Quiet Debut for ‘Passion’ DVD

When Rabbi Harold Shulweis learned that the DVD of "The Passion of the Christ," which debuted on Aug. 31, would be just a bare-bones, no-frills copy of Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, the spiritual leader of Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom said, "That’s very good. I don’t think the Jewish community has to repeat, regurgitate, all the anguish, all the anger."

The DVD and video release of "The Passion" by Fox Home Entertainment will arrive in stores quietly, a change from the loud, once seemingly never-ending ecumenical controversy that surrounded the film’s Ash Wednesday theatrical release in late February. The film’s midnight premiere at Hollywood’s Arclight Cinemas found Christians leaving the theater in tears; at least one Christian viewer argued politely afterward with a Jewish patron, telling her, "I’m gonna pray for you right now."

None of that greets the film’s DVD/video arrival. Gibson is not doing interviews. The $29.98 DVD has no director’s commentary, behind-the-scenes feature or any other add-ons that usually accompany the DVD release of a film that enjoyed a $375 million U.S. box office.

What Jews may remember most is not a blockbuster film, but some insensitive — to some anti-Semitic — movie images of Jewish leaders living under Roman occupation. Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance, said he would not have changed anything about his response to the film.

"If you’re asking me if we have changed our positions, absolutely not," said Hier, who said he still feels "The Passion" depicted those ancient Jews who did not become Christians in the first century C.E. "in a very negative manner."

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) considered "The Passion" an interfaith outreach tool rather than a continuing controversy, and in Houston the AJC worked with Gibson on a Jewish-Christian "Passion" preview screening. By contrast, Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abraham Foxman spoke out continually against the movie until its premiere, but the DVD release is not prompting new comment because, he said, "The issue plays once. DVD is not the event the film was."

The February opening prompted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to issue a collection of Catholic documents about Jews and Jesus’ death. While some bishops commented publicly on the film, the bishops collectively did not issue prominent statements or hold national press conferences to warn against possible anti-Semitism or tell millions of non-practicing Catholics that "The Passion" should not cause people to blame the Jews for the death of Christ.

After seeing the film in Rome, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony wrote in the archdiocesan newspaper The Tidings last March 19, "Did hints of anti-Semitism creep in?" But the question was raised without being answered.

"Not every bishop felt it was necessary to issue a public statement," said Eugene J. Fisher, associate director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs.

"There are resources and materials aplenty," he said. "The system worked to deliver the teaching to the Catholic community."

But not seeing bishops on television expressing concern about Gibson, an ultraconservative traditionalist Catholic, disappointed Jewish leaders; Hier believes the bishops were getting mixed signals from the Vatican about whether or not the pope liked the movie.

"More could have been done. Absolutely more could have been done," Hier said. "When there were the confused signals of what the pope said, I think Catholic cardinals and bishops were confused as to what the pope did think."

Hier and Foxman both were accused of helping promote the film by talking about it repeatedly. Hier points to the best-seller status of Christian end-of-time/rapture books as proof that without Jewish criticism, Christians see movies and buy books that may not portray Jews positively.

"The ‘rapture’ books — they’re hardcover best-sellers," Hier said. "There were no protests, no controversy. There is a constituency to buy such books as there is a constituency to see such movies."

The DVD is expected to sell well; Wal-Mart will discount the R-rated movie similar to the Family Christian Stores’ $19.95 DVD price. Aug. 31 also heralded some "Passion" bandwagoning as studios released fresh DVDs of "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Greatest Story Ever Told," plus ABC, NBC, BBC and PBS will release religion documentaries and a documentary on Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews.

On the humorous side, this week, Paramount released a DVD of religion-mocking "South Park" episodes titled "The Passion of the Jew."

Looking back on what once was an exhaustive debate over Gibson’s movie, Foxman said, "Would I do it again? The answer is yes. I don’t think we had a choice not to react. None of us prophesized the burning of synagogues. If we hadn’t been out in front, the Catholic bishops wouldn’t have put out a compilation of essays. [Gibson] put it out there. He made the issue. We didn’t have the luxury, based on history, to be silent. I don’t think I took us anywhere that we shouldn’t be."

