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The Passion by Mel Gibson: Enthusiastic Response in the Catholic World, Restrained Criticism by the Jews

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, International Law
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 17:1-2 (Spring 2005)


Mel Gibson’s film The Passion, first screened for the public on Ash Wednesday, 25 February 2004, aroused great interest among both Jews and Christians. The film’s anti-Semitic content and violence were the major reasons for the wide attention it received.

On 3 October 2004, Pope John Paul II beatified Ann-Catherine Emmerich, whose visions were the basis for the movie, thus indirectly giving his blessing to the film. Several Vatican personalities have claimed that the film is not anti-Semitic.

Among Jewish organizations, the debate centered on whether one should criticize the film or avoid doing so, in order not to increase the interest in the movie. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League was one of the few Jewish leaders who did raise his voice against the film.


Among many other roles, Mel Gibson’s more memorable parts were those of the Scottish clansman in Braveheart as well as of Martin Briggs in Lethal Weapon, films that were replete with action and violence. Yet these works, which constitute a popular form of entertainment, were outdone several times by the violence in a movie that Gibson directed, The Passion of the Christ. The escalation in the level of violence and in the number of graphic, gory scenes is not the only difference between the films: when spectators faint while watching Jesus turned into pulp, they do so not only because the scene is difficult to watch but, according to Gibson, because they are witnessing the true story of the murder of Jesus.

Gibson used the mystical visions of a nun by the name of Ann- Catherine Emmerich, who lived two centuries ago (1774-1824), as the historical basis for his movie. This fact could have remained a mere curiosity had not the Vatican chosen to renew the discussion about her beatification at this very time. The first stages of Emmerich’s beatification were already begun in 1928, but only on 7 July 2003 was she found to have produced a miracle, which is an essential condition for making her a saint. The beatification procedure was completed on 3 October 2004. This action clearly indicates the Church’s formal support for the ideological and religious basis of the movie, a support all the more grave in light of the massive anti-Semitism in the film, which blatantly blames the Jews for all of Jesus’ suffering. Considering how these sufferings are presented in the movie, these are grave accusations indeed. Furthermore, it is not a coincidence that Gibson’s movie came out before Easter. This holiday reminds every Christian of Jesus’ Via Dolorosa, of his murder and his murderers. According to nearly two thousand years of Church teachings, these murderers are none other than the Jews; Gibson’s movie thus uses popular beliefs to reinforce the validity of his version. The fact that the Vatican found no reason to criticize Gibson’s movie calls for a renewed discussion of the Vatican’s stand toward the Jews and toward anti-Semitism, in light of the Vatican II Council, but particularly in light of Pope John Paul II’s long career of presumed reconciliation with the Jews.

The Passion has attracted great attention because of its title, the way the subject was handled, and because of the terrific violence it displays. The initial investment in the film came to $25-$30 million. Within a few weeks, it was shown in over 2,400 movie theaters in the United States and had brought in over $350 million – and there are plans to screen it in various churches. However, our concern here is not a financial one. The Passion of the Christ was presented to the public on Ash Wednesday, 25 February 2004.

This article will examine the reactions to the film of Pope John Paul II and his surroundings, as well as those of Catholic officials and their flocks from around the world. It will also discuss the reactions among both Diaspora and Israeli Jewry.

The film is a striking example of the violence common in American cinema, a kind of violence that reaches new and terrible levels in The Passion. Turning the Gospels into a visual document, a movie, provides it with an additional dimension, a dramatic and tangible one, which in this film is aimed against the Jews. It is hard to imagine a more anti-Semitic expression precisely because cinema is such a popular medium, and this expression has been accepted by most of the Catholic Church.

