By Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
Note: This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Sun on August 4, 2003.
Posted: August 4, 2003
Discussions about Mel Gibson`s forthcoming movie "The
Passion" have taken a disturbing turn. Rather than focusing on
an effort to find out whether Mr. Gibson is making a movie on the
death of Jesus that is consistent with church teachings and free
of the anti-Semitism that haunted passion dramas for centuries,
the very raising of questions is now being depicted as a part of
the culture wars that have overwhelmed American society in
Movie critic Michael Medved put the issue in the context of
"liberal activists, who worry over the ever-increasing influence of
religious traditionalism in American life." And Kathie Lee Gifford
writes that Mr. Gibson "is being so tormented for something that
he has every right to do - as an artist in a free country where he
is supposed to have the freedom to express and practice his
This is a strange and unfortunate reaction to the legitimate
questions that have been raised. Let us remember that the
Catholic church itself and Pope John Paul II, hardly a liberal,
revolutionized centuries-old teachings about Jews and Judaism
related to the death of Jesus. Recognition by the Vatican of the
devastating effects of church teachings about Jews - blaming
Jews for the crucifixion, delegitimizing Judaism as a religion, not
speaking clearly against anti-Semitism - created new Church
doctrine which has transformed Catholic-Jewish relations.
Whether one is conservative or liberal, indeed whatever ones
views concerning which is best for American society, the issue
of portraying the death of Jesus as a Jewish crime has long
Why have we been raising questions as to whether Mr. Gibson`s
movie may be returning to outmoded, dangerous views of the
Jewish role in the death of Jesus?
First, because there has been a long history of the passion story
i.e., the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, being
interpreted as holding the Jewish people responsible for killing
According to this interpretation, both the Jews at the time of
Jesus and the Jewish people for all time bear a divine curse for
the sin of deicide. Throughout nearly 1,900 years of
Christian-Jewish history, the charge of deicide has led to hatred
and violence against Jews of Europe and America, and various
forms of anti-Semitic expression. Historically, Holy Week (the
week leading up to Easter Sunday) was a period when Jews
were most vulnerable and when Christians perpetrated some of
the worst violence against their Jewish neighbors.
In 1965, at the Second Vatican Council in Rome, the Roman
Catholic Church took formal steps to correct this interpretation of
the passion. In its document, Nostra Aetate, the Church officially
repudiated both the deicide charge and all forms of
anti-Semitism. Most Protestant churches followed suit, and since
1965 many Christians have worked cooperatively with Jews to
correct anti-Semitic interpretations within Christian theology.
Understanding the influential role that passion plays have
exercised in the spread of anti-Semitism, the Catholic Church
today urges great caution in all dramatic presentations of the
passion to ensure that they not furnish any impetus for
anti-Semitic attitude or behavior.
In 1988, the Catholic United States Bishops Committee for
Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs issued a pamphlet,
"Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion,"
which stresses that passion plays must avoid caricatures of
Jews and falsely opposing Jews and Jesus. It quotes Pope John
Paul II`s statement that, "Catholic teaching should aim to present
Jews and Judaism in an honest and objective manner, free from
prejudices and without and offenses." The pamphlet concludes
that correct Catholic teaching of the passion is one that portrays
Jews accurately, sensitively and positively, because "the Church
and the Jewish people are linked together essentially on the
level of identity."
Second, a group of Catholic and Jewish scholars of the first
century examined a draft of the screenplay of the film. In the
words of Paula Fredrickson, one of the scholars, "the script,
when we got it, shocked us." She noted that the scholars
"pinpointed its historical errors and - again, since Mr. Gibson
has so trumpeted his own Catholicism - its deviations from
magisterial principles of biblical interpretation."
She went on to say: "That script - and, on the evidence, the film --
presents neither a true rendition of the gospel stories nor a
historically accurate account of what could have happened in
Jerusalem, on Passover, when Pilate was prefect and Caiaphas
was high priest.┘ The true historical framing of Mr. Gibson`s
script is neither early first century Judea (where Jesus of
Nazareth died) nor the last first-century Mediterranean dispora
(where the evangelists composed their Gospels). It is
post-medieval Roman Catholic Europe."
Third, because Mr. Gibson, a "traditionalist" Catholic, has
expressed strong criticisms of the modern church and is
supportive of views of church policy that question or reject the
many 20th-century changes, including the revolution in attitudes
toward Jews beginning with Nostra Aetate in 1965.
This combination of history, an early version of the script, and
reports about Mr. Gibson`s views understandably raised
concerns. We have not, however, reached conclusions about the
film because we haven`t seen it and because the producers say
they have made changes. We have, instead, asked the
producers for an opportunity to see a preview of the film. If our
concerns would turn out to be unjustified, we will be eager to say
so. If problems remain, we will be happy share our suggestions
with Mr. Gibson.
In a world when anti-Semitism has undergone a frightening
resurgence, one of the hopeful perspectives is the fact that the
Church has changed so dramatically. We urge the makers of
"The Passion" to continue this important progress that has
benefited Christians and Jews.