Divided over "The Passion"

The furor over Mel Gibson's film is threatening the fledgling pro-Israel alliance between evangelical Christians and key Jewish groups.

Published August 21, 2003 8:53PM (EDT)

Mel Gibson's "The Passion," the graphic film about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, won't be released until next spring, but the controversy surrounding the film is already testing the resolve of one of the most unorthodox political and interfaith alliances in play today: the bond between conservative Christians and Jewish groups, who have come together in recent years over their strong support for the state of Israel.

Suddenly, "The Passion" has pitted the partners in this fledgling alliance against one another, on opposite ends of an emotional debate. Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have called the film anti-Semitic because it portrays Jews as responsible for the killing of Jesus Christ. But many Christian evangelicals are applauding the conservative Gibson's film.

"I think there's going to be a big backlash" because of the Passion controversy, says Dave Blewett, president of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel. "The film could create a divide between Christians and Jews and solidify stereotypes we have of each other."

On its Web site, the National Association of Evangelicals recently posted a statement about "The Passion," which included a passage that rankled some Jewish leaders: "There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now, and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel. For Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted."

"We were very saddened and surprised to see that," says Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs at the ADL. "It seemed almost like a quid pro quo. Support for Israel shouldn't be part of political negotiations." He notes, "It's the first time in several years the issue of support for Israel had been raised by the evangelical community."

The statement "was never intended to be a threat," says an NAE spokesman. "It was an observation that [Jews] are combating people who support them, groups that have never resisted Israel. It's baffled some evangelicals that Jewish leaders are so antagonistic toward the people who want what's best for the Jewish people."

The evangelical Christian-Jewish alliance, which has been building for years, came into full public view following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, along with the subsequent spike in Middle Eastern violence. Conservative Christians, with close ties to the Republican White House, have been forceful in declaring their unwavering support for Israel and its conservative Likud government. Some members of the Christian Zionist movement, as it's called, have even moved to the right of the White House, bankrolling controversial Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and criticizing the Bush administration's "Road Map" strategy for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Evangelicals are convinced the peace plan would damage the Jewish state.

Late last month House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, traveled to Israel and addressed lawmakers. "I come to you with a very simple message: Do not be afraid," he said, relaying America's Christian Zionist message. "Standing up for good against evil is very hard work -- it costs money and blood. But we're willing to pay."

The alliance has caused discomfort for some Jews, who suspect the evangelical support is based less on a love for Jews than the desire to fulfill interpretations of the Bible, that forecast the coming of the Messiah only when the Jews are in the Promised Land. (According to the prophecies, following the Messiah's return, some Jews will be saved, but most will perish.)

Nonetheless, the Christians' strident political and spiritual support of Israel remains alluring. "Israel's in desperate need of friends," says Blewett. "Some Jews don't want to work with evangelicals or accept their support because they think there's an agenda. But most will, because the issue of Israel is so crucial right now. And they figure they'll deal with repercussions later."

Against that backdrop comes "The Passion." Many conservative Christians are hailing the movie and its literal interpretation of the passion play as a masterpiece, while Jewish groups like the ADL are objecting. Last Friday, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations, urged Gibson to make changes to the film. In a press release, it said that the unreleased film had "generated an unprecedented wave of hate mail and calls" to the center.

The film has the "potential for discord between Christians and Jews, absolutely," adds Kim Troupe, director of Christian Friends of Israeli Community USA. "We're used to hearing from our Jewish friends about their concerns over anti-Semitism. And it's a valid concern."

But some evangelicals insist the ADL isn't part of the Christian Zionist alliance, anyway. "The criticism is coming from liberal groups who are not happy about the [Christian-Jewish] alliance," notes Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for American Values, a conservative advocacy group run by former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. "The ADL is not at the center of this Christian-Jewish partnership."