At present, the most conservative forces within the Church are preparing for the approach of the Pope’s demise and the choice of his successor. These forces seek to return the Church to the situation that preceded the Vatican II Ecumenical Council.1 A hundred years after the previous Ecumenical Council (Vatican I in 1869-1870), Vatican II was an earthquake in the thought and ritual of the Church. Mass was no longer to be conducted in Latin but in the vernacular language; and for the Jews, it was highly significant that in 1965 the Council approved the declaration Nostra Aetate, which stated: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.”2 Nevertheless, despite many claims, this text – important as it is – does not constitute an acquittal of the Jewish people from the two-thousand-year-old charge. Despite what many believe, Nostra Aetate, in this author’s view, diminishes the collective blame against all Jews but does not eliminate it. Cardinal Augustin Bea, who was the initiator of the declaration, wrote that since there were harsh protests from the Arab world, it was considered wiser to eliminate the text from the Council’s agenda in 1962. Later, in 1965, a much-revised text was approved.3


The Involvement of Opus Dei

Mel Gibson belongs to a fundamentalist Catholic sect that was founded by the extremist French bishop Marcel Lefevre and that repudiates the reforms instituted by Vatican II. For example, the sect performs its Mass in Latin and does not accept Vatican II’s innovations. Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, who belongs to the sect as well, is particularly extreme and goes so far as to deny the Shoah.

Also, Activists of Opus Dei4 were involved in producing the movie and it is possible that the organization itself was even more involved. It is known that a member of the organization presented the film to Pope John Paul II on 5-6 December 2003. According to certain sources, the Pope’s reaction to the private screening was: “It is as it was.” On the other hand, the Pope’s secretary and friend, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, denied this and said the Pope “told no one his opinion of this film…the Pope does not make judgments on art of this kind. He leaves that to others, to experts.”5

The official spokesman of the Vatican, however, Joaquin Navarro- Valls, gave a different version and strongly implied that the Pope does not consider the film to be anti-Semitic: “If the film were to be considered anti-Semitic, then the Gospels would also have to be considered so,” Navarro-Valls said. The papal spokesman said the Pope had seen the film and despite calls to distance the Catholic Church from it, had remained silent. “The subsequent silence by the hierarchy is eloquent,” added Navarro-Valls.6 In fact, Navarro-Valls himself belongs to Opus Dei.


Jewish Opposition and Its Effectiveness

The reactions of Jews were few and generally very reserved. Most Jewish organizations did not refer to the movie at all, choosing to keep quiet; others gave strange reasoning to explain why one must not attack the anti-Semitism in the movie. Apparently, we have gone back a few decades to a time in which Jews were afraid to express themselves in any way against anti-Semitism, for fear that their words would make it worse.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), did come out against the movie, which he viewed by sneaking into a screening for Christian ministers.7 Already on 11 August 2003, the ADL’s concerns were expressed: “The film relies on sinister stereotypes, portraying Jews as blood-thirsty, sadistic and money-hungry enemies of God who lack compassion and humanity.”8

Foxman noted that the movie portrays the Jewish authorities and the Jewish masses as responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus. “We are deeply concerned that the film, if released in its present form, could fuel the hatred, bigotry, and anti-Semitism that many responsible churches have worked hard to repudiate.”9 Foxman found that whenever possible, the blame was cast on the Jews rather than on the Church that had propagated the hatred against them.

Rabbi Eugene Korn, the ADL’s director of intrareligious affairs, said that the movie awakens the demon of deicide.10 When it seemed that the Pope was in favor of the movie, Foxman said that since the Pope was not anti-Semitic, then the film must not be either. Later on, when it emerged that the Pope had mumbled something incomprehensible that was interpreted as denying any support for the movie, Foxman attacked the movie again but was almost alone in doing so. Although pointing out that the movie denigrates the Jews and almost absolves the Romans of their responsibility in Jesus’ death, Foxman was not willing to say the film was outright anti-Semitic.11

Jewish organizations reacted to the movie in various ways. Rabbi David Elcott, interfaith director of the American Jewish Committee, said that the film “undermines the progress that we have made in this country towards mutual respect and religious pluralism.” This was one of the few firm, candid, valuable statements. Mark Pelavin, director of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Interreligious Affairs in the United States, encouraged the Reform communities “to sit down with the churches in your communities” to discuss the film.12 Such a dialogue would, however, remain one-sided since Christian doctrine is the province of ministers of the Church and not of outsiders. Jewish- Christian dialogue is helpful only when it respects the differences between the two faiths.

