The Passion by Mel Gibson: Enthusiastic Response in the Catholic World, Restrained Criticism by the Jews
Sergio I. Minerbi
Mel Gibson's film The Passion, first screened for the public on Ash
Wednesday, 25 February 2004, aroused great interest among both Jews
and Christians. The film's anti-Semitic content and violence were the
major reasons for the wide attention it received.
On 3 October 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Ann-Catherine
Emmerich, whose visions were the basis for the movie, thus indirectly
giving his blessing to the film. Several Vatican personalities have claimed
that the film is not anti-Semitic.
Among Jewish organizations, the debate centered on whether one
should criticize the film or avoid doing so, in order not to increase the
interest in the movie. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League
was one of the few Jewish leaders who did raise his voice against
Among many other roles, Mel Gibson's more memorable parts
were those of the Scottish clansman in Braveheart as well as of Martin
Briggs in Lethal Weapon, films that were replete with action and
violence. Yet these works, which constitute a popular form of
entertainment, were outdone several times by the violence in a movie
that Gibson directed, The Passion of the Christ. The escalation in the
level of violence and in the number of graphic, gory scenes is not the
only difference between the films: when spectators faint while watching
Jesus turned into pulp, they do so not only because the scene is difficult
to watch but, according to Gibson, because they are witnessing the
true story of the murder of Jesus.
Gibson used the mystical visions of a nun by the name of Ann-
Catherine Emmerich, who lived two centuries ago (1774-1824), as the
historical basis for his movie. This fact could have remained a mere
curiosity had not the Vatican chosen to renew the discussion about
her beatification at this very time. The first stages of Emmerich's
beatification were already begun in 1928, but only on 7 July 2003 was
she found to have produced a miracle, which is an essential condition
for making her a saint. The beatification procedure was completed on
3 October 2004. This action clearly indicates the Church's formal
support for the ideological and religious basis of the movie, a support
all the more grave in light of the massive anti-Semitism in the film,
which blatantly blames the Jews for all of Jesus' suffering. Considering
how these sufferings are presented in the movie, these are grave accusations
indeed. Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that Gibson's movie
came out before Easter. This holiday reminds every Christian of Jesus'
Via Dolorosa, of his murder and his murderers. According to nearly
two thousand years of Church teachings, these murderers are none
other than the Jews; Gibson's movie thus uses popular beliefs to
reinforce the validity of his version. The fact that the Vatican found
no reason to criticize Gibson's movie calls for a renewed discussion
of the Vatican's stand toward the Jews and toward anti-Semitism, in
light of the Vatican II Council, but particularly in light of Pope John
Paul II's long career of presumed reconciliation with the Jews.
The Passion has attracted great attention because of its title, the
way the subject was handled, and because of the terrific violence it
displays. The initial investment in the film came to $25-$30 million.
Within a few weeks, it was shown in over 2,400 movie theaters in the
United States and had brought in over $350 million - and there are
plans to screen it in various churches. However, our concern here is
not a financial one. The Passion of the Christ was presented to the
public on Ash Wednesday, 25 February 2004.
This article will examine the reactions to the film of Pope John
Paul II and his surroundings, as well as those of Catholic officials and
their flocks from around the world. It will also discuss the reactions
among both Diaspora and Israeli Jewry.
The film is a striking example of the violence common in American
cinema, a kind of violence that reaches new and terrible levels in The Passion. Turning the Gospels into a visual document, a movie, provides
it with an additional dimension, a dramatic and tangible one, which
in this film is aimed against the Jews. It is hard to imagine a more
anti-Semitic expression precisely because cinema is such a popular
medium, and this expression has been accepted by most of the Catholic
At present, the most conservative forces within the Church are
preparing for the approach of the Pope's demise and the choice of his
successor. These forces seek to return the Church to the situation that
preceded the Vatican II Ecumenical Council.1 A hundred years after
the previous Ecumenical Council (Vatican I in 1869-1870), Vatican
II was an earthquake in the thought and ritual of the Church. Mass
was no longer to be conducted in Latin but in the vernacular language;
and for the Jews, it was highly significant that in 1965 the Council
approved the declaration Nostra Aetate, which stated: "True, authorities
of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death
of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon
all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of
today."2 Nevertheless, despite many claims, this text - important as it
is - does not constitute an acquittal of the Jewish people from the
two-thousand-year-old charge. Despite what many believe, Nostra Aetate,
in this author's view, diminishes the collective blame against all
Jews but does not eliminate it. Cardinal Augustin Bea, who was the
initiator of the declaration, wrote that since there were harsh protests
from the Arab world, it was considered wiser to eliminate the text
from the Council's agenda in 1962. Later, in 1965, a much-revised text
The Involvement of Opus Dei
Mel Gibson belongs to a fundamentalist Catholic sect that was
founded by the extremist French bishop Marcel Lefevre and that
repudiates the reforms instituted by Vatican II. For example, the sect
performs its Mass in Latin and does not accept Vatican II's innovations.
Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, who belongs to the sect as well, is
particularly extreme and goes so far as to deny the Shoah.
Also, Activists of Opus Dei4 were involved in producing the movie
and it is possible that the organization itself was even more involved.
It is known that a member of the organization presented the film to
Pope John Paul II on 5-6 December 2003. According to certain
sources, the Pope's reaction to the private screening was: "It is as it
was." On the other hand, the Pope's secretary and friend, Archbishop
Stanislaw Dziwisz, denied this and said the Pope "told no one his
opinion of this film...the Pope does not make judgments on art of this
kind. He leaves that to others, to experts."5
The official spokesman of the Vatican, however, Joaquin Navarro-
Valls, gave a different version and strongly implied that the Pope
does not consider the film to be anti-Semitic: "If the film were to
be considered anti-Semitic, then the Gospels would also have to be
considered so," Navarro-Valls said. The papal spokesman said the
Pope had seen the film and despite calls to distance the Catholic
Church from it, had remained silent. "The subsequent silence by the
hierarchy is eloquent," added Navarro-Valls.6 In fact, Navarro-Valls
himself belongs to Opus Dei.
Jewish Opposition and Its Effectiveness
The reactions of Jews were few and generally very reserved. Most
Jewish organizations did not refer to the movie at all, choosing to
keep quiet; others gave strange reasoning to explain why one must
not attack the anti-Semitism in the movie. Apparently, we have gone
back a few decades to a time in which Jews were afraid to express
themselves in any way against anti-Semitism, for fear that their words
would make it worse.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation
League (ADL), did come out against the movie, which he viewed
by sneaking into a screening for Christian ministers.7 Already on 11
August 2003, the ADL's concerns were expressed: "The film relies on
sinister stereotypes, portraying Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic
and money-hungry enemies of God who lack compassion and
Foxman noted that the movie portrays the Jewish authorities and
the Jewish masses as responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus. "We
are deeply concerned that the film, if released in its present form,
could fuel the hatred, bigotry, and anti-Semitism that many responsible
churches have worked hard to repudiate."9 Foxman found that whenever
possible, the blame was cast on the Jews rather than on the Church
that had propagated the hatred against them.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, the ADL's director of intrareligious affairs,
said that the movie awakens the demon of deicide.10 When it seemed
that the Pope was in favor of the movie, Foxman said that since the
Pope was not anti-Semitic, then the film must not be either. Later on,
when it emerged that the Pope had mumbled something incomprehensible
that was interpreted as denying any support for the movie, Foxman
attacked the movie again but was almost alone in doing so. Although
pointing out that the movie denigrates the Jews and almost absolves
the Romans of their responsibility in Jesus' death, Foxman was not
willing to say the film was outright anti-Semitic.11
Jewish organizations reacted to the movie in various ways. Rabbi
David Elcott, interfaith director of the American Jewish Committee,
said that the film "undermines the progress that we have made in this
country towards mutual respect and religious pluralism." This was
one of the few firm, candid, valuable statements. Mark Pelavin, director
of Reform Judaism's Commission on Interreligious Affairs in the
United States, encouraged the Reform communities "to sit down with
the churches in your communities" to discuss the film.12 Such a dialogue
would, however, remain one-sided since Christian doctrine is
the province of ministers of the Church and not of outsiders. Jewish-
Christian dialogue is helpful only when it respects the differences
between the two faiths.
