Mel Gibson's Martyrdom Complex

By Frank Rich
NY Arts & Leisure (August 3, 2003)

The Jews didn't kill Christ," my stepfather was fond of saying. "They just worried him to death."
Nonetheless, there was palpable relief in my Jewish household when the Vatican officially absolved us of the crime in 1965. At the very least, that meant we could go back to fighting among ourselves.

These days American Jews don't have to fret too much about the charge of deicide -- or didn't, until Mel Gibson started directing a privately financed movie called "The Passion," about Jesus' final 12 hours. Why worry now? The star himself has invited us to. Asked by Bill O'Reilly in January if his movie might upset "any Jewish people," Mr. Gibson responded: "It may. It's not meant to. I think it's meant to just tell the truth. ... Anybody who transgresses has to look at their own part or look at their own culpability."

Fears about what this "truth" will be have been fanned by the knowledge that Mr. Gibson bank-rolls a traditionalist Catholic church unaffiliated with the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese. Traditionalist Catholicism is the name given to a small splinter movement that rejects the Second Vatican Council -- which, among other reforms, cleared the Jews of deicide. The Wall Street Journal's opinion pages, which have lavished praise on Mr. Gibson and his project, reported in March in an adulatory interview with the star that the film's sources included the writings of two nuns: Mary of Agreda, a 17th-century Spaniard, and Anne Catherine Emmerich, an early-19th-century German. Only after Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, among others, spoke up about the nuns' history of anti-Semitic writings did a Gibson flack disown this provenance.

Emmerich's revelations include learning that Jews had strangled Christian children to procure their blood. It's hard to imagine a scenario that bald turning up in "The Passion." Indeed, it's hard to imagine the movie being anything other than a flop in America, given that it has no major Hollywood stars and that its dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin (possibly without benefit of subtitles). Its real tinder-box effect could be abroad, where anti-Semitism has metastasized since 9/11, and where Mr. Gibson is arguably more of an icon (as his production company is named) than he is at home. He shot "The Passion" in Italy, where a recent cartoon in the newspaper La Stampa showed Israeli tanks about to roll over the baby Jesus' manger. "Do you want to kill me once more?" read the caption.

In recent weeks Mr. Gibson has started screening a rough cut of his film to invited audiences, from evangelicals in Colorado Springs to religious leaders in Pennsylvania to celebrities in Washington. But the attendees are not always ecumenical. At the Washington screening, they included Peggy Noonan, Kate O'Beirne, Linda Chavez and David Kuo, the deputy director of the White House's faith-based initiative. Like the membership lists of restricted country clubs that let in a minority member or two to deflect charges of discrimination, the screening guest list did include a token Jew: that renowned Talmudic scholar Matt Drudge. No other Jewish members of the media were present, said one journalist who was there.

That journalist must remain unnamed as a result of signing a confidentiality agreement -- a practice little seen at movie screenings. Since then, some of those present, including Mr. Drudge, have publicly expressed their enthusiasm for "The Passion" without legal reprisal, anyway. One invitee, the radio host Laura Ingraham, gave Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post a sense of the event's tone when she told him why she was sorry she couldn't get to the screening in time: "I want to see any movie that drives the anti-Christian entertainment elite crazy."

If "The Passion" is kosher, couldn't Mr. Gibson give Jews the same access to a Washington media screening, so they could see for themselves? Such inhospitality is not terribly Christian of him. One Jewish leader whose requests to see the film have been turned away is Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. "If you tell everyone they won't see it until it's ready, O.K.," Mr. Foxman said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. "But what Gibson's done is preselect those who'll be his supporters. If the movie is a statement of love, as he says it is, why not show it to you or me?"

