With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to question whether people like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish leaders helped generate countless box-office dollars for Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," which opens next Wednesday at some 2,000 theaters across the country.
After all, the film is mostly in Aramaic--with no English spoken--and depicts the last 12 hours of Jesus' life, focusing on his brutal treatment and suffering. If there had been no international controversy swirling around the film's alleged anti-Semitism, how many people would have gone to see it? Truth is, we'll never know. But it could be argued that the Jewish defense agencies overplayed their hand, speaking out so strongly and so often against the film that it worked to Gibson's advantage, creating widespread media attention and a backlash in the Christian community, rallying the faithful to come see the film in great numbers.
Of course if Jewish leaders had not spoken out against elements of the film that resorted to old charges of collective and eternal Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death, they would have been open to criticism that they failed in their mandate to protect the Jewish community and counter charges of anti-Semitism. What's more, the ADL and Wiesenthal Center can claim credit for pressuring Gibson to edit out what reportedly was the most prejudicial scene in the film. It is the one in which the Jewish High Priest says the Jews will take responsibility for Jesus' death, now and down through the generations, based on a widely reputed version of the Gospels. Even at this late date, though, it is unclear whether the scene is in or out of the film, and even if it is, Jewish leaders who have seen the film say it clearly depicts the Romans as peace-loving and Jews as bloodthirsty and demanding Jesus' death.
Many of us are torn between a sense of pride in Jewish organizations raising their voices in our collective defense and strong discomfort in being the center of a controversy, particularly one that makes a bad guy out of Gibson, one of the most popular Hollywood stars of his generation.
We Americans have been spoiled in that we have never suffered violent forms of persecution and we have less of a sense of history of our past than Jews living in Europe or Russia.
Gibson is part of a minority Catholic sect that rejects Vatican II, and while he has every right to make the kind of film he wants, based on his beliefs, the Jewish community has an equal right to counter his claims, point out the dangers of such emotionally charged prejudice and make its case to a fair-minded American society.
Ideally, quiet diplomacy would have staved off a Jews vs. Gibson conflict, with Jewish leaders using back channels or private conversations or correspondence to make known their concerns, and Gibson working to accommodate them. The ADL says that is what it tried to do over the last 10 months, to no avail, and that is was Gibson who went public, saying the Jews were trying to pressure him from making a truthful film.
Addressing the issue in a recent speech, Abe Foxman said that making less noise about the film was "a luxury that we, the Jewish community, no longer have; a luxury of being quiet about the possibility of anti-Semitism because maybe it will go away."
He said the Gibson film is particularly worrisome not only for placing the blame for Jesus' death squarely on the Jews but because Gibson is "an icon" who has said that his movie will tell "the gospel truth, the only truth" about Jesus' death, and will be taken as such by many who see the film.
The ADL leader said he was particularly worried about the "unintended consequences" of the film being shown around the world at a time of heightened anti-Semitism not seen in the last 50 years.
We may be uncomfortable with the tone and style of some statements Foxman and Rabbi Hier and other Jewish leaders have made about this issue, but someone had to point out that Gibson's truth is not the accepted historical truth, and that this issue is not about Mel Gibson or Christian doctrine but about setting the record straight.
In the end, anti-Semites will go on hating Jews, and most Americans who see the film will not think less of their Jewish neighbors. But there are issues worth speaking out on and this is one of them. Of course we cannot maintain a Jewish faith based solely on fighting anti-Semitism; when the last Jew-hater is gone we will still need an answer--for ourselves, not others--to the question "why be Jewish?" There are so many positive reasons to adhere to our traditions, rituals and moral values, but the Gibson controversy reminds us that there are times when we must confront, explain and instruct.
Mel Gibson professes to love Jews but his actions have shown that he still doesn't understand us, or the pain his film perpetuates.