Surprisingly, many Jewish circles preferred to keep silent rather
than express an opinion, believing that any public criticism might be
harmful. Given, however, that the film's distribution to more than
2,400 American cinemas was achieved with the help of the Evangelical
churches, some leaders, Jewish and Christian alike, were more concerned
about the film's influence in Arab countries than in the United
States. Indeed, the film was hugely successful in certain Arab countries,
especially Jordan where tickets were sold weeks in advance. The Muslim
audience apparently forgot that according to the Koran the crucifixion of Jesus never took place, instead finding a justification for their
anti-Semitism in the movie.13
Although reactions by Jews would have made very little difference
in the movie's success, it is not the possible effect of their
statements that should guide Jewish leaders; Jews should have criticized
the film whatever the effect of their statements. In addition,
those within the Church who did have criticisms of the movie should
at least have received Jewish support. Fear of arousing Christians'
anger paralyzed the Jews, but such fear precludes dialogue. The
evident lack of Jewish leadership reflected the grave misunderstanding
of those who are convinced that Pope John Paul II is necessarily
a friend of the Jews.
Elan Steinberg, then deputy director of the World Jewish Congress,
said he "wondered if Jewish criticism of the film would be counterproductive"
and that his Jewish colleagues should "keep quiet" because
their complaints would only increase the interest in the movie.14 Similarly
Rabbi David Rosen, representative of the American Jewish Committee
in Israel, said that he "is not afraid that the movie would arouse
anti-Semitism but that a massive Jewish opposition would raise anger
in the Christian quarters against the Jews who are trying to allegedly
'prevent the Christians from presenting their faith.'"15
Other American Jewish organizations took similar positions and
avoided criticizing the movie so as not to spark a controversy between
the religions. Above all, they feared harming in any way their dialogue
with the church establishments in America. As for Israel, there, too,
criticism of the film was meager and restrained.
This movie would hardly have disappeared into the void had the
ADL and others kept silent. Prof. David Berger, after criticizing Foxman,
had to admit that: "The technical quality of the production, the
mobilization of the evangelical and traditionalist Catholic communities
and the intrinsic significance of the story would have guaranteed
a very wide viewership."16
The Bishops' Reservations
The American Evangelical churches, including the conservative circles
that usually support Israel such as Billy Graham, praised the film for
powerfully depicting Jesus' last hours and strove to have it screened
as widely as possible. In the Catholic world, two senior officials in
France were critical of the film. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a converted
Jew who in the past had occasionally stressed his being a Jew
and a Christian at the same time, is today the archbishop of Paris.
He stated: "I have deep reservations regarding any effort to turn the
Passion into a theatrical piece and even more so from the cinematographic
version of this effort. I prefer an Icon to the photograph of
an actor playing the role of Jesus, and prefer the sacrament to the
Icon. When we walk in the Via Dolorosa the believers do so truly.
They are not just spectators."17 In another statement, Cardinal Lustiger
recalls the discretion of the Gospels and criticizes the mobs that
run to see Jesus' blood as in horror films. In his view, Gibson should
have implied rather than blatantly shown Christ's sufferings, and Lustiger
dreams of a film in which the nature of Jesus would not be
conveyed by violence.18
And Michel Dubost, the bishop of Evry, criticized films in which
the camera functions as though it is God's sight, and added: "I am
not sure that it is possible to report the Christian stand regarding
violence while violence is being filmed."19 Neither Lustiger nor Dubost,
however, referred to the film's anti-Semitism at all. In Germany,
only a handful of Catholic bishops expressed reservations about the
movie. Father Hoffman, secretary of the Committee for Religious
Relations with the Jews, said: "the church after 'Vatican II' stepped
away from the accusation of deicide that had been cast on the Jewish
people in the Middle Ages. We are emphasizing that there is no room
for anti-Semitism in the Church. During the Middle Ages there were
live showings of The Passion that would later turn into pogroms. One
Pope forbade such presentations."20 This, actually, is an elegant way
of neither criticizing nor endorsing the movie.
The Pope's Position
In Italy, where the film was screened on 7 April 2004 for the first time,
the Catholics were divided according to their ideological tendency.
Those on the Left, such as the monthly Jesus, opposed the movie out
of a wish to defend the resolutions of Vatican II. These same people
support the Palestinian side in the conflict with Israel, and during the
entire intifada have been harshly critical of Israel. The right-wing
Catholic camp, such as the conservative organization Comunione e
Liberazione, supported the film enthusiastically.
