Silver bullets

The strange, sad meltdown of Mel Gibson—his drunken anti-Semitic tirade; his admission of alcoholism and pledge to seek treatment; his second apology imploring forgiveness and asking Jewish leaders to help him “find the appropriate path for healing’”—has prompted an intriguing, public discussion of the episode, along with the obligatory celebrity scandal media hype.

Gibson’s ugly rant (“Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”) has been widely covered and soundly condemned. Some of the actor/director’s Hollywood friends (including Jodie Foster and Patrick Swayze) have blamed Gibson’s alcohol consumption for the outburst and argued that the actor/director is no anti-Semite.

The commentary on Gibson has ranged from banal to fascinating. Some of the more interesting columns have focused on ancillary issues. Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post hammered Hollywood for cowardice for not more aggressively confronting and denouncing Gibson. She argued that it reflected “the cult of celebrity, sheer avarice, the modern notion that moral failings are a disease to be recovered from” and “Hollywood’s historically uneasy relationship with its own Jewishness.”

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe asked why the media obsessed over the Gibson tirade while downplaying the murder of one woman and the wounding of six others at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle by, police say, a Muslim American who said he was “angry at Israel.”

And Rabbi Marc Gellman in Newsweek sarcastically suggested a pause from “the trivial issues of the moment like the war in Israel and Lebanon, the slaughter in Darfur and the sectarian violence in Iraq” so that “the defining moral issue of the moment“—Gibson’s “anti-Semitic and sexist and belligerent comments”—could be considered.

Gellman added:

I am now prepared to believe that the actor’s upbringing and his nature have nurtured a poisonous bigotry in his soul. But in the spectrum that includes the head of Iran and Hizbullah and Hamas and the KKK and the Aryan Nation, Gibson is a small anti-Semitic fish.

This is not exculpation, just a simple plea for perspective, and Mel Gibson’s case deserves perspective first of all because the world is filled with really dangerous anti-Semites, and Mel Gibson is not one of them.

Gellman concluded that Gibson is not dangerous but still placed him in the category of anti-Semite. That raises some interesting questions. If you make anti-Semitic remarks—and then express remorse and apologize—does that alter how you should be regarded? Or to put it another way: are you a full-strength anti-Semite if, as with Mel Gibson, you publicly acknowledge your sickness? (Does this establish a new category: recovering anti-Semite?)

What about “casual anti-Semitism,” the lazy acceptance of stereotypes about Jews, or retelling the occasional bigoted joke? The Anti-Defamation League recently sent Keith Olbermann of MSNBC a letter asking him to stop giving the Nazi salute as part of his mockery of Bill O’Reilly. The ADL added: “We are especially concerned that young people viewing your program might take their cues from your free use of the “Sieg Heil” salute.” Is Olbermann over the line? Encouraging anti-Semitism by trivializing the gesture?

And in a consideration of the entire person—do words or deeds matter more? Richard Nixon, for example, whose anti-Semitic paranoia was captured for posterity on audiotape, also came to Israel’s rescue in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, personally intervening to speed the transfer of arms to the Israelis after the Arab attack. Would an anti-Semite have approved “the airlift that saved Israel,” the world’s only Jewish state? Israeli president Chaim Herzog later said: “He supplied arms and unflinching support when our very existence would have been in danger without them. Let his comments be set against his actions. And I`ll choose actions over words any day of the week.”

Or for that matter, what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor executed for his role in an assassination plot against Hitler? When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum honored Bonhoeffer in 1996 for helping to save Jews during the Third Reich, the following sentence was included in the invitation: “Although repudiating Nazism, Bonhoeffer also expressed the anti-Jewish bias of centuries-old Christian teaching.”

Deeds not words?

As a Gentile, I step somewhat lightly here. After all, arguing for restraint is a lot easier when the slurs and hatred are not directed at you or your beliefs.

So to be clear: anti-Semitic speech should be immediately and unequivocably condemned.

Passing judgment on the speaker is another matter. I can not claim to see into another’s heart; my religious tradition, shared with the People of the Book, suggests that remains divine knowledge. People say stupid things; they struggle with their prejudices; they can be hurtful and yet not intend to hurt. And as Chaim Herzog argued: “actions over words.”

Moreover, there is the silver bullet question: do you want to waste your silver bullets on the chipmunks, or use them on the werewolves?

The werewolves—those dangerous anti-Semites Rabbi Geller mentions who have guns and bombs—not only speak, but they act on their threats.

Count me in with those who think we should worry about the werewolves. I haven’t heard any apologies or expressions of regret coming from Naveed Afzal Haq, the accused gunman in Seattle, or from Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, a terror group launching hundreds of missiles against Israel every day. History teaches us that we shouldn’t expect any.

*How should we view those in the recent past—especially writers and poets—who have expressed anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic thoughts? Should it define them?

In some cases (Ezra Pound for example, or Celine), it has and should. But what of those who reflected the prevailing prejudices of their time: the many authors of the pre-World War II era and their acceptance of “genteel anti-Semitism” (T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, William Faulkner)?

What of those more recently tagged by some as anti-Semitic (Imamu Amiri Baraka, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote)? What if the evidence is ambiguous? Should the writer get the benefit of the doubt?

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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