Jewish "Officialdom" and the Passion of the Christ: Who Said What and What Did They Say?

Article excerpt

Introduction

Among the falsely perceived myths not only of this historical American Jewish experience but the contemporary one as well is that of a singular American Jewish community, seemingly united by such common factors as religious faith and belief; love of and support for a continuously beleaguered State of Israel; higher educational agendas for the young; support for defensive organizations against the on-going post-Holocaust/Shoah specter of antisemitism; politically left-wing, liberal, primarily Democratic voter identification; uncanny fund-raising abilities; opposition to inter-religious or mixed-marriages; socio-economic concerns associated with middle-class to upper-middle-class to upper-class lives, and the like. The reality of the American Jewish community is, however, quite the opposite: While certain concerns may assume dominating positions momentarily only to be replaced by others, the myth of unity is precisely that: myth. American Jews remain divided along religious lines, have strong and varied opinions about the State of Israel and its political and military behaviors, are divided about how best to confront antisemitism both in the American context and elsewhere, continue to be conflicted about the best course of action in response to increasing intermarriage rates, find themselves increasingly both protective and preservative of their achieved socio-economic status, and the like.

Commensurate with this historical and contemporary divisiveness is the one question that, in truth, has been the bane of the American Jewish experience: Who, in fact, speaks for the Jews? Who best represents on the national and international stages Jewish concerns? The plethora of Jewish organizations -- more than 600, according to the 2003 edition of The American Jewish Yearbook published by The American Jewish Committee -- dramatically and graphically supports the contention that there are many representative voices at the table purporting to speak for American Jews, some louder than others depending upon the issue and context, and more often than not, upon membership numbers. Thus, just as the Jews of the United States do not form a unified community, so, too, do their representative spokespersons not speak with one voice regardless of the issues before them.

Enter Hollywood icon Mel Gibson and his religio-cinematic blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, pre-screened in February 2004, released to coincide with the Easter holy day season, and complete with an end-of-August DVD availability. Though much ink has already been spilled about every possible aspect of this film and its implications by every possible commentator, the one truism that speaks loudest is the following: Jews and Christians, in the main, whether or not they sat together or saw the film together, saw two very different movies out of their, ultimately, divergent concerns. For many Christians, the film was a religiously cathartic experience, truly expanding their understanding as never before of the loving gift of the Christ's willing suffering and life-sacrifice, and re-affirmed for many the culpability and guilt of all humanity responsible for His death. For Jews, the continuously negative portrayals of the Jewish leaders, primarily priests, and the Jewish populace was, quite simply, the newest adumbration of antisemitism -- a modern, technological "Passion play" not radically other than that produced once every decade in Oberammergau, Germany; the very same play which saw Adolf Hitler in attendance and confirming for him and others of his ilk the Jew as eternal and perpetual enemy. Thus, for these same Christians the film was a religio-theological experience; for Jews the film was an historical experience. And into the fray came any number of Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders and their Jewish concerns. Who said what and what they said are the loci of this essay.

I. The Findings

Beyond any question, the one American Jewish organization which "led the fight" against the perceived antisemitic agenda of the film and its co-writer and producer was and remains the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith under its National Director Dr. …