15 and Counting

Washington’s official response to the killings of five Americans at Hebrew University can be summed up largely in a word: words.

True, the attacks came as Congress is in recess and President George W. Bush is between vacations. After a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a day after the bombing, Bush said he was "just as angry as Israel is right now" and said the United States would work to track down the Americans’ killers. He also sent a handwritten condolence message that was read aloud Wednesday at a memorial ceremony in Jerusalem for the bomb victims.

In his public statements following the bombing, Bush pointedly did not warn Israel to refrain from escalating tensions. To some, Bush’s words meant Israel was free to launch a reprisal unchecked by American criticism. "That was a strong signal," Warren Bass, a terrorism expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told me.

Bush also directed the FBI to send officials to Jerusalem to help Israelis investigate the bombing, the second time America has done so since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. The FBI team arrived in Israel on Monday.

But that, folks, is all.

Many experts, Bass included, see these steps as significant. Military action would be all but preposterous, he said. What could the United States do on the ground that Israel isn’t doing already (often with United States-made hardware)? We have troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we’re gearing up for something with Iraq. We can’t be everywhere Americans are killed. Sending American troops to root out Hamas terrorists? "I just don’t see it," said Bass.

But short of stronger action, the American response has left many Americans who happen to be Jewish wondering if the president’s war on terror extends to them. Last week’s Hebrew University bombing brings to 15 the number of U.S. citizens killed by Palestinian attacks over the last two years, according to the U.S. Embassy. Some 26 have been wounded or maimed. In response, Bush has listed Hamas as a terrorist organization and closed down United States-based charities funneling monies to the group. Is it enough?

"Our feeling is that there have been numerous American deaths, and holding Palestinian killers of Americans to different standards than other killers of Americans doesn’t help bring peace to the region and help the United States fight terror," Rebecca Needler, a spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

More than a few Jews are wondering if the American response would have been different if the the five Americans killed had been non-Jews studying in Europe or, say, Grenada. In 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan ordered a U.S. invasion of that tiny Caribbean country, claiming that a coup there threatened the lives of American students studying at St. George University medical school. The fighting that ensued left 64 dead, including 19 U.S. soldiers.

Many historians claim the threat to the American students in Grenada was just a pretext for invasion.

Now, administration officials are debating whether Hamas is targeting Americans, a claim Hamas has denied. But waiting for a declaration of policy from a terror organization seems superfluous when not five Americans are threatened, but 15 are killed and 26 wounded. That’s not pretext, that’s proof.

The fear in Washington, of course, is that taking a more active role in combating Palestinian terror will threaten America’s role in any peace process. But it is unclear how any peace process would involve Hamas. Its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was quoted in the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera on why students at Hebrew University are ripe targets. "They are considered by us to be enemy soldiers," he said. When a reporter asked Yassin whether Hamas would accept an Israel in its pre-June 1967 borders, Yassin said, "Israel was born in violence and it will die in violence. The Jews have no right to the land of Palestine."

Hamas is a group that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, has never recognized Israel’s right to exist. This is a group bent on the destruction of Israel and its allies. Perhaps Hamas’ destruction was Israel’s problem — now, according to the Bush Doctrine, it should be America’s problem, too. "The military must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world," Bush told cadets at West Point last year. "All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price."

When Washington returns from vacation, Jewish groups will rightly keep an eye on what further concrete steps the administration and Congress take in response to the slaughter of Americans abroad. Will they push for the extradition of Palestinians accused of terrorist acts against Americans to the United States? Will they crack down on Saudi Arabia, which according to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has provided "very ample funding" to Hamas? Will they make a strong statement by sending a handful of American forces in to engage Hamas terrorists?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. The truth is, I haven’t thought through all the ramifications of this whole Bush Doctrine.

But I wonder, has Bush?