Abe, Mel and the Christ

Abraham H. Foxman sat in his office suite with its expensive United Nations view, wondering when the WNBC camera crew would get there. The afternoon would soon be spent: It was Friday, and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League was ending phone calls with the words “Shabbat Shalom.” The next day he was jetting to Rome, where he would appeal to Vatican officials to do something about that whatshisname and his movie.

The Passion of the Christ , the film that cost Mel Gibson $30 million of his own money, already had civic and religious leaders lunging for the microphone. The film was set for a nationwide opening on February 25-23 theaters in New York City. Mr. Foxman felt compelled to pass out some polemically correct thoughts with the popcorn: “The movie is not anti-

Semitic. But it has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism” was his own professional opinion. The phone rang. Again. Us Magazine was calling Mr. Foxman for some measured outrage.

Mr. Gibson’s film wasn’t the only brouhaha Mr. Foxman faced down in recent months. There was the American Airlines pilot who instructed Christians on an L.A.-to-New York flight to have their neighbors converted by the time the plane landed. The Urban Outfitters T-shirt screeching “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl” in a rain of exclamatory dollar signs. The offending corporation could count on receiving one of Mr. Foxman’s fabled epistles. There would be some back and forth. And then: the concession. A.D.L. would always run the celebratory press release up its flagpole.

But Mr. Gibson wasn’t looking for a pen pal.

It is the subject of much debate whether the A.D.L.’s cure is worse than the disease. Are Mr. Foxman’s rat-a-tat-tat reactions to the world’s casual anti-Semitism making the Jewish community look like an irritable mob? Or is the 90-year-old organization correctly protesting a steady trickle of anti-Semitism that, unchecked, might one day sweep through the sandbags?

In his restrained suit, starchy chevron-patterned white shirt with French cuffs and in-red-you’re-ahead necktie, Mr. Foxman was clearly a man who paid attention to presentation. Over the years, his wedding ring had migrated to his pinkie.

It was a look.

“Gibson wrote me a very nice letter,” he said. “It was respectful-I’ve always written him in a respectful tone-and then he says, ‘Let’s love each other.'”

But in Mr. Foxman’s still boyish 63-year-old face, there was the gnash of terrier teeth.

“Where is the blame in this film? The blame is on the Jews,” he said. “From the first scene, they’re moving this process forward. They’re angry. They’re vengeful. They’re stereotypic. They’re hard . The Jews are portrayed as controlling the Romans. And Pontius Pilate-who history records as one of the most vicious proconsuls in the Empire-he’s a loving, sweet, confused guy forced by the Jews to do this.”

Mr. Foxman pointed out that Mr. Gibson, a Traditionalist Catholic who believes the pre–Vatican II teachings about Jewish culpability in the death of Christ, could have blamed the Romans. (After all, who would complain?) But it was too late to upend the entire film. Now Mr. Foxman was begging Mr. Gibson for a postscript, distributing said blame more equitably.

“I don’t think he gets it. I really don’t think he gets it,” said Mr. Foxman, his arms clasped protectively around his body. “But maybe I still want to believe he doesn’t get it. Because Gibson is playing with something very dangerous. He’s playing with faith; he’s playing with history. A true believer can be very naïve in his beliefs.”

To hear Mr. Foxman tell it, the true believer had delivered nothing less than a high-toned snuff film! A screenplay co-written by the screenwriter of Wise Blood. And a scourging with barbed whips that left the movie’s star, James Caviezel, with a 14-inch scar on his back.

Martin Scorsese spent exactly 20 seconds of screen time on Jesus’s flogging, and two and a half minutes on the trudge up Golgotha, in The Last Temptation of Christ . But these same moments are the meat of Mr. Gibson’s film. The most gruesome filler for the movie was supplied in diaries-which have been called anti-Semitic-by the 19th-century stigmatic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, a name that Mr. Foxman likes to pronounce with a long i : Reich .

