Jewish Bids to Amend 'Passion' Film Were Pointless
By Nathan Guttman
Last update - 01:15 23/03/2004
March 23, 2004
WASHINGTON - Four weeks after it came to the cinemas,
Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ" about
he last hours in the life of Jesus continues to make headlines.
Alongside the debate over the question of the possible
influences of the film on anti-Semitic feelings among its viewers, "The
Passion" has also entered the public consciousness as a film
that has continued to shatter all the usual standards of the American
film industry, with record earnings and unprecedented box office
It is already possible to say that efforts by Jewish
organizations to insert amendments into the film or to educate potential
viewers has been only partially successful. On the one hand, the
extensive public debate that developed before the film was released,
the dozens of public debates at which church people and Jewish representatives
were present, the endless broadcast hours that the television networks
have devoted to the matter and the many newspaper articles have succeeded
in explaining to a large extent why the Jews are concerned about
the film and what, in their opinion, is wrong with it.
Also, the discussion has contributed to the emphasis
on the modern church's reservations about any attempt to understand
that the Jews must be blamed for killing Christ or that they bear
the blame to day for his crucifixion.
But the success is only partial. The demand by the
Jewish organizations to add a kind of postscript to the film that
would make it clear that the church has taken decisions that absolve
the Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus was rejected outright
by Gibson, as well as the demand to excise the scene in which the
Jewish high priest says that the blood of Jesus will be on the hands
of the Jews and their descendants.
Gibson did refrain from translating this bit, which
is spoken in Aramaic, but he did not cut it out of the film. Moreover,
the warnings about "The Passion" issued by Jewish leaders
and rabbis in the United States have not, apparently, succeeded in
deterring anyone from going to see the film.
Millions of Americas have already seen it, and many
more will do so. Surveys show that thus far 16 percent of adult Americans
have seen the film and another 48 percent plan to see it in the future.
In terms of absolute numbers, this means that approximately 135 million
people will see the film, not including young people, because officially
it is restricted to adults only.
The conclusion is that "The Passion" does
not have the image of a problematic film that should be avoided,
at least among the majority of the American public.
Initial attempts to evaluate the possibility the film
would encourage anti-Semitic sentiments among the viewing public
hint that the fears were exaggerated. Although this is only a preliminary
examination of the effects of "The Passion," at the moment
the findings are showing that Gibson's audiences have not been coming
out of the film with a feeling that the Jews are guilty.
A study conducted by Gary Tobin, President of the San
Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research questioned
about 1,000 randomly chosen people during the first week of March.
A large majority of the respondents who have seen the film or are
familiar with its details - 83 percent - said it has not caused them
to blame the Jews today for the death of Jesus.
Nine percent said that the film made them even less
prone to see the Jews today as responsible for the crucifixion and
only 2 percent said that they now felt a greater tendency to blame
the Jews for killing Jesus. On the 146 respondents who have already
seen the film, 80 percent said that it had not affected their opinion,
5 percent that it had increased their inclination toward blaming
the Jews, and 12 percent said that it had decreased this inclination.
Tobin says that he was surprised by these findings
because the film is laden with anti-Semitic views yet nevertheless
it has not caused people to change their attitudes toward the Jews
Similar findings also emerged from a survey conducted
by the Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which works toward promoting
good relations between Jews and Christians, especially among the
Evangelical community in the United States.
A large majority of the 2,500 people who participated
in the survey, which was conducted on the Internet and is therefore
considered less reliable, said that all of humanity is responsible
for Christ's death. Only 1.7 percent said that they see the Jews
as to blame for the crucifixion.
Orthodox Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who heads the Fellowship,
an organization that in recent years has contributed large sums to
causes in Israel, said that the data are proof that the American
Christian public has long abandoned the idea of the collective guilt
of the Jews for the death of Jesus. "They have a far deeper
and more nuanced understanding of Scripture than many Jewish leaders
give them credit for," said Rabbi Eckstein.
Abraham (Abe) Foxman, the national Director of the
Anti-Defamation league (ADL) and the man on the frontlines of the
struggle against Gibson's film, is in no hurry to be convinced that "The
Passion" is not harmful.
"I am not sure that based on 160 people that saw
the film we can reach conclusions," he said with reference to
Tobin's survey. As against findings that show the film has not aroused
anti-Semitic responses among viewers, Foxman told about the inundation
of hate mail that has been coming in to the ADL because of its activity
against the way "The Passion" depicts the Jews' role in
the crucifixion of Christ.