When I addressed this question last week to the star's press representative, Alan Nierob, he told me that the ADL was being kept out because it had gone public with its concerns -- as indeed it had, once Mr. Foxman's letter to Mr. Gibson about "The Passion" failed to net a meeting with the filmmaker or a screening three months after it had been sent. When I asked to see "The Passion," Mr. Nierob said The New York Times was a "low priority" because The Times Magazine had run an "inaccurate" article in March in which Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson's father and a prominent traditionalist Catholic author, was quoted as saying that the Vatican Council was "a Masonic plot backed by the Jews" and that the Holocaust was a charade. But in fact, neither Hutton nor Mel Gibson -- nor anyone else -- has contacted the magazine to challenge the accuracy of a single sentence in the article in the four months since its publication.

Given Mr. Nierob's inclination to use p.r. spin to defend a Holocaust denier, it was hard to take seriously his claim that the invitation lists to"Passion"screenings "have nothing to do with anyone's religion." Especially when he laughed as I questioned him about it. As it happened, Star Jones praised the film that day on "The View," saying she had attended a New York screening. How had she seen "The Passion," and Barbara Walters had not? Ms. Jones was invited by her pastor.

Eventually, Mr. Gibson's film will have to face audiences he doesn't cherry-pick. We can only hope that the finished product will not resemble the screenplay that circulated this spring. That script --which the Gibson camp has said was stolen but which others say was leaked by a concerned member of the star's own company -- received thumbs down from a panel of nine Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars who read it. They found that Jews were presented as "bloodthirsty, vengeful and money-hungry," reported The Jewish Week, which broke the story of the scholars' report in June. One of the panelists, Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio professor of Scripture at Boston University, writes in the current issue of The New Republic that all her colleagues were "shocked" by the screenplay's resemblance to the passion plays of old (or not so old, in the case of Germany).

Perhaps "The Passion" bears little resemblance to that script. Either way, however, damage has been done: Jews have already been libeled by Mr. Gibson's politicized rollout of his film. His game from the start has been to foment the old-as-Hollywood canard that the "entertainment elite" (which just happens to be Jewish) is gunning for his Christian movie. But based on what? According to databank searches, not a single person, Jewish or otherwise, had criticized "The Passion" when Mr. Gibson went on Bill O'R eilly's show on Jan. 14 to defend himself against "any Jewish people" who might attack the film. Nor had anyone yet publicly criticized "The Passion" or Mr. Gibson by March 7, when The Wall Street Journal ran the interview in which the star again defended himself against Jewish critics who didn't yet exist. (Even now, no one has called for censorship of the film -- only for the right to see it and, if necessary, debate its content.)

Whether the movie holds Jews of two millenniums ago accountable for killing Christ or not, the star's pre-emptive strategy is to portray contemporary Jews as crucifying Mel Gibson. A similar animus can be found in a new book by one of Mr. Gibson's most passionate defenders, the latest best seller published by the same imprint (Crown Forum) that gave us Ann Coulter's"Treason."In "Tales From the Left Coast," James Hirsen writes, "The worldview of certain folks is seriously threatened by the combination of Christ's story and Gibson's talent."

Now who might those "certain folks" be? Since no one was criticizing "The Passion" when Mr. Hirsen wrote that sentence, you must turn elsewhere in the book to decode it. In one strange passage, the author makes a fetish of repeating Bob Dylan's original name, Robert Zimmerman -- a gratuitous motif in a tirade that is itself gratuitous in a book whose subtitle says its subject is "Hollywood stars." Another chapter is a screed about how "faith is often the subject of ridicule and negative portrayal" in Hollywood. One of the more bizarre examples Mr. Hirsen cites is"Sophie's Choice,"in which "passages from the New Testament are quoted by Nazi officials in support of atrocities that were committed."

Now sectarian swords are being drawn. The National Association of Evangelicals, after a private screening of "The Passion," released a statement last week saying, "Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel," and implying that such support could vanish if Jewish leaders "risk alienating two billion Christians over a movie." Mr. Foxman says he finds that statement "obnoxious and offensive."

"Here's the first time we've heard that linkage: we support Israel, so shut up about anti-Semitism," he added. "If that's what support of Israel means, no thanks."

But the real question here is why Mr. Gibson and his minions would go out of their way to bait Jews and sow religious conflict, especially at this fragile historical moment. It's enough to make you pray for the second coming of Charlton Heston.  

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