Surprisingly, many Jewish circles preferred to keep silent rather than express an opinion, believing that any public criticism might be harmful. Given, however, that the film’s distribution to more than 2,400 American cinemas was achieved with the help of the Evangelical churches, some leaders, Jewish and Christian alike, were more concerned about the film’s influence in Arab countries than in the United States. Indeed, the film was hugely successful in certain Arab countries, especially Jordan where tickets were sold weeks in advance. The Muslim audience apparently forgot that according to the Koran the crucifixion of Jesus never took place, instead finding a justification for their anti-Semitism in the movie.13

Although reactions by Jews would have made very little difference in the movie’s success, it is not the possible effect of their statements that should guide Jewish leaders; Jews should have criticized the film whatever the effect of their statements. In addition, those within the Church who did have criticisms of the movie should at least have received Jewish support. Fear of arousing Christians’ anger paralyzed the Jews, but such fear precludes dialogue. The evident lack of Jewish leadership reflected the grave misunderstanding of those who are convinced that Pope John Paul II is necessarily a friend of the Jews.

Elan Steinberg, then deputy director of the World Jewish Congress, said he “wondered if Jewish criticism of the film would be counterproductive” and that his Jewish colleagues should “keep quiet” because their complaints would only increase the interest in the movie.14 Similarly Rabbi David Rosen, representative of the American Jewish Committee in Israel, said that he “is not afraid that the movie would arouse anti-Semitism but that a massive Jewish opposition would raise anger in the Christian quarters against the Jews who are trying to allegedly ‘prevent the Christians from presenting their faith.'”15

Other American Jewish organizations took similar positions and avoided criticizing the movie so as not to spark a controversy between the religions. Above all, they feared harming in any way their dialogue with the church establishments in America. As for Israel, there, too, criticism of the film was meager and restrained.

This movie would hardly have disappeared into the void had the ADL and others kept silent. Prof. David Berger, after criticizing Foxman, had to admit that: “The technical quality of the production, the mobilization of the evangelical and traditionalist Catholic communities and the intrinsic significance of the story would have guaranteed a very wide viewership.”16


The Bishops’ Reservations

The American Evangelical churches, including the conservative circles that usually support Israel such as Billy Graham, praised the film for powerfully depicting Jesus’ last hours and strove to have it screened as widely as possible. In the Catholic world, two senior officials in France were critical of the film. Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, a converted Jew who in the past had occasionally stressed his being a Jew and a Christian at the same time, is today the archbishop of Paris. He stated: “I have deep reservations regarding any effort to turn the Passion into a theatrical piece and even more so from the cinematographic version of this effort. I prefer an Icon to the photograph of an actor playing the role of Jesus, and prefer the sacrament to the Icon. When we walk in the Via Dolorosa the believers do so truly. They are not just spectators.”17 In another statement, Cardinal Lustiger recalls the discretion of the Gospels and criticizes the mobs that run to see Jesus’ blood as in horror films. In his view, Gibson should have implied rather than blatantly shown Christ’s sufferings, and Lustiger dreams of a film in which the nature of Jesus would not be conveyed by violence.18

And Michel Dubost, the bishop of Evry, criticized films in which the camera functions as though it is God’s sight, and added: “I am not sure that it is possible to report the Christian stand regarding violence while violence is being filmed.”19 Neither Lustiger nor Dubost, however, referred to the film’s anti-Semitism at all. In Germany, only a handful of Catholic bishops expressed reservations about the movie. Father Hoffman, secretary of the Committee for Religious Relations with the Jews, said: “the church after ‘Vatican II’ stepped away from the accusation of deicide that had been cast on the Jewish people in the Middle Ages. We are emphasizing that there is no room for anti-Semitism in the Church. During the Middle Ages there were live showings of The Passion that would later turn into pogroms. One Pope forbade such presentations.”20 This, actually, is an elegant way of neither criticizing nor endorsing the movie.


