More than seven years after The Passion of the Christ — Mel Gibson’s controversial film about the crucifixion of Jesus — appeared, causing major concern in the American-Jewish community, a screening at Montclair State University has triggered a passionate debate on and off the campus.
“The film was very controversial because it repeated something the Catholic Church had rejected — that it was the Jews who were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ,” said Ron Hollander, an associate professor of English and journalism and director of Jewish American Studies at MSU.
According to Hollander, only 18 people turned out for the screening.
Within hours of receiving an e-mail from a university administrator on April 20 announcing the screening later that evening, Hollander and other faculty members sprang into action.
The sender of the e-mail was Esmilda Abreu, who is MSU’s director of equity and diversity and chairs its Council for Faith and Spirituality and Bias Response Task Force.
The professors demanded that the screening — cosponsored by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students and the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry — include an educational component to counteract the movie’s impression that Jews bear the blame for killing Jesus.
“Bad enough that Newman was doing this, but that an official university office was promoting this screening just incensed many of us and troubled us deeply,” said Hollander.
Jaime Grinberg, a professor of Educational Foundations and Jewish American Studies, agreed.
“I asked from Abreu a public apology from the university because I think the showing without any educational component, giving them facilities to use, and inviting the whole community was irresponsible,” he told NJ Jewish News in an April 27 phone interview.
Abreu declined to comment, referring NJJN to Paula Maliandi, executive director of university communications at Montclair State. In an e-mailed statement on May 2, Maliandi wrote: “As an institution of higher education, Montclair State supports the right of the University community to present content spanning the ideological spectrum. However, while we do not agree with all of the views expressed, the University strongly supports free and open public discourse and the respectful exchange of ideas around all issues as they occur in classroom settings, at events, on discussion boards, or any other forum as essential to the education of our students.”
‘Firestorm of protest’
Grinberg said his objections to the movie stem from his view that it attempts “to reconnect with some of the traditional anti-Semitism that caused a lot of violence for centuries, even pogroms. This time of the year — during Passover and Easter — is when these things have happened.”
But Father Jim Chern, chaplain and director of the Newman Center, said the film was chosen to be screened because “we were trying to find the most modern cinematic treatment of the passion. The last ones were made in the ’60s.”
Seated in an armchair at the Newman Center, Chern told NJJN he had “not given a lot of thought” to the way Jews were characterized in the film. “I viewed it solely through what the passion and the crucifixion must have been like, and I looked at it as my personal responsibility in terms of my sinfulness, and what that has done to Christ. I am not looking at it in terms of assigning blame. I am saying this was a horrific day for Jesus Christ.”
Chern said he “absolutely” agreed that Jews have been unfairly blamed for the crucifixion, and said he would not tolerate such an attitude on the campus.
“We would never allow that to happen here. We make it very clear [the crucifixion] is about our sinfulness. The faith understanding is that Jesus’ suffering in death is because of all of the sins of humanity, those past and present. This was a historical event, but it is also something that transcends history.”
More than 40 faculty members — Christians and Muslims as well as Jews — sent e-mail protests to Chern and university administrators, objecting to the lack of an educational context to the screening.
However large the controversy appeared among faculty and administrators, it made only a small impact on the students in Hollander’s interpretive journalism class.
Discussing the issue with NJJN on April 28, one undergraduate said, “The discussion was just among professors. The students were really not aware of the debate.” But another, who had seen the movie, said, “I went to a Catholic high school, and we were shown it our senior year. What struck me was the gratuitous violence that obscured everything else. It was offensive. It was a poor choice of a film, definitely.”
A student who is Jewish but had not seen The Passion said, “I don’t see why someone in charge who wanted others to see this movie wouldn’t want to have some sort of facilitated discussion. I’m puzzled by that.”
Seven years after he first raised objections to the depiction of Jews in The Passion of the Christ, Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told NJJN, “Our concern was it will continue to be a vehicle for the future in religious schools — not necessarily Catholic schools, but evangelical schools — and that it would become part of the educational material used around Easter to teach the passion. Nobody has been talking about it because it is no longer part of the media hype.
“I guess maybe, come next year, we will have to look out for it,” Foxman said in an April 21 phone interview.
It was the fourth year in a row that The Passion was shown at Montclair State during the week preceding Good Friday, but this was the first instance that anyone on campus objected to its screening.
Hollander told NJJN he was unaware of its presentation on prior occasions.
Asked whether he would take the sensibilities of Jews on campus into consideration if his organization presents the film again next year, Chern said “absolutely.”
“Show it again next year!!?,” Hollander responded in an e-mail to NJJN. “If after all this — a firestorm of protest, with 48 people complaining to Newman, a lead news story, and a page of letters-to-the-editor in the campus newspaper, coverage on news websites, and a complaint to the ADL — if he is even remotely considering showing it again next year, then the Diocese should find a Newman leader better at healing than at dividing.”