Mel Gibson is being excoriated by the Anti-Defamation League and Simon Wiesenthal Center for making a movie about Judah Maccabee, a beloved Jewish hero who fought for religious freedom 160 or so years before the birth of Jesus.

Gibson, who is teaming with Warner Bros. to produce the epic, is just about the last person who should tell this story. He depicted Jews negatively in his violent saga, "The Passion of the Christ." When arrested for drunken driving, he launched into an anti-Semitic rant.

If Jews are skeptical of Gibson, they've every reason to be. This material shouldn't be in his bigoted hands. At the same time, it's important to understand that Gibson didn't pluck the story out of the air to insult Jews, as some insist. It's part of his Catholic religious tradition, too.

"If you grow up Catholic, you grow up hearing the story of the Maccabees," said Paul Hasser of the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University. "They were warrior brothers who fought to preserve the Jewish faith from Syrians who'd defiled the Jerusalem temple.

In fact, the books of I and II Maccabees are found in canon of Catholic Bibles, but not in the Hebrew Bible. Protestants consider the books apocryphal. The books depict a bloody tale containing all the elements that earned Gibson's "Braveheart" an Oscar: Lots of fighting, a good vs. evil theme and ragtag warriors toppling military might.

Every three years during Sunday Mass, Catholics are read the story of the "martyrdom" of the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother, who was forced to watch her sons' brutal deaths. They're held out as models of faith because they refused to abandon their religion, even to save their own lives.

Maccabees are also read during some weekday masses, and are an option at Catholic funerals. But their prominence is greater in Judaism because the Maccabees story is the basis of the Hanukkah celebration, also known as the Festival of Lights.

Their heroism is so significant to Jews that when Paul Fishman and Paula Goodman wed in 1980, they sealed their marriage by legally taking Maccabee as their last name.

"The Maccabees are a point of enormous pride for the Jewish community," said Paul Maccabee, who has a public-relations firm in Minneapolis. "People are afraid the Hannukah story is going to be co-opted by a man infamous for anti-Semitic statements. It's just hard to predict what Mel will do."

But, to me, there's every reason for outrage. As Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center said, Gibson making this movie is "like having a white supremacist portray Martin Luther King Jr."

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.