Protesting Gibson's Passion Lacks Moral Legitimacy

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Rabbi
Lapin, president of Toward
Tradition
, wrote this on September 22, 2003. See also his
later article on this subject
.

Never
has a film aroused such hostile passion so long prior to its release
as has Mel Gibson’s Passion. Many American Jews are alarmed
by reports of what they view as potentially anti-Semitic content
in this movie about the death of Jesus, which is due to be released
during 2004. Clearly the crucifixion of Jesus is a sensitive topic,
but prominent Christians who previewed it, including good friends
like James Dobson and Michael Novak who have always demonstrated
acute sensitivity to Jewish concerns, see it as a religiously inspiring
movie, and refute charges that it is anti-Semitic. While most Jews
are wisely waiting to see the film before responding, others are
either prematurely condemning a movie they have yet to see or violating
the confidentiality agreements they signed with Icon Productions.

As
an Orthodox rabbi with a wary eye on Jewish history which has an
ominous habit of repeating itself, I fear that these protests, well
intentioned though some may be, are a mistake. I believe those who
publicly protest Mel Gibson’s film lack moral legitimacy. What is
more, I believe their actions are not only wrong but even recklessly
ill-advised and shockingly imprudent. I address myself to all my
fellow Jews when I say that your interests are not being served
by many of those organizations and self-appointed defenders who
claim to be acting on your behalf. Just ask yourself who most jeopardizes
Jewish safety today, Moslems or Christians?

For
an explanation of why I believe that those Jews protesting Passion
lack moral legitimacy we must take ourselves back in time to the
fall of 1999. That was when Arnold Lehman, the Jewish director of
the Brooklyn Museum presented a show called Sensation. It featured,
from the collection of British Jew Charles Saatchi, several works
which debased Catholicism including Chris Ofili’s dung-bedecked
Madonna.

You
may wonder why I highlight the Jewish ethnicity of the players in
the Brooklyn Museum saga. My reason for doing so is that everyone
else recognized that they were Jewish and there is merit in us knowing
how we ourselves appear in the eyes of those among whom we live.
This is especially true on those sad occasions when we violate what
ancient Jewish wisdom commends as the practice of Kiddush HaShem,
which is to say, conducting our public affairs in a way best calculated
to bring credit upon us as a group. Maintaining warm relations with
our non-Jewish friends is a traditional Jewish imperative and the
raison d’tre of the organization I serve, Toward Tradition.

This
was not the first time that Arnold Lehman had chosen to offend Catholics.
While he was director of the Baltimore Museum, in a display of gross
insensitivity to that city’s Catholics, he screened Hell’s Angel,
a film denouncing Mother Teresa as a religious extremist and depicting
her in obscenely uncomplimentary and ghoulish terms. I am sorry
to have to tell you that no Jewish organizations protested this
gratuitous insult of a universally respected Catholic icon.

Almost
every Christian organization angrily denounced the vile bigotry
sponsored by the Brooklyn Museum. Especially prominent was William
Donohue, president of The Catholic League, a good friend who has
always stood firmly with Jews in the fight against genuine anti-Semitism,
yet now, in his fight against anti-Catholicism, he appealed to Jewish
organizations in vain. Almost every Christian denomination helped
vigorously protest the assault that the Brooklyn Museum carried
out against the Catholic faith in such graphically abhorrent ways.
Even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani expressed his outrage by trying to withhold
money from the museum. Where was the Jewish expression of solidarity
against such ugliness? Only a small group of Orthodox Jews joined
their fellow Americans in protest at this literal defilement of
Christianity with elephant feces. And were other Jews silent? No,
unfortunately not. In actuality a small but disproportionately vocal
number of them were defending the Brooklyn Museum and its director
in the name of artistic freedom.

Here
are a few of the names that were prominently defending the Brooklyn
Museum’s flagrant anti-Christianism during fall 1999. Norman Siegel
and Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Steven
R. Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union, and lawyer Floyd
Abrams, cousin of Elliot Abrams who holds the position of top advisor
on Israel-related matters in President George W. Bush’s National
Security Council. Although at synagogues and around dinner tables
revulsion at the Sensation exhibit was widespread, not very many
Jews publicly supported our Catholic friends in the time of their
pain.