At the Vatican, the stance of the Curia, the higher levels of the
Vatican, was to support the film without qualms. Prominent clergymen
of the Pope's surroundings claimed that there is no anti-Semitism
in the movie and nothing further to discuss. In addition, Father
Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope's official preacher, wrote a seven-page
article to prove that the film is truthful and that all the events
it describes are historical.21 Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon
Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican,
had a very positive reaction to the film: "I would like all our Catholic
priests throughout the world to see this film. I hope that all
Christians will be able to see it. Seeing this film provokes love and
compassion. This film is a triumph of art and faith. Anti-Semitism,
like all forms of racism, distorts the truth. This film does nothing
of the sort."22
Father Joseph Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation
for the Doctrine and a Dominican theologian, said with the
evident permission of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his direct superior:
"Seeing the film will be an intensely religious experience for many
people. It was for me. There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish about Mel Gibson's film."23
The Church's unreserved enthusiasm about the film contrasts with
what many perceive as the Pope's friendship toward the Jews. This
author views his attitude differently.24 It is possible that the Pope is
no longer in control of the people surrounding him. Some believe that
he both encouraged and, while he still could, monitored conservative
organizations such as Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione, and the
Neo-Catecumeni, whereas today he is too physically weak to exert
any control. Although the reality is difficult to determine because the
situation of the Pope's health is left unclear, it is even more difficult
to reconcile the Vatican's reaction with his alleged sympathy toward
In any case, Gibson's film inspired heated discussions throughout
the Christian world. It seems clear, however, that any Christian watching
it must feel an intensified hatred toward the Jews, above and beyond
the traditional hostility. Father Charles-Roux, who served as priest on
the set of the film and said Mass in Latin every day on location,
acknowledged: "After two minutes I put my hands over my eyes
because the film was imbued with a frightening brutality. Personally,
I was in shock. Gibson chose to show a slaughterhouse. There have
already been Spanish paintings of the tortured Christ and terrifying
medieval paintings. But this is the first time it has been presented this
way in the cinema."25
No verbal protest could have effectively countered the hatred
toward the Jews that this film conveys to the audience. Nevertheless,
the Jews' silence in the official channels is not to their credit. On 11
July 2004, when the meeting of the International Jewish Committee
on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) closed in Buenos Aires, sponsored
by, among others, the World Jewish Congress, none of the participants
raised the problems presented by the movie. On the contrary,
in a joint declaration, the Jews agreed that Jewish textbooks should
be revised and that all prejudice against Christianity should be expunged
from them. In effect, the Jews accepted a distorted comparison
between themselves and the Christians. Even if there are prejudices
toward Christians among Jews, as there are prejudices among any
population in the world, such attitudes never led to pogroms, persecutions,
and genocide as did the anti-Jewish attitudes of the Catholic
church for two thousand years.
A Doubtful Conformity with the Gospels
Although Mel Gibson claims that his film is in conformity with the
Gospels, many are convinced that it goes beyond them. Moreover, the
Catholic Church does not intend for the faithful to read the Scripture
without commentary or to mix the contents of all four Gospels
In an article in the important monthly Commentary, Prof. David
Berger specifies the points in the movie that clash with the Gospels
or that deviate from historical facts and portray violence above and
beyond what the Gospels say took place.26 In Berger's view, a de facto
alliance has emerged between fundamentalist Protestants who say the
film is faithful to the Gospels and traditional Catholics who have
received it enthusiastically; hence, admiring the film has become a
religious duty. Berger considers the movie a betrayal of many years
of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, being "saturated with anti-Jewish motifs"
and with violence that is "interminable, central, and utterly graphic."
He emphasizes that many of the film's anti-Jewish motifs were not
required by the Gospels; in John, for instance, Jesus was bound and
led away but was not beaten vigorously by the Jews, nor whipped for
ten minutes with various cruel implements.
