• Protesting Gibson's Passion Lacks Moral Legitimacy

    Email Print
    Share

    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.


            
            

    Email Print
    Share