“It’s this nun’s teaching that the only way you can become close to Christ is to participate in his suffering,” said Mr. Foxman. “Well, this is over the top. I saw a lot of people look away. I looked away.”

Mr. Gibson has said he wanted to create “a moving Caravaggio.” He was photographed tramping around the set in Italy in a beret. “I’m an artist, I must create! ” he told students at Azusa Pacific University last month before insinuating several times that God was, in fact, the artist directing the film. “You’re watching a man being tortured and forgiving in the midst of it,” said Mr. Gibson. “It has to find its own kind of beauty and its own lyricism.”

“That’s acrobatics with words,” snickered Mr. Foxman. “Only for sadists , only for masochists could this be beautiful. And for him to say, ‘I’m doing this because God commanded me’-there’s a certain arrogance. He’s on another trip. But that’s fine, you know? It’s his money. As long as we don’t pay the price!”

Abraham Foxman was baptized a Catholic. Born in Poland in 1940, his parents left him in the care of his nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, when they were forced to live in Vilna’s ghetto. Frau Kurpi raised him as her own. When he misbehaved, she called him Judas. When his parents came for him at the end of the war-his father had survived work camps, his mother had secured Aryan papers-Frau Kurpi was reluctant to let the boy who called her “Mamoushka” go. So they all lived together.

“My parents realized they’d lost everybody, and she was family,” Mr. Foxman said. But Frau Kurpi denounced his father as a Nazi collaborator. She had Abe kidnapped, and his parents kidnapped him back.

Eventually his parents left Frau Kurpi behind as they fled over the border to displaced-person camps overseen by American soldiers. That’s where Abe Foxman learned his first English words: “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Those of Mr. Foxman’s acquaintance now include Senators, Presidents, Kofi Annan, Henry Kissinger, Jacques Chirac, Ariel Sharon, George Tenet. Quite an achievement for someone who arrived here in 1950 and made it through City College, New York University Law School and lessons at Arthur Murray that his father, a Yiddish publisher, thought he should have.

Abe has met the Pope five times, said his publicist Myrna Shinbaum. ” Eight times,” Mr. Foxman corrected her sternly. He said he speaks Polish with the Pope: “It gets his attention.”

John Paul II, who several weeks ago may or may not have given the film a rave, was not expected to offer any further comment. “The Pope has earned enough credit with me and the Jewish community for being sensitive to anti-Semitism, so I can’t believe it that he saw it and loved it. I just can’t believe it,” said Mr. Foxman. He noted that there was “jockeying in the Vatican today for position for a future date.” The ailing Pope is said to be surrounded by some conservative cardinals who might like to see parts of Vatican II rescinded.

“The Vatican will be very careful to stay on the sidelines,” said one ex-Vatican employee who worked in media under the current regime.

But that didn’t stop Mr. Foxman from trying to score once he steamed into Rome.

“I would hope that the Vatican and the Catholic church would stand up to defend its teachings,” he told Reuters Television. Then he announced that in June he would convene an international conference on global anti-Semitism. In Rome.

Mr. Foxman’s trip raised the expected hackles.

“These people are cracking up!” said William Donahue, the president of the neoconservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, speaking to The Observer . The league-which claims Mel Gibson as a member-is a sort of Catholic version of the A.D.L.; in the past, it has complained about things like nun jokes on Ally McBeal . “They tried to say Mel’s anti-

Semitic-that didn’t work,” said Mr. Donahue. “They said the movie was too violent-that’s not working. Now they’re trying to say that he’s a fanatic. Foxman actually went over to the Vatican. I mean, you talk about who’s the nut!”

Mr. Foxman has been desperate to herd more big-time Christians into his tent. He admitted that he isn’t as close to New York City’s Cardinal Edward Egan as he was to his predecessor. “That was a relationship that took a while,” said Mr. Foxman. “When Cardinal O’Connor first came, he compared abortion to the Holocaust. But, you know, he learned.”

Cardinal Egan hasn’t seen the film. “Cardinal hasn’t been to the theaters to see a movie since he’s been archbishop of New York,” said archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling.

