DALLAS (BP)–As Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion” entered the editing stage, an ad hoc panel of critics judged that an early script contained “strong anti-Jewish potential,” in the words of a Vanderbilt University professor. They feared it would portray Jews as “blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of Jesus”; that it exploited New Testament passages to selectively weave a narrative hostile to Jews while doing injustice to the Gospels; and that it would include non-scriptural elements to form “an inescapably negative picture of Jewish society and leadership” as well as portraying “Jews and the temple as the focus of evil.”
Described as the Ad Hoc Scholars Committee, reviewers included professors from Union Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Boston College, Boston University, Seton Hall University, Vanderbilt University and Catholic Theological Union. The panel described itself as having been convened by the Anti-Defamation League and a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Vanderbilt University Divinity School New Testament studies professor Amy-Jill Levine said the committee looked for biblical fidelity, historical accuracy and the avoidance of anti-Semitism. In a column for Beliefnet, she questioned Gibson’s insistence that the movie has no anti-Jewish material. Accusing him of being “quite selective in choosing audiences” to preview the film, Levine imagined how children of those invited would characterize Jews if asked, “‘In the movie, who killed Jesus?’ or ‘Did the Jews in the film seem very interested in money?'”
Levine added, “Every single response may be benign, but why take the chance?” She argued that a film aspiring to promote Christian faith can easily promote anti-Judaism, particularly among audiences with culturally ingrained anti-Jewish views, such as Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe or Muslims in Syria.
Another member of the panel, a Union Theological Seminary professor, Sister Mary C. Boys, said the panel of Jewish and Catholic scholars concluded that the film could readily promote anti-Semitism, according to an interview reported in The Houston Chronicle.
“We’re not saying Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, or even that the film is anti-Semitic,” Boys said. “But rather, that by stressing the brutality, the torture, and by ascribing that visually to the Jews, the Christians seeing this will naturally conclude that the Jews carry the primary responsibility for the death of Jesus.” Critics in various quarters are using the term “deicide.”
Marketing director Paul Lauer responded that the committee’s comments are inconsistent with the final version of the film. Eventually, the Catholic bishops apologized for what they described as an unauthorized critique. Critics from ADL, however, stood their ground in saying that without scholarly and theological understanding, productions such as The Passion could falsify history and fuel the animus of those who hate Jews.
A Jewish social action institute, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, produced one of several letters from supporters of the film to lend credence to the deicide charge. With terroristic language, the writer accused critics of preventing a movie “that will remind millions of Americans that the jews [sic] were in fact totally responsible for the death of Jesus Christ.”
The Wiesenthal Center urged acceptance of some of the changes proposed by the ad hoc panel in order to prevent the Jewish people from being “falsely singled out as being responsible for the death of Jesus.”
“Mel abhors anti-Semitism,” a promotional website for the film quoted marketer Lauer as stating. “In no way does his faith endorse hatred or bigotry or anti-Semitism or blame the Jews for the death of Christ.” A movie trailer is available for viewing at the website.
At first, the ADL was shunned from pre-screenings for having gone public with concerns that the film producers expected would be offered privately. Later, promoters arranged for a private screening by the ADL interfaith affairs director, Rabbi Eugene Korn in Houston. In spite of a confidentiality agreement promising not to write or speak about the film without permission, Korn immediately posted on his website charges that the movie contains “many dangerous teachings.”
An American Jewish Committee adviser, Rabbi James Rudin, remained concerned that the film portrayed Roman authorities as powerless in stopping the Jewish rage against Jesus Christ, according to a Religion News Service report. “The emphasis should be more on what killed Jesus, not who killed him,” Rudin was quoted as saying. Yechiel Eckstein, an Orthodox rabbi and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, expressed concern that Gibson might not be fully aware of the historic results of a deicide charge.
Since then the production company has agreed to make some changes in response to critics, showing more sympathetic Jewish characters who do not call for Jesus to be crucified, according to an RNS report.
In his response to ADL, Lauer told Baptist Press that he said, “We are equally opposed to depictions in film that may be harmful. While we believe that there are no such depictions in our film, we want to assure you we are sensitive to your concerns, have been addressing it in the post-production process, and will continue to do so.”
And Gibson will launch what he is calling “The Jewish Initiative” to bring Jewish and Christian leaders together for a discussion of the film’s effects. Lauer said they will not only be asking, “‘What can we do?’ but also ‘What can you do to not be divisive and have people in conversation?'”
In a Washington Post online chat, film critic Michael Medved expressed hope that the movie can be viewed as a work of cinema, deserving of respect and acclaim for its power and artistry. “I also hope that the ADL and other organizations can go back to the work of confronting the real enemies of the Jewish people — and God knows we have them,” Medved stated. “If we can refocus, and demonstrate more fairness and open-mindedness in our response to Mel and his movie, it will be good for the Jews, good for Hollywood and, most importantly, good for America.”
Medved acknowledged that millions of Jews have suffered death and persecution because of accusations that they were “Christ-killers.” However, he explained, “Mel Gibson has tried to avoid echoing ancient charges of deicide and has gone to some lengths to stress that Jesus and his disciples, as well as his primary accusers, were Jewish.” Temple authorities in the first century are never connected with today’s Jews in any way, he added.
As Gibson continues working on the film, Medved said the producer is taking constructive advice from scholars of various backgrounds and orientations. “The changes have been minor, as far as I know,” Medved said.
The trailer for “The Passion” can be viewed at http://www.passion-movie.com/english/.