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April 14, 2011

Should the Simon Wiesenthal Center honor Tom Cruise?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/should_the_simon_wiesenthal_center_honor_tom_cruise_20110414/

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Let’s for a moment put aside the indelible image of Tom Cruise giddily love-jumping on Oprah’s couch. Even slightly deranged movie stars deserve to fall in love.

Let’s instead go with another image, perhaps also perplexing to digest, but one the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance would like you to see: Tom Cruise, humanitarian.

Picture it: There he is rolling up his custom-made sleeves in Rwanda. There he is again, hugging orphaned children in Haiti. And after that, it’s “Top Gun” redux, as he flies his cargo-loaded jet into Tsunami-stricken Japan.

Or was that George Clooney?

If those images are hard to see, it’s probably because I made them up. And if this subjective measure of what makes a humanitarian seems unfair – sources in Cruise’s camp assure me he’s the consummate philanthropist and gives away “tens of millions”– it’s probably because it is. But even so, tapping Cruise with a “humanitarian” award still seems an odd choice, since one authentic and indisputable aspect of his image is as public champion for the Church of Scientology—and that impenetrable behemoth is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for alleged human trafficking.

The fact that the Wiesenthal Center plans to honor Cruise on May 5 with the 2011 Humanitarian Award is either brilliant strategy or terrible hypocrisy. And it has Tom-lovers-and-haters alike in a tizzy.

One online message board oppugning Cruise’s worthiness quipped, “Hey I know another actor for this prize”—and followed with a wacky photo of Mel Gibson. Another online forum that caters exclusively to “ex-Scientologists” contained a thread around the question: “Do you believe that Tom Cruise is a humanitarian, like within the context of all the other humanitarians who actually did something humanitarian? Like, I don’t know, someone who raised money and went out and cleared landmines, or someone who worked and risked their [life] to stop an actual genocide?”

To be fair, many of the Wiesenthal Center’s honorees from the entertainment industry do not do that type of work. And, yet, every year the center hosts a swanky dinner in Beverly Hills for titans of the industry, the centerpiece of which is the bestowal of the Humanitarian Award—the museum’s highest honor—upon individuals who ostensibly promote human welfare, but perhaps more importantly, can get their friends to write big checks to the museum. Hollywood, as you might imagine, is quite good at this, and over the years recipients have included luminaries like Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Douglas, Amy Pascal, Will Smith, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer.

Under these criteria—since Cruise is apparently a big giver and obviously a big star—he would seem a natural fit. Perhaps his religious/spiritual affiliations should not matter; why assume that his chosen spiritual system holds any kind of sway in influencing his values? How horrifically unfair to expect public spokespeople to be held accountable for the interior affairs of the organizations they represent.

“Tom Cruise cannot be responsible for an entire religion,” film director Brett Ratner, who sits on the Wiesenthal’s board of trustees said to me by phone last week.  “You can’t say he’s the reason the religion is doing what it’s doing. That’s like saying, ‘The Jews killed f———Jesus; why am I a Jew?’”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center is, after all, home to the Museum of Tolerance, which preaches openness and understanding, “promotes human rights and dignity” and is dedicated to “raising awareness about contemporary issues” (as stated in the tribute invitation). Yet, to the chagrin of some, honorees are not selected based upon their religious persuasion but rather, their commitment to the museum.

Rosalie Zalis, senior vice president of Pacific Capital Group and a Wiesenthal trustee said Cruise has been a “major giver” to the museum for almost two decades, and that he’s been a supporter of the Holocaust Studies program.

“There aren’t too many other people, besides Spielberg and Katzenberg, who have really supported Holocaust studies the way he has,” she said. And she is hardly bothered by the unruly elephant in the room: “I don’t know anything about Scientology,” she said. “It’s just like Islam—as we say ‘not all Muslims are terrorists,’ but to date it seems most terrorists have been Muslims, and yet, you can’t condemn all Muslims. Just because someone is a Scientologist, you can’t condemn them as a trafficker.”

When Lawrence Wright, writing for The New Yorker, first reported the investigation into the Church of Scientology in a lengthy expose published last February, the rumor mills spun into high gear. Picking up on the scandal (without verifying its veracity, because it’s the New Yorker, after all) news aggregates blared headlines implicating Cruise: “Scientology Under FBI Investigation For Work Done For Tom Cruise,” ran one headline, posted on The Huffington Post on Feb. 8. Follow-up calls to the Los Angeles FBI offices to confirm the story’s facts were fruitless, since official policy prohibits officers from confirming or denying an investigation.

“It’s true that the FBI doesn’t normally confirm or deny an investigation, but this was an exception,” Wright, the author of the 25,000-word story wrote in an email, adding, “I can’t really disclose why that is or how it came about. I can tell you that nothing I heard from the FBI involved Cruise.”

Phew.

“We should not engage in any guilt by association,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center said. He is focusing on Cruise-the-individual, not Cruise-the Scientology missionary. “We’ve given a medal of valor to the Pope. Does that mean we agree with everything the church has done? No.”

Hier added that the museum is accustomed to taking flack for its high-profile choices, which are determined by the entertainment dinner chairs: Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, CAA Super-agent and partner Kevin Huvane, Dreamworks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, Warner Bros. Entertainment CEO Barry Meyer, Universal Studios president Ron Meyer and Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO Tom Rothman. As it often goes in Hollywood, the bigger the celebrity, the bigger the corresponding controversy.

“When we honored Ted Kennedy a long time ago, we received an enormous amount of criticism – enormous!” Hier said. “Because of Chappaquiddick. But we honored him as a great senator and a person who contributed to society. So if you’re asking me if this is the first time we’ve received letters or emails? Not by any stretch of the imagination.”

This could require some Cruise control. One insider suggested Cruise’s handlers may have pressed for the recognition, a little positive PR to keep his image pristine (not that they’d admit it isn’t). For the Church of Scientology, humanitarianism appears to be a value: the official Website lists six different educational projects advocating social responsibility, including programs for criminal rehabilitation and increasing literacy.

Of course, it’s possible Cruise is one of those “quiet givers” who donates munificently to a plethora of organizations. According to the Website looktothestars.org, an online organization that tracks celebrity giving, Cruise has supported the Children’s Hospice & Palliative Care Coalition, the Jackie Chan Charitable Foundation and Mentor LA; he also serves as a board member for the Hollywood Education and Literacy Project, a position for which he received an Excellence in Mentoring Award, in 2003, from the National Mentoring Partnership.

All nice things, Tom Cruise, but does giving away lots of dough a humanitarian make?

That’s a question the Wiesenthal Center’s leadership should ponder, for themselves, at least, if not for their viewing public. Because it could be that for the world’s biggest box office draw, writing a check is easy. Even in Hollywood, plenty of celebrities go much further—Clooney, Angelina Jolie and Sean Penn, for instance—all glamorous movie stars who don’t need to prove their justice work, because we’ve seen it.

Mission Humanitarian: Possible.

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