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Jews, Christians plan campaign to counter image of Jews in Mel Gibson's Jesus film

Posted: Friday, January 30, 2004

Jews and Christians who fear Mel Gibson's epic on the crucifixion of Jesus will fuel anti-Semitism are planning lecture series, interfaith talks and other programs to try to mute the film's impact.

Gibson has insisted that ''The Passion of the Christ,'' set to be released Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, does not malign Jews.

However, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, whose representatives saw a version the movie last week, said it contained destructive stereotypes about the Jewish role in Christ's death.

Critics of the film hope to explain how dramatizations of the crucifixion, called Passion plays, were used in the Middle Ages to incite anti-Jewish violence, and emphasize that many Christian denominations now reject the idea of collective Jewish responsibility in the slaying of Jesus.

''Do I think there will be pogroms (massacres) as a result of this movie? No,'' said Rabbi David Elcott, the American Jewish Committee's interfaith director.

''It's part of something larger, which is a hardening of religious conversation. It is such an absolutist movie. It undermines the progress that we've made in this country toward mutual respect and religious pluralism.''

Opponents do not plan boycotts or protests outside theaters.

''Artists have every right to create any kind of movie they want, but an audience has the absolute right to pass judgment on that,'' said Rabbi James Rudin, a longtime interfaith adviser for the committee, a public policy organization based in New York.

The campaign is being undertaken in the face of a massive evangelistic effort by many American churches in conjunction with the movie's release. Several prominent conservative Christians, including the Rev. Billy Graham, said the film was among the most powerful depictions they'd seen of Christ's last hours.

Evangelical supporters of the film agree with Gibson that it does not blame Jews for Christ's death but instead follows biblical teaching that Jesus died because of the sins of each individual ever born. They plan sermons and lectures related to the movie, and have even produced special Bibles that contain images from the film.

In response, the American Jewish Committee is sending a 40-page resource guide to its chapters nationwide on how to explain Jewish concerns about the film. Rudin also is urging Christian colleagues not to use the movie as an education tool.

The Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College has posted a study guide for viewers explaining Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and how Christian churches came to reject the charge of deicide against the Jews. The center also plans a series of talks on the subject.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has not commented on the movie, plans to reissue its criteria for dramatizing the crucifixion along with papal and church statements on Catholic-Jewish relations.

The Second Vatican Council, a series of meetings in the 1960s that modernized the Roman Catholic Church, declared that Jews were not collectively responsible for Christ's death.

Leaders of Reform Judaism, a liberal branch of the religion, are preparing educational materials for members and encouraging them to ''sit down with churches in your community'' to discuss the film, said Mark Pelavin, director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, through its panel on Lutheran-Jewish relations, is urging pastors to ''teach boldly'' that the mainline Protestant denomination does not ''demean, malign or harm the Jewish people'' when preaching the Gospel.

''We hope people will be on guard against any tendency to blame 'the Jews' collectively for Jesus' death, rather than only a small circle of Jewish collaborators with the Roman authorities,'' said the Rev. Franklin Sherman, chairman of the Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations.

Separately, the church communications director, the Rev. Eric Shafer, reviewed the movie and said he did not believe it was anti-Jewish. But he argued the film was ''part Gospel story and part myth'' and he worried viewers would assume it was based entirely on the Bible.

Jewish and Christian leaders have said they are less concerned about reaction to the film in the United States than they are about screenings overseas, where anti-Semitism is on the rise and where some Muslim extremists have used the charge of deicide to spark anti-Jewish violence.

Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, said it was too soon to know whether debate about the movie ultimately will damage interfaith relations.

Christian-Jewish relations periodically encounter ''conflicted moments where both sides reassess where they are vis-a-vis the other,'' Cunningham said. ''We're in the midst of one such moment because of the Gibson film.''

On the Net:

''The Passion of the Christ'': http://www.thepassionofthechrist.com

American Jewish Committee: http://www.ajc.org/

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning: http://www.bc.edu/research/cjl/



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