As loathsome and absurd as it may seem, Mel Gibson’s plan to produce a movie about the Maccabees is not an existential threat to Jews. That is, unless he decides to change the ending so that the Maccabees lose. But that's another matter.
That a man who, in 2006, turned a drunk-driving arrest into an opportunity to assail Jews for waging all the wars in the world should now set about making a film based on two of the Jewish holy books does seem utterly bizarre. Is this Gibson’s attempt at some kind of perversion of teshuvah (repentance), or just a deeply insensitive expropriation of Jewish lore?
At best, the notion resonates as a kind of grand farce.
“If you were making a satire of Hollywood, you would have the anti-Semitic, drunk, racist, misogynistic movie director making the Judah Maccabee biopic,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg said to me by phone from Washington, D.C. “It’s an act of outrageous chutzpah for an anti-Semite to appropriate a Jewish hero for a movie. Would you have a person who is widely believed by black people to be a racist involved in a movie about Martin Luther King Jr.? Would you have a person most gay people believe is a homophobe direct ‘Milk’?”
At worst, the film could become a kind of insidious Christian propaganda film, à la “The Passion of the Christ,” in which Jews were mostly depicted as extremely unattractive, blood-lusting and demonic, not to mention complicit in deicide. “If this [movie] were shown in the theater during the Third Reich or in Iran, people would cheer that the Jews, who rejected Christ, are finally shown for what they are,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, said.
But, in fact, no Jews were harmed in the making of that film — or in the movie theaters that showed it, or even outside of them. Mostly, “The Passion” played out in the pages of the press, and life went on. Hurt feelings aside, the worst grievance Jews could direct at “The Passion of the Christ” was that it made its already wealthy anti-Semitic creator even richer.
Any Gibson-produced Maccabee movie is unlikely to pose actual danger to Jews. In an age of real violent threats, “This is not a crime against humanity,” Goldberg said wryly. But even so, that is not why many Jews oppose it.
When the story broke, Jewish outrage was palpable. Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman told The Hollywood Reporter that the decision was a travesty: “Judah Maccabee deserves better,” he said. Hier called the project antagonistic and disrespectful — “an insult to Jews.” Others called it “bottom-feeding on the bottom line.”
The danger, as these Jewish leaders see it, is that allowing an anti-Semite to have his way with Jewish history in this far-reaching and influential medium casts him as a kind of cultural authority on the subject and lends legitimacy to his worldview, which they believe comprises deep theological hostility to Jews and Judaism.
They don’t look at Mel Gibson and see a great artist; they see a Nazi.
As one friend put it, “Had Mel Gibson lived in 1940s Germany, he would have been one of those Nazis who shot Jews from a rooftop and then went inside and listened to Bach.”
But the Jewish leaders who flooded the pages of the Hollywood trades with their dismay and disgust do not know Mel Gibson. And the portrait that emerges from talks with some of the Jews who have worked with Gibson, including Alan Nierob, his publicist of 17 years, is one of a loyal, caring friend and a consummate professional.
“People love working with him,” said Dean Devlin, producer of “The Patriot” and a close friend of Gibson. “He is one of the few movie stars who doesn’t bring any ego to the set, and he was always making people laugh.” Devlin said Gibson would help carry equipment and play practical jokes, and that he helped set up a clinic for battered women near their South Carolina set, as well as a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose meetings Gibson attended. “But,” Devlin added, “he also has this reputation for being a guy who would say outrageous stuff and infuriate people; Mel is a guy who loves to shock.”
Richard Donner (nee Schwartzberg), who directed Gibson in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and has known him for three decades, agreed that Gibson is “one of the nuttiest guys” he’s ever met but does not believe he’s anti-Semitic. He described Gibson as an “off the wall” creative genius who can sometimes do bizarre and outlandish things. He said he was “thunderstruck” when he heard about Gibson’s 2006 tirade.
“I couldn’t believe it — I didn’t want to believe it,” Donner said. “And yet, in my heart, having known how he was brought up, I said to myself, ‘Well, maybe this is something that’s been suppressed for so many years and it decided to raise its ugly head now.’
“If you’re brainwashed from infancy,” Donner added, referring to Gibson’s Vatican II-
rejecting father, Hutton Gibson, a Holocaust denier, “that probably causes great emotional anguish.”
“Mel has never, ever said anything against the Jews on the record,” Devlin insisted. “Somehow, in a drunken, crazy rage, he was reported to have said some ridiculous things; but I gotta tell you, if every single one of us had every word recorded in the height of drunken anger, we’d all look like lunatics.”
Whether Gibson’s colleagues are defending a friend or in denial, it’s clear there is also little consensus in Hollywood on what constitutes anti-Semitism.
As recently as December 2010, the actress Winona Ryder revealed to GQ Magazine a disturbing encounter she’d had with Gibson long ago: “I remember, like, 15 years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk,” she told GQ. “I was with my friend, who’s gay. He made a really horrible gay joke. And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about ‘oven dodgers.’… I’d never heard that before. It was just this weird, weird moment. I was like, ‘He’s anti-Semitic and he’s homophobic.’ No one believed me!”
Perhaps an industry-wide malaise of shame or self-hate makes it too difficult to call anti-Semitism what it is. With few exceptions, like Amy Pascal, who decried Gibson’s 2006 outburst in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and Ari Emanuel, who wrote on the Huffington Post that, “alcoholism does not excuse racism and anti-Semitism,” the silence has been deafening. Calling out anti-Semitism where it exists seems too tribal and parochial for such a worldly industry. God forbid Warner Bros., the studio that greenlighted the Maccabee film, should bear any moral responsibility for assigning a Jewish story to a storyteller who has repeatedly antagonized Jews. All that its Jewish studio head Barry Meyer could muster through a PR rep was: “No comment.”
Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership based in New York, said he couldn’t care less about analyzing the vagaries of Gibson’s attitude toward the Jews. “I worry about anti-Semitism when it actually wields power that is going to hurt the Jewish people,” he said. Kula has been consulting with Gibson about the Maccabee movie and said Gibson has as much right to produce the story as anyone.
“No one owns the Jewish story; this is a historic story,” Kula said, adding that the Jewish community should view the film as an opportunity. “More [Jewish] people celebrate Chanukah than any other festival — 80 percent of American Jews claim they celebrate some sort of Chanukah, which means Chanukah is bigger than Rosh Hashanah, bigger than Yom Kippur. What if, when the movie comes out, we were able to create a national conversation around one of our most important stories?”
After all, not even Gibson’s critics deny that he is one of Hollywood’s most talented filmmakers. And his penchant for archetypal good-versus-evil stories could wind up highlighting Judah Maccabee’s heroism, omitting some of the harsher, more ambivalent aspects of the Book of Maccabees, such as the zealous persecution of secular Jews. What if, in the end, Mel Gibson makes a darn good movie extolling Maccabean virtues that would make Jews proud?
“People say to me, ‘You know what? Maybe he wants to make amends with Judah Maccabee and this is his way of saying, ‘Welcome me back,’ ” Rabbi Hier said, confessing that as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he voted for Gibson back in 1996, when he was nominated for “Braveheart.”
“Why can’t the Jews just forget Mel Gibson?” Hier asked, rhetorically.
“Because he himself has not allowed us to forget, because he hasn’t done anything to correct the way he’s thought of. I’ve seen nothing in Mel Gibson to make me think he’s worthy to be put in trust of a film like Judah Maccabee; he wants us to trust him, but he has not earned our trust.”