“The Cardinal was very concerned about the movie when he spoke with me about it a while ago,” said real-estate developer Jack Rudin, who counts himself a friend of both Abe Foxman and the Cardinal, and added that he thinks the A.D.L.’s actions are entirely appropriate.

The Cardinal is coming through for Abe Foxman: In an upcoming issue of Catholic New York the Cardinal writes that he’s seen the movie’s trailers like everyone else, and that “the images are bloody and stark; and for some, they may on this score alone be quite unacceptable apart from any purely religious considerations …. One may legitimately question whether such a representation exceeds the limits of propriety, good taste, or artistic authenticity.” The Cardinal expresses concern that the film might occasion anti-Semitism: From the pulpits, “we need to repeat with clarity and vigor Catholic teaching about the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ.” He quotes from the Second Vatican Council: “‘What was perpetrated against the Lord in His Passion cannot be imputed either to all the Jewish people of that time or the Jewish people of our time’ …. The matter is crystalline clear.”

Mr. Foxman was so intent on seeing Mr. Gibson’s film that he started his own church. Thwarted in his effort to see The Passion by Mr. Gibson’s Praetorian guard of publicists, Mr. Foxman decided to register online for an Orlando pastors’ conference in January where a screening had been scheduled-in his own name, he was careful to point out. First, he plugged in “Congregation of Truth.” Then “Institute of Truth.” Only the “Church of Truth in Brooklyn, New York,” jimmied open the gate. A woman next to him at the screening commented on his name tag.

“Church of Truth?” she said. “What’s that?”

“A Jewish church,” he replied.

“Well, welcome! ” she said mischievously.

WNBC finally came and went, and Mr. Foxman headed back into his office. Off came the jacket with the flag pin in the lapel. His office has its own tension-filled bass line: the baying of whichever crowd happens to be megaphoning a protest in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza. Today it was Haitians.

Mr. Foxman wouldn’t join Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in calling for a boycott of The Passion , even though a boycott in 1970 forced changes in Germany’s Oberammergau passion play.

The A.D.L. doesn’t boycott. The A.D.L. doesn’t picket in the streets.

Passion plays like Oberammergau were originally for the illiterate, a way to dispense religion. “This film will be seen by more people in three months than the ‘Passions’ have been seen in 2,000 years,” said Mr. Foxman.

Mr. Gibson’s project has taken heat for being intellectually slack. For starters, there’s the awkward title (“Theologically, ‘ the Christ’ is a kind of liberal Protestant usage I don’t think Gibson would be terribly enamored with,” said Father John Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union) and the languages of its script, “street Latin” and Aramaic. The movie’s Web site stubbornly insists that Aramaic, not Greek, was the lingua franca of the Mediterranean in this period. “It’s from Mars,” Paula Fredriksen, a Boston University biblical expert, told The Observer. “Gibson’s covering his ass because he made a mistake. God, what a chutzpah !”

And while the Gospels may have included some eyewitness material, as Mr. Gibson has said, they were compiled in a period well after Jesus’ death. “They’re more religious literature than history,” said Father Pawlikowski, written at a time when early Christians were desperate for Roman converts.

The Wall Street Journal has applauded the film’s “astute marketing,” which mainly consisted of showing the film to evangelical audiences, conservative Catholics and a handful of contrarian Jews. Mr. Gibson twitched his way through these audiences with pastors.

“We’ve been beating Mel to death, practically, doing these screenings,” Paul Lauer, the marketing head of Gibson’s Icon Productions, told one such gathering.

Icon actually focus-grouped the movie’s inflammatory blood-libel scene from the Gospel of Matthew, where the Jewish high priest declares of Christ that “his blood will be on us and upon our children.” But finally on Feb. 3 came word: The scene was out.

This reminded Mr. Foxman of a story: “There’s a Jew in Eastern Europe who lives in a hut with nine children, and he says to the Rebbe, ‘Rebbe, I can’t study, I can’t pray, the children make so much noise, my wife yells and screams. What can I do?’

