No anti-Semitic fallout from 'Passion'
Film made people re-examine their views, less willing to cast blame, survey finds

Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2004
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

Despite fears that it could promote anti-Semitism, the new film by Mel Gibson "The Passion of the Christ'' may have made Americans less likely to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, according to a new survey.

Among those interviewed for a new national poll who had seen or knew about the film, 83 percent said the movie and its surrounding controversy had no effect on the extent they believe contemporary Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. Only 2 percent said the movie made them more likely to blame Jews, while 9 percent said the movie made them less likely to hold Jews responsible.

The poll by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco surveyed 1,003 randomly selected adults from March 5 to 9. The margin of error was 3.7 percentage points.

Gary Tobin, president of the institute, called the findings "good news.''

"While the film may have a different impact elsewhere in the world, so far 'The Passion of the Christ' is not producing any significant anti-Jewish backlash,'' Tobin said.

Even before the film's Feb. 25 release, some Jewish leaders predicted that Gibson's depiction of the last day in the life of Jesus could provoke anti-Semitism.

Those fears rose after the movie opened and was condemned by some critics for what they called a negative, stereotypic characterization of the Jewish community during the time of the crucifixion.

But what actually happened, Tobin said, was a widespread discussion in the news media, churches and synagogues about the role of the Jews and the Romans in the trial and execution of Jesus.

"People have had to think and reflect on their beliefs,'' Tobin said. "This film was absolutely healthy for religion in America.''

Others are not so sure.

Jonathan Bernstein, director of the San Francisco office of the Anti- Defamation League, said the poll earlier this month was conducted too soon and did not sample enough viewers.

"The core issue with this film may not be who was to blame for the death of Jesus, but its overall anti-Semitic stereotypic images,'' Bernstein said. "Those images will stick with people forever, just like we think of Charlton Heston when we think of Moses.''

Bernstein said his office has gotten a couple dozen hateful phone calls since the film came out. Jewish children, he said, have been called "Christ- killers'' on school campuses.

Tobin defended the poll, which included 146 people who had actually seen the movie. Of those, 5 percent said they were now more likely to blame Jews for the death of Jesus, compared with 12 percent who were less inclined to do so.

Tobin said the pollsters had asked questions designed to measure anti- Semitic opinions beyond the "death of Jesus" issue.

"They (anti-Semitic views) were all down compared to two years (ago)," he said.

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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