Jewish leaders decry Gibson film as anti-Semitic

Mel Gibson, right, directs Jim Caviezel on the set of Gibson's movie "The Passion of The Christ." The film, slated for release on February 25 has stirred controversy over his depiction of Jews.

Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 26, 2004 at 10:41 p.m.

Two of the nation's most prominent Jewish leaders say they had watched recent versions of Mel Gibson's unreleased movie ''The Passion of the Christ'' and found it to be anti-Semitic and incendiary in its depiction of the role of the Jews in Jesus' death.

One said he was angered that a scene he and other Jewish leaders had found particularly offensive remained in the version of the movie he saw, though Gibson had once said he would remove it.

Both leaders - Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League - have been critical of the movie over the last year as scripts and various versions have leaked out.

But until recently neither man had seen the movie because Gibson and his company, Icon Productions, had declined to provide them with a copy or to allow them into special screenings.

Hier said he had seen a version of the movie provided to him several weeks ago by a friend, whom he would not identify. Foxman said he saw the movie in Orlando, where, he said, he managed to sneak into a screening at a large church for pastors and other religious leaders. Gibson was present to answer questions after the screening, Foxman said.

While it is not known whether the version either man watched will be the final cut, both Hier and Foxman said they were angered and saddened that Gibson, despite his insistence that the movie is not anti-Semitic, had chosen to include many scenes that place the blame squarely on the Jews, not the Romans, for the crucifixion.

Foxman said that while he respected Gibson's religious convictions and believed that artistically ''he is a genius,'' he felt that the movie, at least in the verrion he watched, would fan anti-Semitism and would set back the dialogue between Jews and Christians by decades.

''There is no opportunity lost in this film - no question whatsoever - to prove that the Jews are to blame,'' he said, adding: ''Do I think it will trigger pogroms? I don't think it will. But will it strengthen and legitimate anti-Semitic feelings? Yes, it will.''

Hier said he was ''horrified'' by the movie, which he said depicted all Jews, except those who were Jesus' followers, as villainous, with dark beards and eyes, ''like Rasputin.''

A spokesman for Gibson, Alan Nierob, said he would not comment on the criticism, other than to say: ''The filmmakers completely respect these gentlemen's right of freedom of expression, and expect the same in return.'' He said that Gibson was still working on the film and was unavailable to comment. The film is to be released nationwide Feb. 25, which is Ash Wednesday.

Foxman said that in one scene in the version he watched, the Jewish high priest Caiaphas calls down a kind of curse on the Jewish people by declaring, of the crucifixion, ''His blood be on us, and on our children.'' In the gospel of St. Matthew, the only gospel in which the statement appears, it is said to come from a crowd of Jews shouting for Jesus' death.

The passage - Chapter 27, verse 25 - was repudiated by the second Vatican Council in 1965. Gibson practices a traditionalist form of Roman Catholicism that does not recognize the reforms of Vatican II.

In an article in The New Yorker last year, Gibson said he had decided, with some regrets, to cut the scene in which the high priest makes the statement. If he had left it in, he told the magazine, critics of his depiction of the Jews would ''be coming after me at my house; they'd come to kill me.''

But in the version of the movie Foxman saw Wednesday night, a version that is also being screened for specially selected audiences in Chicago and Dallas, the scene remained. Hier said the scene was not included in the version he saw several weeks ago.

Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee, saw the movie last August in Houston at a screening for Jewish and Christian leaders, and then saw it again on Wednesday at the Orlando screening, which he attended openly.

In an interview on Thursday, he said it was ''highly disturbing'' to discover that the scene depicting the verse from Matthew, which was not in the version he saw in August, had been re-inserted. He said even the most noxious passion plays now omit the verse, which he called ''the religious taproot for what has become the blood libel, and collective guilt and the charge of deicide against the Jews.''

Nierob said Thursday that the film was still being edited and that he did not know if the version being screened for large groups around the country was close to the final version or whether the scene involving the high priest would remain in the final version.

The movie's distributor, Newmarket Films, says it plans to release the film on 2,000 screens on Feb. 25 and has called the flood of ticket requests so far ''a tsunami.''

Foxman said that at the Orlando screening audience members were asked to sign an agreement that, according to a copy he read to a reporter over the phone, required them to keep confidential their ''exposure, knowledge and opinions of the film'' and of a question-and-answer session with Gibson. But the agreement, as read by Foxman, added that ''pastors and churchleaders are free to speak out in support of the movie and your opinions resulting from today's exposure to this project and its producer.''

Foxman said he did not sign the agreement. He said he had initially felt bad about sneaking into the showing but later changed his mind. ''I decided yesterday, 'Why am I uncomfortable? Let him be uncomfortable,' '' he said, referring to Gibson. ''For him to say, 'You can only see if you love it?' I felt it was my moral duty to see it.''

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