Tuesday, August 26, 2003
The uproar over Mel Gibson's upcoming film on Jesus' death is testing the unusual partnership between American Jews and evangelical Protestants, who have recently become among the staunchest supporters of Israel.
Many conservative Christians have called "The Passion" the most powerful depiction they've seen of Christ's final hours. But groups such as the Anti-Defamation League have argued that the portrayal of Jews in the events leading to the crucifixion will promote anti-Semitism.
The Rev. Ted Haggard, head of the National Association of Evangelicals, upset some Jewish leaders by mentioning support for Israel in a recent statement defending Gibson's movie, set for release next year.
"There is a great deal of pressure on Israel right now and Christians seem to be a major source of support for Israel," Haggard said, after a private viewing of the film for top evangelicals. "For the Jewish leaders to risk alienating 2 billion Christians over a movie seems shortsighted."
Haggard said in an interview that his comments were not meant as a threat, but as a "word of caution" that Jewish complaints "may come across to some average people as them being against a movie about Jesus."
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Haggard's comments "sad and offensive."
"You don't achieve interfaith relationships by being tolerant of anti-Semitism," Foxman said. "My understanding has always been that evangelical support of Israel is out of goodwill, good faith and is not conditioned as a quid pro quo on any issue."
Haggard insisted that disagreement over the film would not destroy the Jewish-Christian alliance on Israel. The National Association of Evangelicals says it represents 51 conservative denominations with 43,000 congregations.
However, some leaders say the dispute is forcing both sides to confront the uncomfortable theological differences between them.
The reasons evangelicals back Israel vary -- ranging from a sense of shared spiritual heritage to support for a Jewish homeland after the Holocaust. The strongest sentiment comes from a subset of evangelicals known as Christian Zionists, who see the existence of modern Israel as a precondition for the second coming of Christ, which is to be preceded by a period of extreme violence and the death of millions, including Jews.
Many Jewish leaders have been uneasy about accepting this support. Even so, conservative Jews and evangelicals have been working together for Israel more closely than ever. Last year, American Christians donated $20 million to help Jews resettle in Israel, said Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Eckstein, who has sought Christian support for Israel for 25 years, agreed that Haggard's remarks "would confirm for a lot of Jews their suspicion that there is a quid pro quo." But he argued the ties between Christians and Jews over Israel are so strong, "it's not even going to register on the radar screen. It's not even going to be a blip."
Dave Blewett, president of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, disagreed. He said that until the recent flap over the movie, Jews troubled by working with evangelicals had concluded they needed support for Israel so they would deal with religious disagreements later.
"Well, it's all coming up now," Blewett said.
The executive committee of his organization, which represents evangelicals, mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics, plans to discuss fallout from the movie at its meeting in October.
Foxman said he has already received calls from Jews who had opposed working with evangelicals. They are pointing to Haggard's remarks as evidence that the partnership is unworkable.
But Haggard said Jewish leaders are the ones making relations more difficult by focusing so intensely on Gibson's film.
"I don't think that Christian leaders are going to compromise on their support of Israel no matter what, certainly not over their like or dislike of a movie," he said. But, he added, "if the impression is that Jewish leaders are against the (crucifixion) story being told, then that's not helpful to us."