By Darrell Todd Maurina
While local evangelical Christians have enthusiastically supported bringing Mel Gibson’s film on the death of Christ to Clovis, the film has ignited controversy nationally as some Jewish organizations objected to the film’s graphic images.
Much of the Jewish criticism has focused on the history of “passion plays” — a genre of dramatic representations of the suffering and death of Jesus — that in medieval Europe often blamed Jews for Christ’s death.
Susan Seligman, director of the New Mexico Anti-Defamation League in Albuquerque, said she remembers harassment while growing up as a Jew even in the U.S. and worried that the new film could reignite some of those attacks on Jews.
“I know as a child growing up I was accused several times of killing Jesus; it’s something I have never forgotten,” Seligman said. “Passion plays were dramatized throughout Europe and there were persecution and pogroms as a result. Hitler said, ‘The whole world needs to see this passion play (in the German city of Oberammergau) because then they will understand why I despise the Jews so much.’”
Seligman said in some other cities such as Santa Fe, Christian and Jewish clergy are working together to avoid anti-Jewish retribution as a result of the film.
“A lot of what the passion plays did, and what we understand Mel Gibson’s movie is doing, is taking artistic license with the narrative,” Seligman said. “When we learned that it was coming out, we had a group of Christian and Jewish clergy who looked at the script and we had very serious concerns.”
Seligman said a key focus of Jewish concern has been whether the Roman civil rulers or Jewish ecclesiastical leaders were primarily responsible for the death of Jesus.
“Modern scholarship has shown that the Romans were in control of the government and the Jews had no say. In places that don’t have the advantages of modern scholarship, it is very possible that people will make wrong conclusions,” Seligman said. “In people who are disposed to be anti-semitic, this will serve to feed the fires.”
Holocaust survivor Werner Gellert, head of the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum in Albuquerque, said he lived through the anti-Jewish attacks in Germany and doesn’t want to see them happen again.
“(Gibson) has the right to go ahead and do any film he wishes to do, but I wish he had not been so graphic. I think some of the film is from his imagination,” Gellert said. “I know he is a very, very fundamentalist Catholic and his group is not even sanctioned by the Vatican. This is not my problem, but the burden I have is to speak the truth.
“We have known as Jews from experience that a film of this nature will become again a cause of anti-Jewishness because too many people will take it literally,” Gellert said. “Being a Jew, we have been discriminated against since the third century A.D. and all because we are wrongly accused of being Christ-killers. Historically, that’s incorrect.”
Michael Covington, general manager of the Master’s Christian Bookstore which helped bring the film to Clovis, said he has seen the film and doesn’t agree that it is anti-semitic.
“All Mel (Gibson) is doing is repeating the facts according to the gospels,” Covington said. “My understanding of the gospels and understanding of this film is that in no way do I blame (the High Priest) Caiaphas or the Jews in the crowd, and certainly not the Jews of today,” Covington said. “I blame myself. I believe we are all culpable, and I think that nobody who is watching this movie would want to be anti-semitic.
“My hope is people will be driven to investigate Christianity as a result of the film,” Covington said. “You’d think that after reading the gospel accounts you’d get the picture, but wow, this is powerful.”