The Pope’s Position

In Italy, where the film was screened on 7 April 2004 for the first time, the Catholics were divided according to their ideological tendency. Those on the Left, such as the monthly Jesus, opposed the movie out of a wish to defend the resolutions of Vatican II. These same people support the Palestinian side in the conflict with Israel, and during the entire intifada have been harshly critical of Israel. The right-wing Catholic camp, such as the conservative organization Comunione e Liberazione, supported the film enthusiastically.

At the Vatican, the stance of the Curia, the higher levels of the Vatican, was to support the film without qualms. Prominent clergymen of the Pope’s surroundings claimed that there is no anti-Semitism in the movie and nothing further to discuss. In addition, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pope’s official preacher, wrote a seven-page article to prove that the film is truthful and that all the events it describes are historical.21 Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, had a very positive reaction to the film: “I would like all our Catholic priests throughout the world to see this film. I hope that all Christians will be able to see it. Seeing this film provokes love and compassion. This film is a triumph of art and faith. Anti-Semitism, like all forms of racism, distorts the truth. This film does nothing of the sort.”22

Father Joseph Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine and a Dominican theologian, said with the evident permission of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his direct superior: “Seeing the film will be an intensely religious experience for many people. It was for me. There is absolutely nothing anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish about Mel Gibson’s film.”23

The Church’s unreserved enthusiasm about the film contrasts with what many perceive as the Pope’s friendship toward the Jews. This author views his attitude differently.24 It is possible that the Pope is no longer in control of the people surrounding him. Some believe that he both encouraged and, while he still could, monitored conservative organizations such as Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione, and the Neo-Catecumeni, whereas today he is too physically weak to exert any control. Although the reality is difficult to determine because the situation of the Pope’s health is left unclear, it is even more difficult to reconcile the Vatican’s reaction with his alleged sympathy toward the Jews.

In any case, Gibson’s film inspired heated discussions throughout the Christian world. It seems clear, however, that any Christian watching it must feel an intensified hatred toward the Jews, above and beyond the traditional hostility. Father Charles-Roux, who served as priest on the set of the film and said Mass in Latin every day on location, acknowledged: “After two minutes I put my hands over my eyes because the film was imbued with a frightening brutality. Personally, I was in shock. Gibson chose to show a slaughterhouse. There have already been Spanish paintings of the tortured Christ and terrifying medieval paintings. But this is the first time it has been presented this way in the cinema.”25

No verbal protest could have effectively countered the hatred toward the Jews that this film conveys to the audience. Nevertheless, the Jews’ silence in the official channels is not to their credit. On 11 July 2004, when the meeting of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) closed in Buenos Aires, sponsored by, among others, the World Jewish Congress, none of the participants raised the problems presented by the movie. On the contrary, in a joint declaration, the Jews agreed that Jewish textbooks should be revised and that all prejudice against Christianity should be expunged from them. In effect, the Jews accepted a distorted comparison between themselves and the Christians. Even if there are prejudices toward Christians among Jews, as there are prejudices among any population in the world, such attitudes never led to pogroms, persecutions, and genocide as did the anti-Jewish attitudes of the Catholic church for two thousand years.


A Doubtful Conformity with the Gospels

Although Mel Gibson claims that his film is in conformity with the Gospels, many are convinced that it goes beyond them. Moreover, the Catholic Church does not intend for the faithful to read the Scripture without commentary or to mix the contents of all four Gospels together.