You
may also remember Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The
Last Temptation of Christ
. Then too almost every
Christian denomination protested Universal’s release of a movie
so slanderous that had it been made about Moses, or say, Martin
Luther King Junior, it would have provoked howls of anger from the
entire country. As it was, Christians were left to defend their
faith quite alone other than for one solitary courageous Jew, Dennis
Prager. Most Americans knew that Universal was run by Lew Wasserman.
Most Americans also knew Lew’s ethnicity. Perhaps many now wonder
why Mel Gibson is not entitled to the same artistic freedom we accorded
Lew Wasserman?

When
the Weinstein brothers, through their Miramax films (named after
their parents, Mira and Max Weinstein,) distributed Priest
in 1994, Catholics were again left to protest this unflattering
depiction of their faith alone while many Jewish organizations proclaimed
the primacy of artistic freedom. Surely Jewish organizations would
carry just a little more moral authority if they routinely protested
all attacks on faith, not only those troubling to Judaism.

Oddly
enough, Jewish organizations did find one movie so offensive as
to warrant protest. It was Disney’s Aladdin that was considered,
by Jews, to be needlessly offensive to Arabs! It makes no sense
at all for Jews to make a big fuss about a gentle lampooning of
Arabia in a cartoon, while ignoring intentional and hurtful insults
in major movies against people who have demonstrated genuine friendship
toward us.

Now
I do have one possible explanation for why one might consider it
more important to protest Passion. It is this: in Europe,
anti-Semitic slander frequently resulted in Catholic mobs killing
Jews. Our hyper-sensitivity has a long and painful background of
real tragedy. In any event, Jewish moral prestige would stand taller
if we were conspicuous in protesting movies that defame any religion.
Furthermore, opponents of Passion argue that this movie
might cause a backlash against the Jewish community. Yet
when so-called art really does encourage violence, for Jewish spokesmen,
artistic freedom seems to trump all other concerns. Here is what
I mean.

During
the nineties, record companies run by well-known executives including
Michael Fuchs, Gerald Levin, and David Geffen produced obscene records
by artists like Geto Boys and Ice-T that advocated killing policemen
and raping and murdering women. In spite of Congressional testimony
showing that these songs really did influence teenage behavior,
only William Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker, head of the National
Political Congress of Black Women, protested Time Warner. During
that decade of shockingly hateful music that incited violence, our
Jewish organizations only protested Michael Jackson’s song "They
Don’t Care About Us" and the rap group Public Enemy’s single
"Swindler’s Lust," claiming that these songs were anti-Semitic.
It is ignoble to ignore the wrongs done to others while loudly deploring
those done to us.

In
truth however, even though Catholics did kill Jews in Europe, I
do not believe that the often sad history of Jews in Europe is relevant
now. Why not? Because in Europe, Catholic church officials wielded
a rapacious combination of ecclesiastical and political power with
which they frequently incited illiterate mobs to acts of anti-Jewish
violence. In America, no clergyman secures political power along
with his ordination certificate, and in America, if there are illiterate
and dangerous thugs, Christianity is a cure not the cause. In America,
few Jews have ever been murdered, mugged, robbed, or raped by Christians
returning home from church on Sunday morning. America is history’s
most philo-Semitic country, providing the most hospitable home for
Jews in the past two thousand years. Suggesting equivalency between
American Christians today and those of European history is to be
offensive and ungrateful. Quite frankly, if it is appropriate to
blame today’s American Christians for the sins of past Europeans,
why isn’t it okay to blame today’s Jews for things that our ancestors
may have done? Clearly both are wrong and doing so harms our relationships
with one of the few groups still friendly toward us today. Jewish
groups that fracture friendship between Christians and Jews are
performing no valuable service to American Jews.

In
any event, Jewish organizations protesting Passion are
remarkably selective in their ire. It is so bizarre that the new
movie Luther, which champions someone who was surely one
of history’s most eloquent anti-Semites, gets a free pass from our
self-appointed Jewish guardians. Only Gibson is evil, is that right?