He says that reports are also coming in to this office
of hate letters that are being sent to film critics and journalists
who write against the film, and he even tells of cases of throughout
the United States of children and teenagers calling their Jewish
peers "Christ-killers." "This has sparked something," says
Foxman. "It's not an epidemic, but it's out there."
The most faithful target audience of "The Passion" are
members of the Evangelical churches in the United States. Gibson
has made a special marketing effort among these congregations, which
number tens of millions of believers, especially in the region of
the American "Bible belt."
He held previews for preachers and church leaders,
distributed explanatory materials and led many of those who attended
the previews to urge every believer to go see the film. It is no
wonder that more than one quarter of those who have already seen
the film do not usually go to the movies. "The Passion" is
considered an act of piety, not an evening of going out to the movies.
For more than a decade now the state of Israel has
been conducting a romance with the Evangelicals in the United States.
These are enthusiastic supporters of Israel, he have no qualms about
coming for visits to Israel even during difficult security periods
and they do not conceal their support for the Jewish settlements
in the territories and their opposition to plans to establish an
independent Palestinian state.
In the American Jewish community they have been deliberating
long and hard about the attitude toward the Evangelicals. While many
elements are adopting the Evangelicals thanks to their unwavering
support for Israel, others, especially liberals, have argued that
this is an overly conservative group. They say it is interested in
friendship with Israel and the Jews only as part of the realization
of the Christian vision of salvation, at the end of which the Jews
will in any case disappear.
Over time, the mainstream of the Jewish community has
adopted the friendship with the Evangelicals, with their support
for Israel overriding any other consideration. In the opinion of
some, "The Passion" is a test of these connections.
Spreading the word
While the Jewish community is working against the film,
their Evangelical friends have been enthusiastic about it and have
even defined it as an important means of spreading the belief in
Abe Foxman says that he thinks that this should not
be seen as an excuse to terminate the friendship with the Evangelicals
and notes that even people who love the film can still be supporters
He evinces a forgiving attitude toward the Evangelicals
and says that many of them make no connection between the killing
of Christ and anti-Semitism, as they are not familiar with the history
and the connection between the argument that the Jews are guilty
of killing Christ and Western anti-Semitism. "That's ignorance,
not bigotry," he says.
Another question is what will happen when the film
is distributed outside the United States, in the countries of Latin
America and Eastern Europe? While American society is considered
to be relatively immune to anti-Semitism, in other countries this
immunity does not exist and the film could have greater influence.
Even now it appears that a high number of the viewers of the film
are members of the Latino communities in the United States, which
is the largest group of people who are coming to see the film more
than one time.
It also turns out that in recent days the film has
been enjoying popularity among a Muslim audience in Arab countries.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, who saw the film in
his office in Ramallah, is not the only one.
According to reports in the media, pirated DVD copies
of the film of "The Passion" are being sold by peddlers
in Saudi Arabia and are enjoying a great success there. As the debate
over the influence of "The Passion"" continues, the
evidence of its commercial success is undeniable. This film is a
When Gibson first proposed the idea of making a film
about the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, he encountered scornful
reactions from the large studios in Hollywood, which said that he
was crazy and there was no market for such a film. Gibson invested
more than $25 million of his own money in the film and produced it
Today he is about to become, thanks to this decision,
one of the wealthiest people in the American film world. Cautious
estimates put the earnings of the film at over $300 million during
the first weeks of its screening, which already make it the most
profitable film in the category of adults-only films.
But the flow of earnings is far from slacking off -
the distributors estimate that the approaching Easter holiday and
spring vacation will bring a new wave of viewers to the film theaters,
which will bring in earnings of about $400 million. Half of this
sum will go to the distribution company and Gibson will pocket about
To this must be added his share in the expected profits
from the worldwide distribution of the film, from the sale and rental
of recordings of the film for home viewing and from the sale of products
connected to the film, which will increase his profits to more than
half a billion dollars. This sum will allow enable Gibson in the
future to produce his films without the good graces of the studio
Among other things it will allow him easily to realize
his dream, about which he spoke in a newspaper interview last week,
of producing a film about the Maccabee rebellion.
IJCR Home Page
Back to IJCR Media