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'Passion' Stand Mishandled, Some Jewish Leaders Say

Gibson's movie is called unlikely to fan hatred and a beneficiary of its foes' critical comments.

February 23, 2004|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

As Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" prepares to open this week, the American Jewish community is sharply debating whether publicizing fears that it could spark anti-Semitism was a tactical mistake that brought more attention to the movie.

Reflecting sharply divided opinion among American Jews, some leaders dismiss as overblown the worries that the film could reignite ancient but long discredited charges that Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus' death.

"Most American Jews feel so comfortable in this country that they don't anticipate anti-Semitism" from the film, said Howard I. Friedman, board chairman of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and former national president of the American Jewish Committee.

"Among Christians, I just don't see much evidence of anti-Semitism and I see a great deal of goodwill."

The American Jewish Committee has taken a deliberately low-key approach. Executive Director David A. Harris said the film's portrayal of Jews was "pretty ugly" but that the committee did not believe it should do anything that might publicize the movie.

"It's a fine line we have to walk," Harris said. "The film is troubling and problematic, but we don't want to bring attention to it and ensure its box-office success."

Harvey J. Fields, rabbi emeritus of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and a longtime interfaith leader, said charges of anti-Semitism were "off target" and that he was "disappointed and frankly embarrassed" at the way some Jewish leaders had condemned the film before its opening.

Fields, who had not seen the movie, specifically criticized activists such as Abraham H. Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League's national director, and Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who have led the charge against the film. He said they had used the issue of anti-Semitism "to attract attention to themselves and their organizations."

"I think we have reached a point in this new millennium where we ought to be much more careful about screaming anti-Semitism in this world," Fields said.

Hier, who in June co-wrote an early op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times raising concerns about the film, acknowledged that his actions may have boosted publicity for the movie but said he does not regret his outspokenness.

"The overriding issue for Jews in history is that too often we kept silent and we paid a great price, and I feel we should not do that again," said Hier, who has seen the film twice.

Several Jews in the entertainment business have publicly defended the film, saying they did not view it as anti-Semitic. They include Maia Morgenstern, the actress who plays Mary in "Passion" and whose parents are Holocaust survivors, along with producers Joel Silver ("The Matrix") and Dean Devlin ("The Patriot").

Devlin said Gibson specifically asked him to view the movie because "he knows I accuse practically every film of being anti-Semitic." Devlin said he went in with a pen and paper to note down his objections but ended up with almost none.

"I don't think it's anti-Semitic," Devlin said of the film. "I thought it was a beautiful picture of love and forgiveness and wasn't about pointing any fingers at anyone. If someone sees this film as an indictment of Jews, they would have missed the whole point of the movie."

Rabbi Marc Gellman of Temple Beth Torah in Melville, N.Y., who partners with a Roman Catholic priest in a syndicated national column and TV show called "The God Squad," also said he did not believe Jews were particularly demonized in the film. The movie included Jews who objected to Jesus' treatment, he said, and who helped carry the cross. He called the film a work of "stunning beauty and daring violence that forces all of us to grow up and learn to accept people who tell their own stories."

Foxman, who sneaked into an early showing of the movie in Florida, also defended his criticism of Gibson and the film. He said he initially tried to work quietly behind the scenes, asking for a meeting with Gibson when word first reached him of potentially troubling content. "I'm still waiting," he said.

The ADL chief said accusing Jews of deicide strikes a raw nerve among some because it has historically been used to justify persecution, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust.

"Central to Western civilization's anti-Semitism of 2,000 years are those four words: 'The Jews killed Christ,' " Foxman said.

The film, which opens Wednesday, details the last 12 hours of Jesus' life in what reviewers say are excruciatingly violent images. Gibson reportedly has removed the most controversial scene -- the so-called "blood curse," in which Jews and their descendants are blamed for sending Jesus to his death -- and has repeatedly denied any anti-Semitic intentions.

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