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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

Abraham H. Foxman
Jewish activist to Vatican on Gibson movie: 'It is not as it was'


A Jewish activist who has been leading the charge against “The Passion of the Christ” said he would drop his complaints if both Mel Gibson and church authorities, especially the Vatican, would acknowledge that the film “is not as it was” -- in effect, that it goes beyond the New Testament.

The reference is to Pope John Paul II’s alleged comment on the movie, “It is as it was,” later denied by his private secretary. The comment was taken to mean that the film faithfully depicts the Gospels.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was in Rome Feb. 15-18 for meetings with Vatican officials to talk about the Gibson film. NCR spoke with him Feb. 16.

“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,” Foxman said.

Foxman noted 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 Jews.

“I say [to church officials], wait a minute, this is an attack on you, not an attack on us,” Foxman said. “This man challenges Vatican teaching. Why are we the only ones raising our voice? Where are you?”

Foxman met Feb. 16 with Archbishop John Foley, an American who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He was scheduled to see Fr. Norbert Hofmann, a German who runs the desk for relations with Jews in the Council for Christian Unity, on Feb. 18. Foxman had hoped to meet Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s point person for relations with Jews, but Kasper is in Moscow for meetings with Russian Orthodox officials.

Foxman said Foley told him he has no plans to make any statement along the lines Foxman has requested.

“There is a sense of disappointment that the official establishment doesn’t understand why we’re upset,” Foxman said. “For almost 2,000 years, Western civilization’s anti-Semitism was anchored in four words: ‘The Jews killed Christ.’ We thought that in the last 20 to 50 years, we had come to grips with it.”

The U.S. bishops recently issued a 150-page guide to discussion of issues raised by the film, titled The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents. Foxman argued, however, that it’s too long and complicated for most people to get the point.

“We wanted a simpler, more direct statement about what the church believes and doesn’t believe about deicide,” Foxman said, referring to the charge that the Jews killed Christ.

Foxman argued that the Jewish community could not take “The Passion” in stride, given the role that images of Jews as “Christ-killers” have played in stoking anti-Semitism.

“Hitler saw [the passion play] in 1934 in Oberammergau [Germany] and said the whole world should see it. ‘They’ll understand why I despise the Jews,’ ” Foxman quoted Hitler as saying. “I can’t ignore the fact that Christians killed Jews Monday through Friday in Auschwitz and went to church on Sunday. So they had this disconnect. Why? Because they were killing Christ-killers.”

Foxman said such attitudes are not dead.

“We just did a survey that found one out of four Americans still believes that the Jews killed Christ, and that’s before film,” Foxman said. “I’m also worried about the rest of the world, about Latin America, about Europe, about the Middle East.

“[The movie] is playing at a time when anti-Semitism is out there. I don’t think we’re going to see pogroms, but it’s going to reinforce and strengthen the attitudes that the Jews killed Jesus.”

Foxman said Jews bring a special sensitivity to the film.

“Jews in the shtetl used to close their doors and hide on Easter Sunday,” he said. “There’s a spike in anti-Semitic activities around Easter around the world, because that’s when the clash arises.” In such a context, he said, the Gibson movie could augment anti-Semitism in a “latent, subliminal” fashion.

“The Passion of the Christ” was set to open in the United States on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

Allen interviews noted Catholic thinkers in Rome about pro-choice Catholics running for political office in The Word From Rome at

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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