Poor Abe Foxman.The national director of the Anti-Defamation League says he is being criticized from both sides for his response to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”
While Foxman charges that the film has been “a setback” for Christian-Jewish relations, many Christians, and more than a few Jews, are blaming the ADL leader for harming interfaith affairs by speaking out against the film — not to mention helping to create a box-office bonanza for Gibson by creating a controversy and media buzz. (Box-office sales are setting records, and Gibson recouped his $30 million for the film in two days.)
On the other hand, Foxman says a well-known Jewish intellectual complained to him last week that he was too easy on Gibson and should have called the film, and its director, anti-Semitic. Others think Jewish leaders should be pointing out Holocaust denial statements made by Gibson’s father, Hutton, and pressuring the Hollywood star to denounce his father’s beliefs.
But Foxman, at 63 one of the most identifiable Jews in America, is sticking to his guns, insisting the ADL was right in trying find the right balance, saying the film was not anti-Semitic, but that its depiction of Jews as responsible for the death of Jesus could fuel anti-Semitism here and especially around the world.
Foxman, eager to put “The Passion” furor behind him, has heard all the charges that he stirred the controversy and gave the film priceless hype and countless millions of dollars in sales.
“To some extent that’s true,” he said in an interview Monday at his office near the United Nations. “But I ask myself, did we have a choice? And at the end of the day, I believe the answer is no.”
The dilemma — how to play the anti-Semitism card in a society that has become both more sophisticated and more shrill — is one that Foxman and the ADL face countless times a day. But with national attention on “The Passion” controversy so heated and in a world where anti-Semitism has become more of a concern than at any time since the fall of Hitler, the stakes are that much higher.
Add to the already potent Christian-Jewish theological mix the conservative-liberal political battle in this country, the Christian America vs. Secular Hollywood culture war, the Jews Control Hollywood illusion and the fact that Gibson is an American “icon,” according to Foxman, and you have a media storm that is as complex as it is explosive.
Gibson says the Jewish community is picking on him, making unfair demands on his artistic freedom.
Taking to the friendly confines of “The Tonight Show” last Thursday, he told his buddy, host Jay Leno, that he could not understand what all the ruckus was about. Gibson portrayed himself, as he has in other interviews, as the innocent man of religious faith merely trying to make a film true to his beliefs and consistent with the Gospels.
Clearly, millions of Christians empathize with that position. Many who have seen the film found it incredibly moving and say they resent that some Jews are trying to make them feel guilty about experiencing a powerful personal and emotional connection to Jesus. To many Christian eyes, it seems, “The Passion” is not about blaming Jews but embracing Jesus.
Is it possible that Foxman, who has made a career of aggressively defending Jewish causes through a combination of personal conviction, media savvy and a deep sense of his own kishkes as well as national Jewry’s, is out of step here?
“He put his foot in his mouth and gave Gibson $15 million worth of free publicity,” said the Rev. Philip Eichner of Foxman in an oft-heard complaint.
Rev. Eichner is president of Kellenberg Memorial in Uniondale, the largest Catholic high school in Long Island.
Then there’s the hate mail. Foxman is used to it, but says many of the letters he is receiving on this issue are signed and profess Christian love.
“It’s ugly,” he said. “These messages are wrapped in faith and very anti-Semitic.”
Foxman also is being criticized by some Jewish leaders for taking on a no-win issue in such a high-volume, public way.
“The hysteria of the Jewish response was uncalled for,” Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, head of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and a persistent critic of the ADL, said this week. “We have fought this and lost.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in a statement on the film implicitly criticized Foxman when he said, “The fact that we need to be saying something doesn’t mean that what we say is wise, thoughtful or effective.”
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, a professor, author and longtime Jewish leader, was more blunt, telling the New York Observer that “the ADL is the bully in town” and that anyone who disagrees with the 90-year-old agency’s tactics is portrayed as “treasonable.”
Most of the Jewish criticism of the Gibson film has come from Foxman and his competitor (and sometime colleague) Rabbi Marvin Hier, who heads the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which just this week opened a tolerance museum in Midtown only a few blocks from ADL headquarters (see story on page 8).
Another major national Jewish defense agency, the American Jewish Committee, prides itself on taking a more low-key, scholarly approach to issues of anti-Semitism, racism and prejudice. It, too, has also called the Gibson film “a setback” to interfaith dialogue, but its statements have been less confrontational in nature and emphasize the need for more dialogue.
