September 2006: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are fast approaching, and as they do, Mel Gibson is doubtless trying to craft a message of apology to American Jews. His speech to the Jewish community in Los Angeles may be a pivotal event, a turning point in his relationship to the Jewish people, or just another public relations “event” with no intrinsic moral significance.
When the furore over The Passion of the Christ first erupted, Mel Gibson steadfastly denied being an anti-Semite, saying that this kind of bigotry is incompatible with his (traditional Catholic) faith. His angry disclaimers were completely discrepant with many other things he said at the time, which reeked with anti-Semitic overtones. But even so, some American Jewish leaders took issue with Rabbi Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who called Mr. Gibson to account, and argued that however horrified they may be by the spectacle on the screen, Jews must credit Mr. Gibson with good intentions, and a desire to express his faith without censure or constraint. Not to do so, in their eyes, was deemed unwise and unfair, if not unpatriotic. Prominent among those Jews who leapt to Mr. Gibson’s defense were conservative talk show host Michael Medved and Rabbi Daniel Lapin, leader of Towards Tradition, and a close friend of Jack Abramoff.
I wasn’t happy with Rabbi Foxman’s handling of the situation, but neither was I impressed with his critics. There were too many complex issues that the raucous public debate overlooked, which I tried to address in a book entitledPassionate Dialogues: Critical Reflections on ‘The Passion of the Christ’ , which I co-edited with Dr. Rebecca Denova (Mise Press, 2005). But when the controversy subsided, most people thought the matter was closed. Neither side expected the seething and foul-mouthed tirade provoked by Mr. Gibson’s arrest for drunk driving in Los Angeles on July 28, 2006. There were no provocative subtexts or racist codes to decipher here, just raw, unvarnished prejudice.
In the wake of this humiliating public spectacle, Mr. Gibson is once again claiming that he is really not an anti-Semite, albeit in a spirit of contrition, rather than spirited defiance. And to his credit, perhaps, Mr. Gibson has reached out to the Jewish community in the hope of making amends, and some Jewish leaders are reaching out to him in turn. Meanwhile, the media circus that accompanied his recent arrest was not nearly as angry or as polarized as the one that accompanied the release of his movie. But the range of responses on the Right and the Left is still quite revealing, and helped to shape the climate of opinion in which his public act of contrition will take place place.
On July 31, at Townhall.com, movie critic Michael Medved, who initially leapt to Mr. Gibson’s defense observed that: “The ‘Mad Mel’ Moment in Malibu may change the way we perceive the dark hatred that lurks within Gibson’s heart, but it alters nothing about the images and messages he put on screen in ‘The Passion of the Christ.’” So when all is said and done, Mr. Medved stands by his initial appraisal of the movie, even if his opinion of Mr. Gibson himself has changed. In other words, he is exonerating himself. The tacit implication of Medved’s rejoinder is that Mel Gibson may be profoundly embarrassed or ashamed, but he has nothing to apologize for. Echoing Medved’s response, on July 31, a columnist for The National Review, Kathryn Lopez wrote on the magazine’s Online Corner Blog, refusing to recant her previous criticism of Mr. Gibson’s critics, as follows: “One can deeply deplore the anti-Semitic reflex and still know one of his movies was a worthwhile – even important – contribution.”
Without saying so in quite so many words, William Donohue, President of the Catholic League, takes a similar view of matters. On March 4, 2004, on MSNBC, he accused movie critics who deplored the anti-Semitic subtext of ‘The Passion of the Christ’ of being drunk, on drugs, or unable to “think straight” – a good description of Mr. Gibson’s state of mind when he was arrested. Nevertheless, on August 1, on the Catholic League’s website, he said: ‘Mel Gibson’s apology is a model of contrition, and it reflects the genuineness of his faith. Indeed, it stands in stark contrast to the “if you were offended” type of apology we are so accustomed to at the Catholic League. We trust that most Jewish leaders will now do the honorable thing and work with Mel so that all wounds can heal.”
Like Mr. Donohue, I hope that Jewish leaders will “work with Mel so that all wounds heal”, but I am nonetheless quite puzzled by the fact the President of the Catholic League is defending a man whose religious beliefs and practices where deemed heretical in the 1980’s by Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI. Would members of any Jewish denomination – orthodox or otherwise – rush to defend a man deemed heretical by their own religious leaders when he publicly offended members of another faith? I have searched in vain for precedent, but the fact is, I doubt it. Furthermore, I flatly reject Mr. Donohue’s contention that Gibson’s apologies in the immediate wake of his arrest constitute a “model of contrition”, or anything all that different from the “if you were offended” (or equivocal) apologies that he and his associates are accustomed to. Why? Because while Mr. Gibson has indeed apologized for his anti-Semitic remarks, he still claims not to believe the very things he said so vehemently while intoxicated. And as any experienced clinician (and many reformed alcoholics) will tell you, drunks are very adept at denial – drunk actors doubly so. So the one thing Jewish leaders should not do is take these denials at face value. Mr. Gibson and his handlers still insist that his outburst was merely the result of intoxication, and that he is earnestly attempting to change his ways. While Mr. Gibson should certainly opt for sobriety, in the circumstances, the claim that he really did not believe any of the things he said in the heat of the moment do not ring true. Moreover, while alcoholism is widely considered to be a “disease”, it is often also a symptom of inner turmoil, or of an unquiet soul that needs to sort itself out. Sobriety is the best frame of mind in which to undertake this kind of soul searching, obviously, but merely weaning himself from the bottle will not enable him to come to terms with his inner demons if he remains steadfast in his denial of the underlying hatred and mistrust.
