September 2, 2008

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ:" Could It Trigger Anti-Semitism?

The following speech was given by Abraham H. Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League and an ADL National Executive Committee Meeting in Palm Beach Florida on February 6, 2004. It is available online at the ADL's website. Whether Foxman's outcry against "The Passion of the Christ" did in fact blunt the anti-Semitism that the movie incited in its audience, is less notable than the general point Foxman makes about the need to take an activist approach in combatting anti-Semitism.

A reporter this morning asked me why is so much attention being focused on a movie. Many good people do not understand why the Jewish community is so concerned with a film they haven't seen. Why are we taking so much time? Why are we so anxious about a movie?

The answer is both very complex and very simple. We, the Jewish people, take history very, very seriously. We have a long history, but also a painful history and a tragic history, and if others have no desire to learn from their history, we have taught our children and teach our children from generation to generation that we must remember and learn from it.

For almost 2,000 years in Western civilization, four words legitimized, rationalized, and fueled anti-Semitism: "The Jews killed Christ." Some of you know I stand here today thanks to Christian faith, Christian belief, Christian mercy, Christian love. For as a Jewish child born in Europe during the Holocaust, it was only through the intervention of good Christians that some Jews were saved. And I was one of them. The lady that saved me loved me, loved me with a passion, and was faithful and religious with a passion. She baptized me and gave me a saint's name to protect me, and yet, when as a child I misbehaved, she would call me "Judas." And she loved me.

Then I was taught that the Jews killed God. When I finally began to be free to play with children in the streets of Vilna and someone called me a Jew, I came running to "my mother," to my nanny, begging her to say it isn't true, for I didn't want to be part of a people who killed our Lord.

For hundreds of years those four words - acted out, spoken out, sermonized out - inspired and legitimized pogroms, inquisitions and expulsions.

Hitler, in 1934, visited the Oberammergau Passion Play, and when he left, he proclaimed (and I paraphrase): "The whole world needs to see this Passion Play, for then they will understand why I despise the Jewish people."

Many during the Holocaust who killed Jews from Monday to Friday went to church on Sunday and there was no disconnect for them, because, after all, all they were doing was killing "Christ killers."

So for us, the possible impact of a Passion Play on the global scene with a global producer, with an icon, is not a fantasy, it's a serious anxiety. For us, it is a flashback into history.

And when is it about to happen? At a time in our history where we are experiencing an explosion of anti-Semitism on a global scale which we have not experienced in forty, fifty years. So now we face a retelling of this story.

The Vatican, the Catholic Church, over forty years ago realized how serious this issue is, and with the courage and the leadership of Pope John XXIII, now joined by this Pope, they understood the tragic consequences of those four words and called a historic conference to re-educate, to resensitize, the Christian world. That is what is at stake here; tolerance, respect and sensitivity that the Jews and Christians have worked so hard to establish.

Now to Mel Gibson. Almost a year ago he announced to the world that he and Icon Productions will make a movie unlike any other movie in history. He will do a movie about the crucifixion of Jesus and he will tell the truth, the whole truth, the gospel truth, the only truth, which he said has not been told. He proclaimed, as is his right to do, that he is inspired to do this as a holy mission, inspired by higher authorities to do so.

So why is this movie so much more different to us as a community than other movies? Other movies have been done on the life of Jesus, on that period, on that epoch; some very powerful movies. Why this special anxiety? Because Mr. Gibson came to this issue not on a tabula rasa, not just any producer, any actor. He came with an agenda. Let me read to you in his own words what agenda brought them to this moment in time.

In December 1990 on the "Larry King Show," Gibson said: "I probably sound like an egotist, you know, saying that the Roman Church is wrong, but I believe it, it is at the moment since Vatican II."

In February 1992 in the newspaper El Pais, Gibson was quoted as saying, "For one thousand nine hundred and fifty years the church does one thing and then in the '60s all of a sudden they turn everything inside out and begin to do strange things that go against the rules. Everything that has been heresy is no longer heresy according to the new rules. We Catholics are being cheated; the church has stopped being critical, it has relaxed. I don't believe them and I have no intention of following their trends. It's the church that has abandoned me, not me who has abandoned the church."

In Time Magazine, January 2003: "Vatican II corrupted the institutions of the church. Look at the main fruits, dwindling numbers, and pedophilia."

In The New Yorker, December 2003: "The gospels don't contradict one another, they mesh. There's a couple of places where yeah, that's not quite the same scene, but they just complete parts of the story that the other guy didn't complete, that's all, they don't contradict one another. If you read all four of those, they mesh, because if they didn't you wouldn't have so many people hooked into this. Scholars? Scholars always dick around with the Gospel, you know. Judas is always some kind of a friend and some freedom fighter named Barnabas. You know what I mean, it's horseshit. It's revisionist bullshit and that's what these academics are into. They gave me notes on the solo script," et cetera.

So we took it seriously. We took it seriously because we knew that Mel Gibson was planning to make a movie with an agenda. He's entitled. He's entitled to do a film or write a book or do whatever he wants based on his vision, based on his interpretation, based on his view. But that's not what he was selling.

He was not making a film on the crucifixion of Jesus based on his interpretations and those of his father. He was selling it and promoting it as the Gospel truth, the historical truth, the Biblical truth. That's what got our attention.

There are people who say to us, "You gave him publicity. You made this an issue. If only you had kept quiet." Well, first and foremost, we do not control the media last I heard. He put the issue on the table. He declared it to the world. He's an icon, he's a media personality. Look at the frenzy around him. Look at a reference to an interview which will appear next month in Reader's Digest making news throughout the world. So he put the issue out there and we responded.