Foxman, for his part, asserted: "I would like [church authorities]
to remind the public when they see the film that this is Gibson's version
of the Gospel, and not the Gospel version of the Gospel." He added
that many scenes are based not on the New Testament accounts of
Jesus' suffering but on private revelation from Catholic visionaries
such as the 19th century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich. These
scenes, he suggested, exaggerate the guilt of the Jews.27
Indeed, in contrast to Gibson's literal reading, over the past fifty
years many in the Church have become convinced that the Gospels
should be read contextually, taking into account the historical circumstances
in which they were written. As the late Haim Cohen, who
served on the Israeli Supreme Court, argued in his book about the
trial of Jesus, the Gospels are not a historical document but a guide
to their believers. It can therefore be claimed that even if Gibson had
accurately translated the Gospels into a movie, the Gospels themselves
do not tell the story as it really occurred but as second-century Christians
wished it to be heard by Roman ears.28
In fact, a few Catholics have maintained that Gibson's reading
of the Gospels is selective and tendentious. Most of the serious historical
discussion of the movie has been conducted by Catholics rather
The restrained Jewish reactions have achieved little, with only
minor, unimportant changes having been made in the film. Foxman,
however, charged that "Gibson is challenging your [i.e., the Church's]
teaching," and asked for a Vatican statement that the film does not
reflect Catholic belief about the Jews' role in the death of Jesus.
Traveling to Rome in this context on 16-18 February 2004, he stated
that Gibson's movie is "contrary to the teaching of the Second
Vatican Council and church guidelines on the presentation of the
Passion," and added: "for almost 2000 years four words 'the Jews
killed Jesus' were the rationale for anti-Semitism." The only response
he received was from Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the
Pontifical Council for Social Communications, who stated: "I saw
no anti-Semitism in the film," and went on to say that not all the
Jews of Christ's time nor all the Jews of all time were responsible
for His death.29
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Refrains
from Criticizing the Movie
According to Foxman, the United States Conference of Catholic
Bishops (USCCB) appointed Eugene Fisher and the ADL appointed
Rabbi Eugene Korn to set up a scholars' panel consisting of four
Catholics and four Jews to review the script of The Passion, analyze
it, and then decide what should be done.30 When the analysis was
completed, with the panel gaining the impression that the film was
anti-Semitic, it was decided to communicate the analysis to Mel Gibson
privately. Subsequently, both the Conference and the ADL received
lawyers' letters threatening a lawsuit. Apparently, this led the Conference
to withdraw from the joint panel of scholars.
The USCCB's initiative to establish a joint Catholic-Jewish panel
may have stemmed from their reservations about Gibson's religious
fundamentalism. They may have feared a blurring of boundaries between
the Catholic and Protestant churches, with the latter embracing
the movie wholeheartedly. Whatever their reason, they preferred not
to be confronted with an internal Catholic debate.
The Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
(BCEIA), a body within the Bishops' Conference headed by the Most
Reverend Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton, has published a
collection of key Catholic documents on the Church's relationship to
the Jews and its opposition to anti-Semitism.31 The volume includes
a 1988 document by the Bishops' Committee, "Criteria for the Evaluation
of Dramatizations of the Passion." According to these criteria,
the Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious or bloodthirsty, whereas
Pontius Pilate should be presented as the "ruthless tyrant" who is
known from history. The Council also stated that: "the Church reproves
every form of persecution against whomever it may be directed.
Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved
not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation
of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays
of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the
Jews."32 Cardinal William H. Keeler, who as Episcopal Moderator
for Catholic-Jewish Relations raised the idea for this book with the
The charge of collective guilt of the Jews as a people for the death
of Jesus for many centuries distorted in the minds of many Christians
the central truth that our sins are responsible for His death. So
pervasive was this misconception even in the 16th Century that the
Roman Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically sought to rebut
it (I, 5, 11), by reminding us that our sins, committed knowingly as
Christians, are much worse than whatever was done by the few Jews
actually involved in the historical event. Sadly, many ignored the
Roman Catechism and the Second Vatican Council had to reaffirm
this truth in even stronger terminology.33
Yet, while the screenplay of The Passion violated all these criteria,
the Conference not only avoided any criticism of the film or Gibson but
also published a review of the movie that is "on the whole laudatory."34
Foxman noted that even Cardinal Keeler of the USCCB, with
whom he debated after an initial positive review of the film by the
USCCB, "when he saw it a second time...with a Jewish friend, with
a rabbi, he wrote a public letter saying that on second viewing he
begins to understand what it was that the Jewish community was so
concerned and worried about."35
Berger, in the above-mentioned article, observes: "Many Jews worry
that the moderate potential danger posed by The Passion, has been
allowed to outweigh the acute and present danger that currently confronts
the Jewish people - and who is to say that they are wrong?"36
In fact, the point is debatable, and it seems prudent to separate the
two questions: policies toward Israel on the one hand, and Gibson's
movie on the other. The fact that pro-Israeli conservative groups are
also backers of Gibson only underlines the need for Jews to express
their reservations about the movie. Surely, the violent anti-Jewish
scenes will not encourage support for Israel.