Head And Heart
Abe Foxman’s greatest strength and weakness is that he takes everything personally. And with his combination of warmth, smarts, feistiness and Yiddishe heart, he has come to personify to many Americans — Jewish and Christian — not only the ADL but the Jewish community.
A child of the Holocaust who was born in Poland and raised during the war by his Catholic nanny before being reunited with his parents, his personal biography gives his primary message — beware of the dangers that can be unleashed by anti-Semitism — added power and meaning.
To those who say he invokes the Holocaust too readily, or in the case of “The Passion” that he was too vocal in complaining about the film portraying the Jews as “bloodthirsty and vengeful” and to blame for Jesus’ death, Foxman has a ready response.
“As a Holocaust survivor,” he told a press conference the other day at the ADL, “I think I speak for most of the Jewish community when I say that 60 years ago, we were told to be quiet, and we paid a heavy price.”
At the press conference, and more forcefully at a luncheon Monday for about 100 ADL supporters at the national headquarters, Foxman went through the chronology of his involvement with “The Passion.”
He insisted that it was Gibson, not him, who made this a major media event when the movie star and director announced almost a year and a half ago that he would be attacked for his interpretation in making a film about Jesus’ death.
Foxman said he sought to reach out to Gibson privately and through major Hollywood figures. The point, he said, was not to tell Gibson what to do but to try to sensitize him to the Jewish community’s concerns.
“We would have said ‘Do what you want,’ ” Foxman said at the luncheon. “But we would have urged him to be careful. We would have asked him to understand that for 1,950 years, four words were used to fuel and legitimize anti-Semitism: ‘The Jews killed Christ.’ ”
But there was no response from Gibson, and Foxman charged that the world’s most famous Traditionalist Catholic (a small sect believing in a pre-Vatican II form of the religion that emphasizes the culpability of the Jews in Jesus’ death) interpreted the four Gospels on the Jesus story by “cherry picking” from each to portray the Jews in the worst possible light, all the while insisting that his movie reflects “the Gospel truth.”
One senses what Foxman would really like to say about Gibson and his motives but does not for fear of overplaying the anti-Semitism card. But he points out that Gibson “had choices all along the way.”
“We tried to reach out to him but at the end of the day, we didn’t have a choice,” Foxman told his supporters. “For those who say to us ‘how dare you tell us what to believe,’ I say that if what you believe killed us [over the centuries], I have a right to say ‘be careful.’ ”
Foxman says he did not raise the issue, he helped raise the debate, though he wishes it hadn’t been necessary. People would have seen the movie “with or without us,” he reasons.
“We forced some discussions, encouraged some sensitivity,” he said.
Foxman takes credit for the Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a book on the new Church teachings on the Jews, and for some Christian leaders speaking out to warn followers not to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death.
“We couldn’t sit back and say maybe they won’t see” the way Jews are depicted in the film.
“We were the kapporah hindel,” he said, using the Yiddish phrase for scapegoat.
He closed his remarks by insisting that it is the American way to stand up and challenge, to speak out and be heard, not to seek censorship but dialogue. Interfaith relations will go forward, he said, but “there are terrible scars” that will first have to heal.
It was a typical Foxman performance — emotional, forceful and effective — and the audience clearly was with him. But back in his office a few minutes later, still troubled by all the attention “The Passion” is getting, he was willing, if not eager, to reflect further on the difficulties of being both aggressive and sensitive in handling matters surrounding anti-Semitism.
This was a fight he didn’t want to get into, he said, but noted that, as always, he led with “my head and then my heart and my kishkes.”
The tactics for the ADL remain the same, Foxman said, trying to deal quietly with an issue and only publicizing it after it has been resolved. But he acknowledged that everything seems ratcheted up in the 21st century.
“The level of discourse is higher, faster, more shrill than it used to be, and the Jewish community has gone from shveig [Yiddish for ‘be quiet’] to shrei [yell],” he said. “But we can’t cry wolf.”
He wants potential anti-Semites, be they business leaders or politicians, to know there are serious consequences for their statements and actions — at least in America.
“We need to be vigilant and alert, but that makes it counter-productive and dangerous if we abuse” the ADL’s clout, he acknowledges.
Abe Foxman’s got tough skin and he’s used to being second-guessed. Deep down, he’s convinced he’s right on this one, despite all the criticism. But the same could be said for Mel Gibson.
That’s the thing about knowing the truth is on your side