Then, I guess philosophically, if you wanted to ask the question, maybe we should have kept quiet, maybe it would go away, maybe it would make less noise, maybe it would be less noticed. I say to you, that is a luxury that we, the Jewish community, no longer have; a luxury of being quiet about possibility of anti-Semitism because maybe it will go away. That is a luxury we lost 60 years ago when the world told us, "Don't worry. Don't make noise. It's not serious. It won't happen."

Now, God forbid, I do not compare this to what was then. While I worry more about the movie's impact in Buenos Aires and Dusseldorf and Riyadh, I don't think we are immune to anti-Semitism here in America. ADL just took a poll on attitudes in this country, and before the movie was released one out of four Americans believe today that the Jews are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.

If we ever had a doubt what was out there, how fragile it was, how serious it was, all you need to do is to read our mail. Read the e-mails, read the Web sites encouraging people to see the film. How fragile it is out there. What a reservoir of hatred!

I guess what makes it so sad, so painful, is that this hate comes from people who profess love, love and God, love and faith, love and brotherhood. And yet they don't have too much love for those of us who raise the question about what this may trigger.

For those who say, well, you should have tried to do it quietly - we have tried. We tried to reach out for the last 10 months to Mel Gibson, to his company, to his agent, to see if we can dialogue, to see if he will understand that this is not about Mel Gibson, this is not about Christianity, it's about history; for him to understand the anxieties that we have about this subject. For I believe to this day that if we had this opportunity, maybe he would get it.

Only last week we had the first exchange of correspondence. Not great, but at least the beginning of a dialogue. As to changes that are being made, understand me, I'm very serious about it, I'm not cynical, but I'm not impressed by a change which was announced six months ago in The New Yorker, when Gibson said to the world that he had taken out this scene because his brother said to him "It's a terrible scene and if you keep it in, the Jews will find you and kill you." So he said to the world "I took it out."

For eight months the film has been traveling to select audiences and everybody reported that the Matthew quote was out. Then for those of us who saw it two weeks ago in Chicago or Orlando or Dallas, guess what? That scene was back in. Now we're being told that - I'm not sure how authoritative it is - that now he's decided to take it out.

First, I'm not impressed. I'm waiting to see it on February 25, because his word is not his word. That one scene will not change the film. The film, from our perspective, unambiguously from beginning to end blames it on the blood-thirsty vengeful Jews and absolves the peace, loving, kind, warm, sensitive Pontius Pilate and the Romans.

We are being told that, theologically, the whole world is guilty in the suffering of Jesus, for he died for all of us. I'm not asking for very much, and people say to me "So, what do you want?" I don't think he'll change the film; I don't think the film is changeable. He's entitled to his film.

I'm asking for a postscript, because Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor and I saw the film two weeks ago at a mega-church, and at the end of the film, five thousand people sat in stunned, pained silence, only punctuated by some sobbing and wailing for the pain and the anguish of the suffering, and ending up in prayer.

When we walked out, a little pamphlet was given out and it said, "God killed his son." Not to the Jewish eyes that saw that film. That film did not say God killed Jesus. That film for two hours said the Jews, the Jews, the Jews.

And if you walk out of that film in pain and in anguish, where is that anger going to go? To God, or to those portrayed so crudely on the screen in this film for two hours - the Jewish people.

I believe in epiphany. If I did not believe that we can change the minds and hearts of people, I wouldn't go to work, and the Anti-Defamation League wouldn't have been around for 90 years.

Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite? No. He's a true believer. Is his anti-Semitism intentional? I don't believe so. But I worry about unintended consequences, especially when they mesh in history. Is the film anti-Semitic? No. But its consequences, its impact, its message may fuel anti-Semitism.

Would a message by him, a simple statement which used his own words in a postscript shown at the end of the film make a difference? I believe so, because those of us who sat and saw the impact on the audience, I believe that 30 seconds where he would come on and say, "My name is Mel Gibson. This is a film of love. This is a passion of love. I've been inspired by the Holy Spirit to do this and I believe that Jesus suffered for all mankind and all mankind has a responsibility and a guilt for his suffering," and then take a breath and say, "But there are those out there who would blame the Jews as they have in history. Don't do that, for that would convert this passion of love to a passion of hate." I believe that would make a difference.

Finally in the last exchange of letters, the first exchange of letters, where we exchange niceties, compliments, respect, and Mel Gibson reached out in his letter and said to me "Let us love each other. Despite our differences, let us love each other."

I'm reminded of a parable from the Hasidic masters who have taught us so much with little stories. It reminds me of the dialogue between a rabbi and his pupil. When his pupil says to the rebbe, "Rebbe, I love you," the rebbe says to him, "Do you know what hurts me?" The student says "No, Rebbe, I do not." The rebbe then says, "How can you love me when you don't know what hurts me?" I still believe that Mel Gibson will learn to understand what it is that hurts us. And when he does, I think he will be a voice for sensitivity and understanding.

There are voices slowly being heard. I received a letter from Rev. Franklin Graham indicating that he understands our pain, he understands our anxiety, and he will raise his voice. I had a call from Rev. Gary Bauer who said to me "Abe, I understand your concern, I understand your anxiety, and I will raise my voice." The answer is for good people, for caring people, for good Christians, to have the courage to stand up and say "please, please be careful." For an excess of love can, unintentionally, God forbid, bring pain.