A strange alliance has formed between fundamentalist Protestants
and traditional Catholics. Berger fears that the extremist conservative
Patrick Buchanan is trying to create discord between Jews and Evangelical
Christians so as to weaken the Evangelicals' support for Israel,
support that Jewish conservatives view as especially vital.
The tendency among American Jews, however, seems to be to
avoid reacting out of concern that any reaction could be counterproductive.
As Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week, recently wrote:
"The Passion Syndrome is still with us, it seems. For proof, just look
at the debate over Jewish responses to charges of anti-Israel and even
anti-Jewish intimidation by professors at Columbia University and
most recently, protests at a fund raiser for a Palestinian art exhibit in
Westchester." Rosenblatt goes on to ask whether it is better for Jews
to speak out forcefully in their defense or to defer to fears of a negative
It is difficult for a Jew living in Israel to give advice to Jews living
as a small minority in a large country like the United States. That
country, however, is supposed to be a land of free speech and multiculturalism,
where every minority has the right to be respected and not
defamed. When Jews are under attack, their voice must be heard.
When that was not the case in European countries not so long ago,
the result was disaster for the Jewish communities. Naturally, reactions
should be appropriate and proportional. Nevertheless, showing a documentary
proving that some teachers at Columbia University are anti-
Israeli cannot be considered "paranoia." In an era of visual messages,
the Jews should not leave the field to films such as The Passion.
For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church accused the Jews
of having killed Jesus. The narrative of the Passion has been on the
Jewish agenda for a very long time and has played a central role in
fostering anti-Jewish sentiments through the ages. Passion plays, which
were dramas about the death of Jesus, date from the twelfth century
and were enacted in more than three hundred villages in Germany
and Austria, sparking bloody attacks on Jews. Rabbi James A. Rudin,
the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, notes
that all references to Matthew 27:25 - "Then answered all the people,
and said, His blood be on us, and on our children" - were removed
from the 2000 production of the Oberammergau Passion Play and
will not appear in future performances. "It is ironic that Oberammergau,
the 'grandparent' of Passion plays, no longer contains the incendiary
verse from Matthew, but it does appear in Gibson's version."38
According to Rudin, who is senior interreligious adviser to the
American Jewish Committee, the second version of the film is worse
than the first precisely because it includes the blood curse from Matthew.
That curse appears only in Matthew, and was invoked as the
religious proof that because the Jews killed Jesus, they deserved eternal
Gibson's version of history ignores the fact that the Sanhedrin
had no juridical status at the time, and certainly did not have the
power to pronounce a death sentence on a Jew for alleged insurrection
against the Roman ruling power. This was the privilege of the Roman
governor, at that time Pontius Pilate. In addition, the authors of the
Gospels wrote well after the death of Jesus and after the destruction
of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Jewish political
independence was nonexistent by then and one had to come to terms
with the Romans and their harsh rule. Fear of retaliation may be why
the Gospel authors chose to present Pilate as a decent, kind man even
though his contemporaries regarded him as ruthless and cruel. This
period also saw the beginnings of deep enmity between Jews who
remained faithful to their creed and those Jews called Christians who
accepted Jesus as the son of God.
At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Catholic Church
affirmed: "In the guilt of the crucifixion are involved all those who
frequently fell into sin; for our sins consigned Christ to death on the
cross"; thus Jesus died to redeem people from their sins.39 Far from
acquitting the Jews, however, in that era the Church subjected them to
ghettoization, persecution, and discrimination. Jews were also expelled
from several countries, most famously Spain in 1492. As Berger notes:
"The Catholic teaching that all sinners are responsible for the crucifixion
was once seen as perfectly consistent with the doctrine that the
Jewish collective, and the Jewish collective alone, suffered specific,
grave, and ongoing punishment for its role.40
As the historian Raoul Hilberg has shown,41 many of the Church's
measures against Jews were copied by the Nazis during the Shoah. It
was a sense of guilt for a doctrine that had served as an inspiration
to the Nazis that brought the Catholic Church to approve the Nostra
Aetate declaration at the Second Vatican Council. Although marking
the only theological revolution in history and a very important one,
even this document did not fully exonerate the Jews of their supposed
guilt in killing Jesus; the guilt was limited to those Jews who allegedly
took part in the murder.