“And the Rebbe says, ‘You have a goat? Bring the goat into the house.’ A week goes by and the guy comes back. ‘Rebbe, it’s worse. Now the goat’s bleeping it all over the place.’ The Rebbe then has him bring in a cow. The man comes back and he says, ‘It’s horrendous. ‘

“‘You know what?’ says the Rebbe. ‘Take the goat and the cow out.’ The man comes back to the Rebbe and says, ‘Thank you, Rebbe. It’s so quiet and peaceful. Thank you very much.’

“It’s the story of this scene! ” Mr. Foxman said. “First Gibson announces he’s going to take it out. Now he puts it in. Now that he puts it in, he’s announcing he’s going to take it out. So what are we supposed to say? ‘Wonderful!!? Boy, he’s listening, he’s really a nice guy, he’s sensitive’? He’s playing a game.”

Mr. Foxman also has little patience for Alan Nierob, the film’s publicist, who refers to himself as a “second-generation Holocaust survivor,” and Paul Lauer, Icon’s marketing director, who has said on TV that he has a Jewish father.

“Nierob, when I first spoke to him, told me, ‘You know, my parents are Holocaust survivors,'” said Mr. Foxman. “I said, ‘I don’t care! I really don’t care! I find it offensive. You know, you do your job, I respect you for doing that. Don’t give me a pedigree. It doesn’t mean anything. I find it cheap! I find it sadly cheap! … Mel Gibson is right because you’re Jewish and you work for him?’ What does that mean?”

What does he make of self-described “raised-Catholic convert to Orthodox Judaism” historian Paula Fredriksen, who referred ominously to an approaching time “when violence breaks out” in her New Republic article on the film? “I don’t police her,” said Mr. Foxman. “Do I think pogroms will happen? No. But I worry a lot more about Latin America, in Europe, in the Middle East. Because it’s going to be shown there without a debate. This is going to be a bonanza for TV in Lebanon.”

The A.D.L. doesn’t only spar with allegedly anti-Semitic movie directors. Debate is a part of the Jewish tradition, and there’s a lot of it among the Jewish community organizations. “They argue with each other over who’s going to get more space in the media-especially in the hometown daily, The New York Times, ” said Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, former head of the American Jewish Congress.

There are some who feel that the A.D.L. doesn’t take a strong enough line on issues like fighting anti-Zionism. There are others who insist the A.D.L. is playing kissy-face with the Israeli right wing: “Jewish lobbying for Israel is as much in order as Halliburton or Mr. Cheney lobbying for the Saudi Arabians,” said Rabbi Hertzberg.

The gala dinners, the parade-float series of awards, raise lots of money-and many eyebrows.

“I wonder if anyone in the future can ever again take seriously the Anti-Defamation League,” wrote William F. Buckley in 1980, revolted by a $250-a-plate black-tie dinner dance the A.D.L. was throwing Hugh M. Hefner, the recipient of a First Amendment Freedoms Award. In October, the A.D.L. gave a dinner in honor of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“To honor Berlusconi after he has been rebuilding the reputation of Mussolini was a swinish thing to do!” Rabbi Hertzberg bellowed. “A cheap stunt for some publicity and to raise some money! I am absolutely prepared to go straight down their tonsils on this!”

“I personally have no problem about them honoring Berlusconi,” said Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America. “He apologized for his remarks. Berlusconi’s been a great friend to Israel and the Jewish people.”

Hedge-fund honcho Michael Steinhardt, listed in annual reports as an “honorary life member of the ADL National Commission,” co-chaired a Waldorf-Astoria birthday dinner for Mr. Foxman in March 2000. But called for comment, his spokesman demanded to know why a reporter would even imagine that Mr. Steinhardt and the A.D.L. were connected, conceding only that the A.D.L. “must have given Michael an award or something.”