In an article in the important monthly Commentary, Prof. David Berger specifies the points in the movie that clash with the Gospels or that deviate from historical facts and portray violence above and beyond what the Gospels say took place.26 In Berger’s view, a de facto alliance has emerged between fundamentalist Protestants who say the film is faithful to the Gospels and traditional Catholics who have received it enthusiastically; hence, admiring the film has become a religious duty. Berger considers the movie a betrayal of many years of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, being “saturated with anti-Jewish motifs” and with violence that is “interminable, central, and utterly graphic.” He emphasizes that many of the film’s anti-Jewish motifs were not required by the Gospels; in John, for instance, Jesus was bound and led away but was not beaten vigorously by the Jews, nor whipped for ten minutes with various cruel implements.

Foxman, for his part, asserted: “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.” He added 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 the Jews.27

Indeed, in contrast to Gibson’s literal reading, over the past fifty years many in the Church have become convinced that the Gospels should be read contextually, taking into account the historical circumstances in which they were written. As the late Haim Cohen, who served on the Israeli Supreme Court, argued in his book about the trial of Jesus, the Gospels are not a historical document but a guide to their believers. It can therefore be claimed that even if Gibson had accurately translated the Gospels into a movie, the Gospels themselves do not tell the story as it really occurred but as second-century Christians wished it to be heard by Roman ears.28

In fact, a few Catholics have maintained that Gibson’s reading of the Gospels is selective and tendentious. Most of the serious historical discussion of the movie has been conducted by Catholics rather than Jews.

The restrained Jewish reactions have achieved little, with only minor, unimportant changes having been made in the film. Foxman, however, charged that “Gibson is challenging your [i.e., the Church’s] teaching,” and asked for a Vatican statement that the film does not reflect Catholic belief about the Jews’ role in the death of Jesus. Traveling to Rome in this context on 16-18 February 2004, he stated that Gibson’s movie is “contrary to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and church guidelines on the presentation of the Passion,” and added: “for almost 2000 years four words ‘the Jews killed Jesus’ were the rationale for anti-Semitism.” The only response he received was from Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, who stated: “I saw no anti-Semitism in the film,” and went on to say that not all the Jews of Christ’s time nor all the Jews of all time were responsible for His death.29


The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Refrains from Criticizing the Movie

According to Foxman, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) appointed Eugene Fisher and the ADL appointed Rabbi Eugene Korn to set up a scholars’ panel consisting of four Catholics and four Jews to review the script of The Passion, analyze it, and then decide what should be done.30 When the analysis was completed, with the panel gaining the impression that the film was anti-Semitic, it was decided to communicate the analysis to Mel Gibson privately. Subsequently, both the Conference and the ADL received lawyers’ letters threatening a lawsuit. Apparently, this led the Conference to withdraw from the joint panel of scholars.

The USCCB’s initiative to establish a joint Catholic-Jewish panel may have stemmed from their reservations about Gibson’s religious fundamentalism. They may have feared a blurring of boundaries between the Catholic and Protestant churches, with the latter embracing the movie wholeheartedly. Whatever their reason, they preferred not to be confronted with an internal Catholic debate.

The Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (BCEIA), a body within the Bishops’ Conference headed by the Most Reverend Stephen E. Blaire, Bishop of Stockton, has published a collection of key Catholic documents on the Church’s relationship to the Jews and its opposition to anti-Semitism.31 The volume includes a 1988 document by the Bishops’ Committee, “Criteria for the Evaluation of Dramatizations of the Passion.” According to these criteria, the Jews should not be portrayed as avaricious or bloodthirsty, whereas Pontius Pilate should be presented as the “ruthless tyrant” who is known from history. The Council also stated that: “the Church reproves every form of persecution against whomever it may be directed. Remembering, then, her common heritage with the Jews and moved not by any political consideration, but solely by the religious motivation of Christian charity, she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.”32 Cardinal William H. Keeler, who as Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations raised the idea for this book with the committee, commented:

