On the first night of the Jewish holiday, Passover, which celebrates the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, my grandmother asked me why I am involved with Jewish things like the CJL and Chabad on campus. I am not particularly religious, so why should I participate in Jewish life when there are so many ethnically and religiously neutral activities on campus? If I already have the cult of orange and black, why do I need to identify with another, narrower group?
I did not originally have an answer, but I found one the next night, which I explained to my grandmother right before the holiday meal. A Facebook event had come across my News Feed that day called “Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ Screening,” taking place at the Garden Theatre. The Facebook page said was sponsored by the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) and Princeton Faith and Action (PFA), a Christian group on campus, in honor of Easter. The active sponsorship of both USG and PFA was prominent, as was the fact that this was a movie directed by Mel Gibson. Also, I would get free popcorn if I brought my prox.
My first reaction was to the event being advertised as Mel Gibson’s work: his anti-Semitism is widely known, at least in the liberal Jewish world. He has been caught on video saying, “Fucking Jews… the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” One of the greatest shames I ever brought upon my parents was when I mixed up Mel Gibson and Mel Brooks, the great Jewish comedian who directed Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World, Part I, and more.
The movie itself also struck me as a strange choice. The Passion of the Christ is a graphic account in Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the final hours of Jesus’ life, according to the gospels. While I certainly understand the impulse to watch a movie about Jesus for Easter on a campus where a majority of students are Christian, I did not understand why they had chosen that movie in particular. The famed film critic Robert Ebert called it the most violent movie he had ever seen. There are other options that are still excellent movies. Ben-Hur, for example, is often ranked as one of the best movies ever made, and there are many other terrific movies about Jesus that many observant Christians would probably find acceptable, including The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings, and (if you allow a little deviation from the Gospels) Jesus Christ Superstar.
Many people have said that The Passion of the Christ contains anti-Semitic overtones. Specifically, many reviewers noted that the film promotes a narrative of the Passion that blames the Jewish people for deicide, a theory that was used to vilify Jews and justify anti-Semitic violence across Christendom for centuries. The film “confirms the old justifications for persecuting the Jews,” David Denby wrote in the New Yorker. In The Nation, Katha Pollitt wrote that Gibson’s movie “could safely be shown at the Leni Riefenstahl Memorial Film Festival.” Most mainstream Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, have dropped this narrative, but Gibson seemed to endorse it. (Gibson has not said on the record whether he believes in deicide, but he was brought up in a conservative Catholic church that supported the narrative.)
Even if someone did not agree with the specific allegations of anti-Semitism in the movie, the controversy alone cannot be denied, especially when coupled with the film’s director. Because of this, the choice of film struck me as odd for USG. It usually chooses pretty noncontroversial films for the weekly movies. (I attend once or twice a month.) I have no reason to believe that USG or PFA intended to support anti-Semitism or make anyone feel uncomfortable with their choice of movie. At the same time, it is not especially difficult to find the controversies surrounding the director or the movie—in fact, many of the results that come up when you search for Gibson or his film on Google specifically mention anti-Semitism.
USG was unaware of the allegations of anti-Semitism before it agreed to sponsor the movie, USG President Rachel Yee told me in an email. “Jona Mojados, the head of the USG Movies Committee is in charge of vetting movies, but we have since learned from this process and have a more rigorous process for approving movies,” Yee wrote. She said that this was the first time USG sponsored another student group’s movie, and that they might not continue the program. Evidently, at least one person fell down on the job. The most cursory check would have revealed the allegations of anti-Semitism. It is disheartening to see that the leaders of USG, who manage an annual budget of more than $300,000, do not perform basic research on the events they fund.
I reached out to one of the leaders of PFA to ask if they knew about the controversies around Gibson and his film but did not get a response.
Going forward, PFA and USG should clarify some things. PFA should say whether it supports the narrative of deicide that Gibson and his movie support. The group showed a religious movie for a religious purpose—do they endorse the interpretation of the New Testament that is in the movie?
I have more questions about USG, since it claims to represent the entire student body. They should explain how the movies are chosen, and whether there is a set process for obtaining sponsorship. I would like to hear USG’s say on whether they endorse the messages put forth in the movie they sponsored. Frankly, I hope that they do not endorse Gibson’s message, but I think a public explanation of why they sponsored his movie would be appropriate. Yee told me that no USG funding was used to show the film, but PFA must have needed some help if they went to USG, even if they did not need money. What did sponsorship entail?
The fact is that no one was directly hurt by the movie: there were not anti-Semitic mobs on campus, and nobody left white nationalist posters on the door of the CJL. Yet, I told my grandmother, this illustrated to me why there is still a purpose for specifically Jewish groups on campus. The particular issues that matter to me as a Jew, but do not matter for the council that is supposed to represent all students, gain prominence in these community spaces.