Mr. Steinhardt doesn’t believe anti-Semitism is a major issue right now, his spokesman said. “Michael’s just not into that stuff. What he’s into right now is Jewish education and assimilation issues.” The spokesman confirmed that Mr. Steinhardt feels there is too much dust being kicked up about anti-Semitism in this country, that the A.D.L. is doing Jews a disservice. “Michael does believe that,” he said. Twice.

Behind the scenes, those who have worked with Mr. Foxman say he behaves like a noisy one-man band. He can be abrasive. “He’s hung up the phone on me,” said an executive at one Jewish community organization. Mr. Foxman’s interfaith-affairs chief, Rabbi Eugene Korn, resigned after just a year on the job. People said they fought over the handling of Mr. Gibson’s film.

” Baloney, ” said Mr. Foxman. “Rabbi Korn was even tougher than I was.”

“You want it straight?” said Rabbi Hertzberg. “The A.D.L. is the bully in town. Within the Jewish community, they bully you. Since they’re engaged in the holy cause of anti-Semitism, you can’t disagree with their tactics. They have enough money-a lot of it-to make their views the reigning orthodoxy. If you disagree, you are not-so-subtly painted into the corner of being treasonable.”

These organizations compete for money, and the A.D.L. is feeling the heat from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, which is headed by Rabbi Marvin Hier, who complained that Jewish characters were portrayed in Mr. Gibson’s film as “Rasputin-like characters.” Some covet Mr. Foxman’s $60 million annual operating budget-not only funding diversity teaching programs and a stream of reports tracking terrorism, hate groups and all gradations of kook, but also deployed on tickets to international conferences, the executive committee meeting at Palm Beach’s Breakers Hotel, and the dispatching of “delegations” around the world to “monitor the situation.” Mr. Foxman, who lives in Bergen County with his wife Golda and has two children-Michelle, an intellectual-property lawyer, and Ariel, editor of Cargo magazine-makes $422,075 a year. “Not enough,” he snapped. “I hope that the business of fighting hate will attract the best people. And the only way to attract them is to say, ‘Not only is it rewarding, but you can live like a human being.'”

After Mr. Foxman kicked and made up with Barnes and Noble chief executive Leonard Riggio over a book of European stories that Barnes and Noble had published-the A.D.L. felt that one of the fairy tales was anti-Semitic-the A.D.L. had a dinner for Mr. Riggio which hauled in a record $2 million. “Sometimes you’ve got to raise your voice, but you also have to remember to say ‘thank you,'” said Mr. Foxman.

And “sorry”: Three year ago, the A.D.L. was fined more than $9 million in damages after wrongly accusing a Colorado couple of anti-Semitism. The A.D.L. is still fighting the decision.

Just what has Mr. Foxman accomplished with Mr. Gibson’s movie? Last week, the President and First Lady announced their intention to see the film. But who were most of the people who were going to buy a ticket? The answer could be found in Ozone Park: Just down the street from John Gotti’s Bergen Hunt and Fish Club is Grace Evangelistic Ministries.

Evangelical Christians comprise 30 to 40 percent of the American population. Inside this storefront church, the Reverend Dave Rajoon, a spirited young man with a space between his teeth, was looking to spread the word of the Lord. He was also, not incidentally, looking to expand his 70-person congregation, mainly Trinidadians of Indian descent.

Pastor Dave said he knew Mr. Gibson’s film would convey a powerful message. “You know Bambi ? Everybody cries when the mother gets killed. Movies have the power to move you. And here we have the story of God’s act of redemption for all mankind, the story of his son.”

Was he concerned with charges that the film is anti-Semitic? “When you relate history, it’s not being anti-Semitic,” he said. “It’s like when people talk about Hitler and the Jews. It’s history. It’s a recounting. “

Recently, Mel Gibson hinted that he’d added a scene to the end of the film, a little something from Luke that talked about “loving everybody, not just people like you.” But in the final cut, there was no postscript, no concession for Abe Foxman.

Instead, the clouds rolled in and the winds picked up and the Jewish priests in their gold-trimmed raiments, whose very souls were now drenched in Christ’s blood, rode off on their donkeys, not caring enough to see this execution through.