The charge of collective guilt of the Jews as a people for the death of Jesus for many centuries distorted in the minds of many Christians the central truth that our sins are responsible for His death. So pervasive was this misconception even in the 16th Century that the Roman Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically sought to rebut it (I, 5, 11), by reminding us that our sins, committed knowingly as Christians, are much worse than whatever was done by the few Jews actually involved in the historical event. Sadly, many ignored the Roman Catechism and the Second Vatican Council had to reaffirm this truth in even stronger terminology.33

Yet, while the screenplay of The Passion violated all these criteria, the Conference not only avoided any criticism of the film or Gibson but also published a review of the movie that is “on the whole laudatory.”34 Foxman noted that even Cardinal Keeler of the USCCB, with whom he debated after an initial positive review of the film by the USCCB, “when he saw it a second time…with a Jewish friend, with a rabbi, he wrote a public letter saying that on second viewing he begins to understand what it was that the Jewish community was so concerned and worried about.”35


Political Aspects

Berger, in the above-mentioned article, observes: “Many Jews worry that the moderate potential danger posed by The Passion, has been allowed to outweigh the acute and present danger that currently confronts the Jewish people – and who is to say that they are wrong?”36 In fact, the point is debatable, and it seems prudent to separate the two questions: policies toward Israel on the one hand, and Gibson’s movie on the other. The fact that pro-Israeli conservative groups are also backers of Gibson only underlines the need for Jews to express their reservations about the movie. Surely, the violent anti-Jewish scenes will not encourage support for Israel.

A strange alliance has formed between fundamentalist Protestants and traditional Catholics. Berger fears that the extremist conservative Patrick Buchanan is trying to create discord between Jews and Evangelical Christians so as to weaken the Evangelicals’ support for Israel, support that Jewish conservatives view as especially vital. The tendency among American Jews, however, seems to be to avoid reacting out of concern that any reaction could be counterproductive.

As Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the Jewish Week, recently wrote: “The Passion Syndrome is still with us, it seems. For proof, just look at the debate over Jewish responses to charges of anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish intimidation by professors at Columbia University and most recently, protests at a fund raiser for a Palestinian art exhibit in Westchester.” Rosenblatt goes on to ask whether it is better for Jews to speak out forcefully in their defense or to defer to fears of a negative backlash.37

It is difficult for a Jew living in Israel to give advice to Jews living as a small minority in a large country like the United States. That country, however, is supposed to be a land of free speech and multiculturalism, where every minority has the right to be respected and not defamed. When Jews are under attack, their voice must be heard. When that was not the case in European countries not so long ago, the result was disaster for the Jewish communities. Naturally, reactions should be appropriate and proportional. Nevertheless, showing a documentary proving that some teachers at Columbia University are anti- Israeli cannot be considered “paranoia.” In an era of visual messages, the Jews should not leave the field to films such as The Passion.



For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church accused the Jews of having killed Jesus. The narrative of the Passion has been on the Jewish agenda for a very long time and has played a central role in fostering anti-Jewish sentiments through the ages. Passion plays, which were dramas about the death of Jesus, date from the twelfth century and were enacted in more than three hundred villages in Germany and Austria, sparking bloody attacks on Jews. Rabbi James A. Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, notes that all references to Matthew 27:25 – “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children” – were removed from the 2000 production of the Oberammergau Passion Play and will not appear in future performances. “It is ironic that Oberammergau, the ‘grandparent’ of Passion plays, no longer contains the incendiary verse from Matthew, but it does appear in Gibson’s version.”38

According to Rudin, who is senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee, the second version of the film is worse than the first precisely because it includes the blood curse from Matthew. That curse appears only in Matthew, and was invoked as the religious proof that because the Jews killed Jesus, they deserved eternal divine punishment.

