Jewish Bids to Amend 'Passion' Film Were Pointless

By Nathan Guttman
Ha'aretz
www.haaretzdaily.com
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 success.

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 today.

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.

Foxman fumes

"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."

Evangelical test

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 Jesus.

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 of Israel.

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 huge success.

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 himself.

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 $150 million.

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 owners.

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.

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