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Demonizing critics of 'Passion'

MEL GIBSON had every right to make his film, "The Passion of the Christ." People who like the movie have every right to defend it. People also have every right to criticize it -- and, of course, Gibson's fans are free to criticize the critics. It's all part of free speech. But right now, the criticism directed at the movie is being distorted and demonized, and this rhetoric is fomenting far more division than the movie itself possibly could. So the subject of "The Passion" has to be addressed again, in order to set the record straight.


Take the notion that, as part of a get-Gibson effort, The New York Times magazine sent a reporter to dig up dirt on his father, Hutton Gibson, in order to smear the actor/filmmaker by association with his father's kooky anti-Semitic views. Let's leave aside for a moment the question of whether the journalist, free-lance writer Christopher Noxon, was "sent" by the magazine or came up with the idea of a story on Gibson's involvement in the Catholic traditionalist movement, which rejects the 1965 reforms of Vatican II, on his own. Was it, as Gibson's supporters imply, illegitimate and scurrilous to bring up the matter of Gibson's father?

No, for the simple reason that, family ties aside, Hutton Gibson is a leading figure in the same religious movement to which Mel Gibson belongs. Imagine a parallel. A left-wing film actor finances a movie about the Cold War era which many say has a pro-communist slant. It turns out that his father is an unreconstructed Stalinist -- and one of the founders of a political group to which the actor belongs. Would any of Gibson's defenders dismiss such a connection as irrelevant?

Or take the notion that "The Passion" is being savaged by what Bill O'Reilly, host of the hugely popular Fox News Show "The O'Reilly Factor," has called "left-wing bomb-throwers.' It's true that some of the film's leading critics, such as New York Times columnist Frank Rich, are left of center. But those who dismiss all critiques of the film as a left-wing anti-religion hate campaign completely ignore its conservative critics -- such as New York Times columnist William Safire, or Washington Post columnist (and Fox News contributor) Charles Krauthammer, or writer Andrew Sullivan.

Dennis Prager, a conservative Jewish commentator who has often joined forces with Christian conservatives on moral and social issues, has written an eloquent column explaining the gap between most Jews and most Christians' perceptions of "The Passion"; while he did not attack Gibson or the movie, he wrote, "I cannot say that I am happy this film was made."

The most vocal criticism of the film prior to its release came not from the "elite media" or the "Hollywood left," but from the Anti-Defamation League. O'Reilly has recently emphasized that ADL national director Abraham Foxman now says that the film is not anti-Semitic. True enough. However, a Feb. 25 statement issued by Foxman and Gary Bretton-Granatoor, ADL adviser on interfaith affairs, opened with the words, "The final version of Mel Gibson's `The Passion of the Christ' now in theaters repeats all of the stereotypes and images surrounding the death of Jesus that have generated anti-Semitism for 2,000 years." That's hardly a ringing exoneration.

Foxman has said that he doesn't think Gibson is anti-Semitic. No one knows what Gibson's true beliefs are, though he has said things that certainly set off alarm bells.

For instance, in response to an interviewer's question about his use of the visions of the anti-Semitic 19th-century nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, Gibson asserted that Emmerich was being smeared as a "Nazi" because "modern secular Judaism wants to blame the Holocaust on the Catholic Church." (In fact, the most prominent critics of the Catholic Church's conduct during the Holocaust have been Catholics or ex-Catholics.)

In view of such comments and of advance knowledge of the script for "The Passion," it was hardly alarmist to raise concerns about the film. This is particularly true at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, and when the "Christ-killer" libel has been used to attack Israel in the Middle Eastern conflict.

Not long ago, a cartoon in a leading Italian newspaper, La Stampa, showed an Israeli tank advancing on the baby Jesus, who explains, "Surely they don't want to kill me again!" Conservatives have been in the forefront of confronting this new bigotry when it comes from the left. Sadly, in this case, most of them have dropped the ball.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

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