Gibson’s version of history ignores the fact that the Sanhedrin had no juridical status at the time, and certainly did not have the power to pronounce a death sentence on a Jew for alleged insurrection against the Roman ruling power. This was the privilege of the Roman governor, at that time Pontius Pilate. In addition, the authors of the Gospels wrote well after the death of Jesus and after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Jewish political independence was nonexistent by then and one had to come to terms with the Romans and their harsh rule. Fear of retaliation may be why the Gospel authors chose to present Pilate as a decent, kind man even though his contemporaries regarded him as ruthless and cruel. This period also saw the beginnings of deep enmity between Jews who remained faithful to their creed and those Jews called Christians who accepted Jesus as the son of God.

At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Catholic Church affirmed: “In the guilt of the crucifixion are involved all those who frequently fell into sin; for our sins consigned Christ to death on the cross”; thus Jesus died to redeem people from their sins.39 Far from acquitting the Jews, however, in that era the Church subjected them to ghettoization, persecution, and discrimination. Jews were also expelled from several countries, most famously Spain in 1492. As Berger notes: “The Catholic teaching that all sinners are responsible for the crucifixion was once seen as perfectly consistent with the doctrine that the Jewish collective, and the Jewish collective alone, suffered specific, grave, and ongoing punishment for its role.40

As the historian Raoul Hilberg has shown,41 many of the Church’s measures against Jews were copied by the Nazis during the Shoah. It was a sense of guilt for a doctrine that had served as an inspiration to the Nazis that brought the Catholic Church to approve the Nostra Aetate declaration at the Second Vatican Council. Although marking the only theological revolution in history and a very important one, even this document did not fully exonerate the Jews of their supposed guilt in killing Jesus; the guilt was limited to those Jews who allegedly took part in the murder.

The Church’s lack of reaction to Gibson’s movie disproves a recent claim that “it is no longer our [i.e., Jews’] role to debate who killed Christ. That is a debate that we are winning for one reason – only because the churches from their own point of view…are trying to come to an accommodation with us in these areas.”42 This, unfortunately, is an illusion.