The Church's lack of reaction to Gibson's movie disproves a recent
claim that "it is no longer our [i.e., Jews'] role to debate who killed
Christ. That is a debate that we are winning for one reason - only
because the churches from their own point of view...are trying to come
to an accommodation with us in these areas."42 This, unfortunately,
is an illusion.
* * *
* * *
1. In the year 2004, a Catholic publisher translated into Italian the autobiography
of Eugenio Zolli, a former Chief Rabbi of Rome who became a
Catholic in 1945. Although his autobiography published in English in 1954
had almost been forgotten, now it was suddenly published in Italian with a
large and loud campaign. Some have linked the timing of this publication,
as the Church approaches the moment when it will choose a new Pope, with
a possible effort to bring the Church back to the time prevailing before the
Second Vatican Council.
2. Ecumenical Council Vatican II, "Declaration on the Relationship of the
Church to Non-Christian Religions," Nostra Aetate (No. 4), 28 October
1965, in: Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, 1970-1985 (Vatican City:
Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988), p. 291.
3. Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., The Church and the Jewish People: Commentary
on the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to
Non-Christian Religions (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966).
4. The organization Opus Dei was created in Spain in 1928 by a Catholic priest,
Escriba de Belaguer, who was later canonized by Pope John Paul II. The
organization combines deep religious feelings with the most modern methods
of mass communication, particularly television. It also has a special university
in Spain where it trains journalists. Many keep secret their membership in
this organization, which is interested in approaching economic and industrial
5. http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/world/2004/0121/pf20787028 21 FR21-
GIBSON.html; "Aide Denies Pope Praised Gibson Film," Irish Times, 21
6. LifeSiteNews.com, 11 March 2004; Navarro-Valls was interviewed that day
in the Italian daily Il Messaggero.
7. http://www.reuters.com, Arthur Spiegelmann, "Jewish Leaders Slam Mel
Gibson's Passion Film," 23 January 2004.
8. www.adl.org, "ADL Concerned Mel Gibson's Passion Could Fuel Anti-
Semitism if Released in Present Form."
11. Jenni Frazer, "Foxman: Passion Has Poison," Jewish Chronicle.
12. "Jews, Christians to Campaign against Gibson's Jesus Film," Haaretz, 2
13. "The Passion a Hit in the Islamic World," Dialogues, June 2004.
14. Spiegelmann, "Jewish Leaders."
15. Quoted in Yair Sheleg, "The Cardinal of Los Angeles Claims that Gibson
Is Not a Catholic," Haaretz, 25 February 2004.
16. David Berger, "Christians and the Passion," Commentary, May 2004, pp.
17. Mgr. Lustiger, "Reservè
sur 'La Passion du Christe' de Mel Gibson," Le
Monde, 21 February 2004 (French).
18. Mgr. Lustiger, "Contre le 'sadisme' du film de Gibson," Le Monde, 26 March
19. Mgr. Lustiger, "Reservè."
20. Marie Noelle Tanchant, "'Passion' de Mel Gibson Attise les passions," Le
Figaro, 17 February 2001 (French).
21. http://www.ad2000.com.au/articles/2003/nov2003p13-2484.html, interview
with Antonio Gasperi, "Vatican Cardinal Praises Mel Gibson's Film 'The
Passion,'" AD2000, Vol. 16, No. 10 (2003).
22. Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic priest. In 1980, he
was appointed by Pope John Paul II as Preacher to the Papal Household in
which capacity he still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent and Lent
in the presence of the Pope, the cardinals, bishops, and prelates of the Roman
Curia and the general superiors of religious orders. Niccolò Del Re, ed., Mondo
Vaticano (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995), p. 874 (Italian).
23. www.chiesa, Sandro Magister, "From a Scourged Jesus to a Cut-Up Gospel:
'The Passion' According to Marcion," 25 March 2004.
24. Izach S. Minerbi, "John Paul II and the Jews," Mahanaim, No. 15, 2004,
pp. 21-34 (Hebrew).