Again,
why would the soon-to-be-released new movie, The Gospel of John,
be utterly immune to the censoring tactics of certain Jewish organizations?
After all, the soundtrack includes virtually every word of the Gospel
including the most unflattering descriptions of Jewish priests and
Pharisees of Jesus’ time, along with implications of their complicity
in the Crucifixion, yet not a peep of Jewish organizational protest.
Could their conspicuous silence possibly have anything to do with
the ethnicity of the producers of The Gospel of John? These
include Garth Drabinsky, Sandy Pearl, Joel Michaels, Myron Gottleib,
and Martin Katz. So if Jews quote the Gospel it is art but if Mel
Gibson does the same, it is anti-Semitism? The Talmudic distinction
eludes me. It probably eludes most Christians too.

These
protests against Passion are not only morally indefensible,
but they are also stupid, for three reasons. The first reason is
that that they are unlikely to change the outcome of the film. Mr.
Gibson is an artist and a Catholic of deep faith of which this movie
is an expression. By all accounts, his motive in making this movie
was not commercial. In addition, anyone who saw his Braveheart
would suspect that Mel Gibson profoundly identified with the hero
of that epic, who allowed himself to be violently disemboweled rather
than betray his principles. Does anyone really believe that Gibson
is likely to yield to threats from Jewish organizations?

The
second and more important reason I consider these protests to be
ill-advised. While Jews are telling Gibson that his movie contradicts
historical records about who really killed Jesus, Vatican Cardinal
Daro Castrilln Hoyos has this to say:

Mr.
Gibson has had to make many artistic choices in the way he portrays
the characters and the events involved in the Passion, and he
has complemented the Gospel narrative with the insights and reflections
made by saints and mystics through the centuries. Mel Gibson not
only closely follows the narrative of the Gospels, giving the
viewer a new appreciation for those Biblical passages, but his
artistic choices also make the film faithful to the meaning of
the Gospels, as understood by the Church.

Do
we really want to open up the Pandora’s box of suggesting that any
faith may demand the removal of material that it finds offensive
from the doctrines of any other faith? Do we really want to return
to those dark times when Catholic authorities attempted to strip
from the Talmud those passages that they found offensive? Some of
my Jewish readers may feel squeamish about my alluding to the existence
of Talmudic passages uncomplimentary toward Jesus as well as descriptive
of Jewish involvement in his crucifixion. However the truth is that
anyone with Internet access can easily locate those passages in
about ten seconds. I think it far better that in the name of genuine
Jewish-Christian friendship in America, we allow all faiths their
own beliefs even if we find those beliefs troubling or at odds with
our own beliefs. This way we can all prosper safely under the constitutional
protection of the United States of America.

Finally
I believe the attacks on Mel Gibson are a mistake because while
they may be in the interests of Jewish organizations who raise money
with the specter of anti-Semitism, and while they may be in the
interests of Jewish journalists at the New York Times and
elsewhere who are trying to boost their careers, they are most decidedly
not in the interests of most American Jews who go about their daily
lives in comfortable harmony with their Christian fellow citizens.
You see, many Christians see all this as attacks not just on Mel
Gibson alone or as mere critiques of a movie, but with some justification
in my view, they see them as attacks against all Christians. This
is not so different from the way most people react to attack. We
Jews usually feel that we have all been attacked even when only
a few of us suffer assault on account of our faith.

Right
now, the most serious peril threatening Jews, and indeed perhaps
all of western civilization, is Islamic fundamentalism. In this
titanic twenty-first century struggle that links Washington DC with
Jerusalem, our only steadfast allies have been Christians. In particular,
those Christians that most ardently defend Israel and most reliably
denounce anti-Semitism, happen to be those Christians most fervently
committed to their faith. Jewish interests are best served by fostering
friendship with Christians rather than cynically eroding them. Rejecting
flagrant anti-Christianism on the part of Jews claiming to be acting
on our behalf would be our wisest course as a community. Doing so
would have one other advantage: it would also be doing the right
thing.

Radio
talk show host, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, is president of Toward
Tradition
, a bridge-building organization providing a voice
for all Americans who defend the Judeo-Christian values vital for
our nation's survival. For
more information or to schedule an interview, please contact: Jennifer
Brunson (206) 236-3046.


        
        

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