Mel Gibson’s mouth has turned into a lethal weapon.
So suggests Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, following a series of published and oral comments made by the award-winning Hollywood actor and director concerning his controversial upcoming movie about the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
"Recent statements by Mel Gibson paint the portrait of an anti-Semite," Foxman told The Jewish Week Tuesday.
While the debate has been raging for months over "The Passion" and its negative portrayal of Jews, no mainstream Christian or Jewish community leader has until now made such a direct charge against Gibson, who is directing and financing his $30 million labor of love.
Interfaith critics instead have focused on the bloody movie, saying that by promoting the 2,000-year-old charge of Christ killers against Jews, the film would fuel anti-Semitism around the world.
It would come, they say, from people who were never taught that the Vatican officially repudiated the deicide charge against Jews nearly 40 years ago at the Vatican II conference called Nostra Aetate.
But Foxman says it is clear now that the 47-year-old Gibson, an ultra-conservative Catholic who does not accept the Vatican reforms, is spouting "classic anti-Semitism."
Foxman adds that it is clear the actor doesn’t fall far from the tree. Gibson’s 85-year-old father, Hutton, has been quoted as saying far fewer Jews died in the Holocaust than 6 million, and is a conspiracist who says Jews are behind recent Vatican reforms.
"There’s no longer a debate where [Mel Gibson] is coming from," Foxman said Tuesday. "He is a true believer that the true story of the suffering [of Jesus] is that the Jews made him suffer."
Foxman cited Gibson’s statements at an interfaith screening of "The Passion" in Houston last month, and in the Sept. 15 issue of The New Yorker magazine. In the latter, the Oscar-winning director of "Braveheart" portrays himself as being persecuted like Jesus for making the film, and as a victim of a murderous cabal who forced him to make changes in the film that could end his career.
Foxman notes that in the magazine, Gibson regrets excising a scene in which the high priest recites the curse from the Gospel of Matthew proclaiming that the blood of Jesus is upon him and his children.
Said Gibson: "But, man, if I included that in there, they’d be coming after me at my house, they’d come kill me," referring to the ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other critics, correspondent Peter J. Boyer writes.
Later, Boyer reports that Gibson accuses "modern secular Judaism" of blaming "the Holocaust on the Catholic Church. And it’s a lie. And it’s revisionism. And they’ve been working on that one for a while."
"When you put those things together," said Foxman, "that is a portrait of an anti-Semite. To me this is classic anti-Semitism."
Gibson’s spokesman Alan Nierob said this is the first time he’s heard a charge of anti-Semitism directed at Gibson.
"It’s an irresponsible statement," Nierob said. "I won’t even dignify it with a response."
Foxman’s declaration comes on the heels of several significant developments about the movie, slated for release next spring. Two senior Vatican officials publicly endorsed the film and made ominous statements about its critics.
The praise sheds new light on a major theological battle within the Catholic Church between progressives and conservatives over Church doctrine during the waning reign of Pope John Paul II.
Progressive Catholic scholars are criticizing the film for violating Vatican teachings about how to accurately and responsibly tell the story of Jesus’ death, known as the Passion, and the Jewish role in it.
But last week Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the top Vatican official in charge of the Congregation for the Clergy, a Vatican subcommittee charged with implementing religious decrees, hailed the movie as a "triumph of art and faith" after seeing it in Rome.
"I would like all our Catholic priests throughout the world to see this film," he told an Italian television reporter. "I hope all Christians will be able to see it and all people everywhere." He disputed the notion that the film is in any way anti-Semitic.
Further, Archbishop John Foley, an American serving in the Vatican communications office, told the Associated Press he thought the film was excellent based on trailers he saw. (Trailers can be accessed on the Internet). He doubted the validity of criticism.
"I don’t think they would be well-founded criticisms because all the material in the film comes directly from the Gospel accounts. So if they’re critical of the film, they would be critical of the Gospel," Archbishop Foley said.
But Rev. John Pawlikowki, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, who criticized the script as being anti-Jewish and violating Church teachings last April with an ad hoc group of Catholic and Jewish scholars, said the Church officials are ignoring the real issue.
"I regret that none of the Catholic leaders … have addressed the substance of our critique," he told The Jewish Week Monday. "That substance is that the main story line puts the primary responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Jewish cabal led by Caiphas [the Jewish high priest]. This is contrary to the recent Catholic documents and modern biblical scholarship. Until they show in a concrete way how the script squares with these documents and with modern biblical scholarship their endorsements ring hollow."
Rev. Pawlikowski noted that neither Cardinal Hoyos nor Archbishop Foley are Vatican spokesmen on Catholic-Jewish relations. He called on Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s commission on Religious Relations with Jews, to address the issue.
Foxman also called on Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, the Church’s top liaison in America to Jews , to speak out in light of the praise from the two Vatican clerics.
Foxman and ADL interfaith director Rabbi Eugene Korn met privately with Cardinal Keeler last month, when the cleric declined to publicly enter the fray over the movie.
(Catholic scholars including Sister Mary Boys of Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary and Dr. Philip Cunningham of Boston College’s Center for Christian Jewish Learning met with Cardinal Keeler last week, sources told The Jewish Week.)
Foxman sent a letter Tuesday asking Cardinal Keeler to speak out now because if the public only hears the voices of Church officials supporting the movie, "people will assume the Church in fact is endorsing this film."
A spokesman for Cardinal Keeler told The Jewish Week Tuesday that he has not seen the movie nor read the script and would not comment.
However, Rabbi Korn said that Keeler privately has agreed "in principle to begin a broad educational campaign for the Catholic community to teach the correct Catholic teaching" about the Crucifixion and Judaism.
"Many people are unaware of this, and some are either knowingly or unknowingly are reverting back to old pre-Vatican II understandings.
"We have ridden into the middle of ideological war between conservative Catholics and Vatican II progressive Catholics," Rabbi Korn said. "The Catholic Church in America has to speak out very clearly about the issues this movie raises."
"One of the problems is people are going to see this film and are going to conclude that’s the way it is because they don’t know anything different, it’s part of the religious illiteracy in our country," Sister Boys said. "We really have to find ways to educate them about interpreting Scripture more thoughtfully."
Mel Gibson’s mouth has turned into a lethal weapon.