*     *     *



1. In the year 2004, a Catholic publisher translated into Italian the autobiography of Eugenio Zolli, a former Chief Rabbi of Rome who became a Catholic in 1945. Although his autobiography published in English in 1954 had almost been forgotten, now it was suddenly published in Italian with a large and loud campaign. Some have linked the timing of this publication, as the Church approaches the moment when it will choose a new Pope, with a possible effort to bring the Church back to the time prevailing before the Second Vatican Council.
2. Ecumenical Council Vatican II, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” Nostra Aetate (No. 4), 28 October 1965, in: Fifteen Years of Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, 1970-1985 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988), p. 291.
3. Augustin Cardinal Bea, S.J., The Church and the Jewish People: Commentary on the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966).
4. The organization Opus Dei was created in Spain in 1928 by a Catholic priest, Escriba de Belaguer, who was later canonized by Pope John Paul II. The organization combines deep religious feelings with the most modern methods of mass communication, particularly television. It also has a special university in Spain where it trains journalists. Many keep secret their membership in this organization, which is interested in approaching economic and industrial leaders.
5. 21 FR21- GIBSON.html; “Aide Denies Pope Praised Gibson Film,” Irish Times, 21 January 2004.
6., 11 March 2004; Navarro-Valls was interviewed that day in the Italian daily Il Messaggero.
7., Arthur Spiegelmann, “Jewish Leaders Slam Mel Gibson’s Passion Film,” 23 January 2004.
8., “ADL Concerned Mel Gibson’s Passion Could Fuel Anti- Semitism if Released in Present Form.”
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Jenni Frazer, “Foxman: Passion Has Poison,” Jewish Chronicle.
12. “Jews, Christians to Campaign against Gibson’s Jesus Film,” Haaretz, 2 February 2004.
13. “The Passion a Hit in the Islamic World,” Dialogues, June 2004.
14. Spiegelmann, “Jewish Leaders.”
15. Quoted in Yair Sheleg, “The Cardinal of Los Angeles Claims that Gibson Is Not a Catholic,” Haaretz, 25 February 2004.
16. David Berger, “Christians and the Passion,” Commentary, May 2004, pp. 21-33.
17. Mgr. Lustiger, “Reservè sur ‘La Passion du Christe’ de Mel Gibson,” Le Monde, 21 February 2004 (French).
18. Mgr. Lustiger, “Contre le ‘sadisme’ du film de Gibson,” Le Monde, 26 March 2004 (French).
19. Mgr. Lustiger, “Reservè.”
20. Marie Noëlle Tanchant, “‘Passion’ de Mel Gibson Attise les passions,” Le Figaro, 17 February 2001 (French).
21., interview with Antonio Gasperi, “Vatican Cardinal Praises Mel Gibson’s Film ‘The Passion,'” AD2000, Vol. 16, No. 10 (2003).
22. Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan Capuchin Catholic priest. In 1980, he was appointed by Pope John Paul II as Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent and Lent in the presence of the Pope, the cardinals, bishops, and prelates of the Roman Curia and the general superiors of religious orders. Niccolò Del Re, ed., Mondo Vaticano (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995), p. 874 (Italian).
23. www.chiesa, Sandro Magister, “From a Scourged Jesus to a Cut-Up Gospel: ‘The Passion’ According to Marcion,” 25 March 2004.
24. Izach S. Minerbi, “John Paul II and the Jews,” Mahanaim, No. 15, 2004, pp. 21-34 (Hebrew).
25. Tanchant, “‘Passion’ de Mel Gibson.”
26. Berger, “Christians.”
27. – Online/archives2/2004a/022704/022704k.php; John L. Allen, Jr., “Jewish Activist to Vatican on Gibson Movie: ‘It Is Not as It Was,'” National Catholic Reporter, 27 February 2004.
28. Sergio Minerbi, “La Passione secondo gli ebrei,” Il Giornale, 6 April 2004 (Italian).
29. Cindy Wooden, “Jewish Leader Visits Rome, Discusses ‘Passion’ with Vatican Officials,” Catholic News Services, 17 February 2004.
30. Abraham Foxman, Herbert Berman Memorial Lecture, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 5 July 2004, Jerusalem. Foxman said: “It was decided by both institutions to set up a scholars’ panel – four Catholics, four Jews – to review the script, come up with an analysis and then decide what to do with it.”
31. The Bible, the Jews and the Death of Jesus: A Collection of Catholic Documents (Washington, DC: BCEIA, USCCB, 2004).
32., USCCB and the Diocese of Buffalo, “Bishops’ Committee Issues Collection of Documents,” 20 February 2004.
33. Bishops’ Committee Issues Collection of Documents on ‘The Bible, the Jews, and the Death of Jesus,” Washington, 23 February 2004.
34. Berger, “Christians.”
35. Abraham Foxman, Herbert Berman Memorial Lecture, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 5 July 2004, Jerusalem.
36. Berger, “Christians.”
37. http: // editcolcontent.php3?print>yes; Gary Rosenblatt, “The ‘Passion’ Syndrome,” Jewish Week, 10 December 2004.
38. Religion News Service,; James Rudin, “A Jewish View of Gibson’s ‘Passion,'” 17 February 2004; c. 2004 Religion News Service.
39. William Nicholls, Christian Anti-Semitism, A History of Hate, Jason Aronson, Northvale, 1995, p. 267.
40. Berger, “Christians.”
41. Raul Hilberg, “Table of Canonical Law and Nazi Anti-Jewish Measures,” in The Destruction of European Jewry (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985).
42. Comment by Isi Leibler at the lecture by Abraham Foxman (note 30).

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Prof. Sergio Itzhak Minerbi has been ambassador of Israel and senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Haifa. He has published a dozen books, among them The Vatican and Zionism (1990).