25. Tanchant, "'Passion' de Mel Gibson."
26. Berger, "Christians."
27. http://ncronline.org/NCR - Online/archives2/2004a/022704/022704k.php;
John L. Allen, Jr., "Jewish Activist to Vatican on Gibson Movie: 'It Is Not
as It Was,'" National Catholic Reporter, 27 February 2004.
28. Sergio Minerbi, "La Passione secondo gli ebrei," Il Giornale, 6 April 2004
29. Cindy Wooden, "Jewish Leader Visits Rome, Discusses 'Passion' with Vatican
Officials," Catholic News Services, 17 February 2004.
30. Abraham Foxman, Herbert Berman Memorial Lecture, Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs, 5 July 2004, Jerusalem. Foxman said: "It was decided by
both institutions to set up a scholars' panel - four Catholics, four Jews -
to review the script, come up with an analysis and then decide what to do
31. The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents
(Washington, DC: BCEIA, USCCB, 2004).
32. http://www.bu.alodiocese.org/comm/newsrel/passion.htm, USCCB and the
Diocese of Buffalo, "Bishops' Committee Issues Collection of Documents,"
20 February 2004.
33. Bishops' Committee Issues Collection of Documents on 'The Bible, the Jews,
and the Death of Jesus," Washington, 23 February 2004.
34. Berger, "Christians."
35. Abraham Foxman, Herbert Berman Memorial Lecture, Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs, 5 July 2004, Jerusalem.
36. Berger, "Christians."
37. http: //www.thejewishweek.com/top/ editcolcontent.php3?print>yes; Gary
Rosenblatt, "The 'Passion' Syndrome," Jewish Week, 10 December 2004.
38. Religion News Service, http://www.religionnews.com; James Rudin, "A Jewish
View of Gibson's 'Passion,'" 17 February 2004; c. 2004 Religion News
39. William Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism, A History of Hate, Jason Aronson,
Northvale, 1995, p. 267.
40. Berger, "Christians."
41. Raul Hilberg, "Table of Canonical Law and Nazi Anti-Jewish Measures,"
in The Destruction of European Jewry (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985).
42. Comment by Isi Leibler at the lecture by Abraham Foxman (note 30).
Prof. Sergio Itzhak Minerbi has been ambassador of Israel and
senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has also been a
visiting professor at the University of Haifa. He has published a dozen
books, among them The Vatican and Zionism (1990).
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The above essay appears in the Spring 2005 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.
Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (http://www.jcpa.org/), the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad. The hard copy of the Spring 2005 issue will be available in the coming weeks."
From the Editors - Manfred Gerstenfeld and Shmuel Sandler ..................................................... 1
The Deep Roots of Anti-Semitism in European Society by Manfred Gerstenfeld ........................ 3
The NGOs, Demolition of Illegal Building in Jerusalem, and International Law
by Justus Reid Weiner ........................................................................................................... 47
Eastern Europe: Anti-Semitism in the Wake of Holocaust-Related Issues by Efraim Zuro ......... 63
The International Commission of Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims:
Excellent Concept But Inept Implementation by Sidney Zabludo ............................................. 81
National Socialism and Anti-Semitism in the Arab World
by Matthias Küntzel .............................................................................................................. 99
The Passion by Mel Gibson: Enthusiastic Response in the Catholic World,
Restrained Criticism by the Jews by Sergio I. Minerbi .......................................................... 119
Japanese-Israeli Relations, the United States, and Oil
by Yaacov Cohen .............................................................................................................. 135
Indonesia and Israel: A Relationship in Waiting by Greg Barton and Colin Rubenstein .......... 157
American Jews and Evangelical Christians: Anatomy of a Changing Relationship
by Carl Schrag ................................................................................................................... 171
Jews and Fundamentalism by Samuel C. Heilman ................................................................ 183
Hazkarah: A Symbolic Day for the Reconstituting of the Jewish-Ethiopian Community
by Emanuela Trevisan Semi ................................................................................................ 191
Defeating Anti-Israeli and Anti-Semitic Activity on Campus - A Case Study:
Rutgers University by Rebecca Leibowitz ............................................................................ 199
Book Reviews: Joel S. Fishman, Manfred Gerstenfeld .......................................................... 215
About the Contributors ....................................................................................................... 223
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