which are obligations of all good people, and particularly artists who influence many around the world.

Q. Would you ever consider an organized boycott of the the film?

A. ADL does not engage in, nor does it support, boycotts under any circumstances. This policy is informed by the use of boycotts throughout history against the Jewish people and Israel. ADL believes that it can best promote change and raise awareness through making our voice heard.

Q. Is ADL trying to prevent Christians from telling the central story of Christianity?

A. Not at all. The story of the Passion can be told without disparaging the Jewish people. Such an account is mandated by the Catholic Church as a result of the Second Vatican Council, which in 1965 repudiated both the deicide charge and all forms of anti-Semitism in its document, Nostra Aetate. Most Protestant churches followed suit, and since 1965 Christians have worked cooperatively with Jews to correct anti-Semitic interpretations within Christian theology. Aside from theological considerations, artists have a moral and social responsibility to avoid promoting material that may foster hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism.

Q. What can people do to counter the dangerous effects of anti-Semitic interpretations of passion stories?

A. In light of the controversy that the movie has raised, an effective way to counter its toxic effect is for Jews and Christians in communities around the country to cooperate by educating each other on the biblical history and interpretations accepted by the Catholic and Protestant churches that are free of any anti-Semitic elements.

Q. Is the controversy over the film part of the ideological culture war going on in America?

A. The issues raised by the movie should not pit Jews vs. Christians, liberals vs. conservatives, or secularists vs. religious people. The core issues are whether the movie inaccurately and unjustly portrays Jews as evil, responsible for the crucifixion, and whether such a depiction will re-stimulate old anti-Semitic stereotypes and hatred. The division is between those who want to prevent possible anti-Semitism and prejudice from occurring and those who seem callous to the dangers that the movie may cause.

Our concerns have already become an excuse for an outpouring of anti-Semitism. Since going public with our concerns about the film, ADL and other Jewish organizations have been flooded with hate-filled e-mails, letters and phone calls.