"That's poppycock," responds ADL president Abe Foxman. "We have been part of the Christian-Jewish dialogue." He notes last year that the ADL reprinted a pro-Israel essay by Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, and ran it as a full-page ad in the New York Times. As for the stridently pro-Israel ADL being "liberal," "That's part of a small group of the evangelical community and making noise; that's their political hang-ups," he says.

Meanwhile, Ted Haggard, the president of the NAE who has appeared on several cable news programs praising "The Passion," reports he has received anti-Christian e-mails from some Jews. "I'd guess if I'm receiving the first ones like that in 20 years, others are receiving them, too," says Haggard. "And I'd guess equally poorly informed people on the Christian side probably writing to Jewish leaders."

Joseph Pruder, director of the Interfaith Task Force for America and Israel, downplays any Hollywood-driven rift. "I think it's too soon to portray this as a conflict or emerging conflict," he says. "It wouldn't be the first thing we disagree on. Within the Jewish community there has been unhappiness about evangelicals trying to missionize among Jews. And the evangelical-for-Israel community has been very careful about that."

However, Haggard at NAE reports, "We're starting to see preliminary indications of anti-Semitism, not based on the movie, but based on what Jewish leaders are saying on CNN every night about the movie, making flamboyant claims."

He says, "Without a doubt average parishioners, the typical Baptist church member who turns on the TV and sees the Jewish leadership attacking a movie about Jesus, they are turned off by this. If it continues, Christian leaders, who are doing everything they can to support Jewish concerns and Israel, will have to justify why Jewish leaders are attacking a movie about Christ. It's an unnecessary hurdle to leap."

Haggard, along with other prominent American evangelical leaders, saw the movie at Gibson's invitation last month in Colorado Springs. Gibson, who is a devout Catholic, told the pastors, "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic. I hope the film has the power to evangelize."

"I don't see anything new in this film, there's no new data, so I'm not following their logic," says Haggard, referring to Jewish critics. "These are good men but they're fearful of a shadow that doesn't have any substance."

But Haggard insists that "support of Israel must absolutely continue," despite the rift over "The Passion."

On the political left, some are hoping the rift widens. "I hope it will bring some sense to sectors of the Jewish community who have allied with the most reactionary elements of the Christian community," says Michael Lerner, head of the country's progressive Jewish organization, Tikkun.

He calls the Jewish alliance with the Christian Zionist movement "immoral," "destructive" and "opportunistic" because, "They're aligning themselves with people who would prefer Jewish people not exist," says Lerner. "Ask Christian Zionists if they do or do not subscribe to the view that the world would be better off if everyone became Christian."

There have been recent signs that the strong evangelical support of Israel and Jews is not entirely consistent with their larger beliefs. Last year, Christian Zionist leader DeLay told a group of Texas evangelicals, "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world -- only Christianity."

"Christians have to be very sold in the reasons why we're supporting Israel," says Troupe, at Christian Friends of Israeli Community USA. "If we're supporting it for an agenda of conversion or because of the Messiah's return, that's problematic from the Jewish standpoint."

Lerner warns, "If the ["The Passion"] turns out to be anti-Semitic, it will open the eyes of some in the Jewish community who mislead themselves into believing that an alliance with right-wing Christians had no downside."

Foxman at ADL says he's received some "I-told-you-so" phone calls from concerned Jews complaining about the evangelical response to "The Passion." Foxman dismisses the concern, saying those on the "extreme left of the Jewish communities" such as Tikkun, are trying to drive away conservative supporters. For now, while some Jews fret over "The Passion," conservative Christians cheer it. Janet Parshall, head of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, tells Salon, "I tip my hat to Mel Gibson. His allegiance is to God, not a movie studio. He wants to take the power of film to transmit the most important message mankind has ever received."

A syndicated radio talk-show host and keynote speaker at a large pro-Israel rally held in Washington during the spring of 2002, Parshall calls Israel "the most important piece of property on the planet."

As for "The Passion," scheduled for an Easter 2004 release, Parshall reports her listeners "cannot wait to see the movie."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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