I would describe Mr. Gibson’s problem as follows. He is an anti-Semite who wishes he were not an anti-Semite. And for that, I give him full credit. His denials are not merely careerist ploys, designed to shield him from public scorn or mistrust – though that is all they will be, finally, if he refuses to dig deeper and really “come clean”. In order to do so effectively, I urge Jewish leaders to say the following. First, Mr. Gibson, stop issuing blanket apologies. While necessary, initially, they are also apt to be self-serving and at the end of the day, unpersuasive. You could declare till your dying day “I am not an anti-Semite!” and no rational person will believe you. Second, undertake a study of the Jewish concept of repentance and tikkun olam before you make any further public statements, so you understand what these things mean to Jews, rather than to other Christians. Third, drop (and in due course, apologize for) your oft-repeated claim that you made a serious scholarly study of the life of Jesus as a prelude to making your controversial movie. You did not study a single sophisticated Jewish perspective on the life and death of Jesus – and there are many, some profoundly sympathetic, even though they decline to embrace Jesus as the Messiah. Fourth, have the decency to apologize to the panel of interfaith scholars (led by Fr. John Palikowski) whom you publicly abused when they questioned the theological underpinnings of your film, which are rooted in a pre-Vatican II mentality. Anything less won’t do.
Thus far we’ve canvassed the Right’s response to Mr. Gibson’s unholy outburst. What of Liberals and the Left? Naturally, there has been a fair amount of gloating of the “I knew it” or “I told you so” variety, and the Hollywood trade papers are avidly following every tiny twist and turn of this slightly nauseating drama. But apart from some lame satire and the shrill denunciations of Hollywood insiders, the really striking thing is how scarce and subdued commentary from Liberal and Left wing columnists in the USA is, on the whole. Nevertheless, in London, on August 4, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The Daily Telegraph:
“Gibson is not an admirable man . . . and his opinions on most things, from Christ to homosexuality, have always been pretty bonkers. But I don’t understand why he must now be crucified himself for saying the kinds of stupid thing that stupid people say all the time. If we peel back the layers of the Gibson fiasco, we see something darker and troubling not about him – he’s just a fool – but about the society which needs to produce a scapegoat in him. Dangerously worded as it was, Gibson’s drunken comment, it could reasonably be argued, a statement against the arrogance of the Israeli military . . . Isn’t it that which making America call for his head?”
O’Hagan goes on to suggest that: “Gibson’s remark should be like water off a duck’s back, but no; in the eyes of America Jews, it is a sin against nature, and he must be punished to within an inch of his life.” He then says: “The thought police are out in almost every publication in America . . . “ and that “. . . it is suggested that any Jews who criticize Israeli actions are self hating. These seem to me to be insults of a much more worrying kind. Then he adds: “You can’t police thoughts; and only a fool would seek to police the rantings of a drunken actor. Hollywood Jews, in the last century, were often the very people who fought for liberal freedoms – of speech, of thought, of political complexion – and their recent oversensitivity to insult puts them in the seat of their former enemies, the McCarthyites who sought to silence so many.”
As silly, self-serving and evasive as most Right wing commentators were, this was much, much worse. To begin with, it is not clear who is the target of his reproaches and ridicule. Is his diffuse cultural critique aimed at all America, American Jews, Hollywood, or the “thought police”? It does make a difference, you know. This kind of reckless imprecision is usually the result of rage, and it appears Mr. O’Hagan’s anger at the Israeli military for the recent Lebanese war – which he thinks Mr. Gibson shares, without furnishing a single shred of evidence for this dubious assertion – prompted some intemperate speech. For example, O’Hagan suggests that all America now wishes to ”crucify” or decapitate Mr. Gibson because of recent events in Lebanon, which is manifestly untrue. The Right wing, which represents almost half of this country, wants Mr. Gibson (and themselves) exonerated without a fuss – the sooner the better – and have said so repeatedly through their media outlets. That is a matter of public record. Moreover, the implication that Mr. Gibson’s drunken outburst was provoked by recent events, rather than by ancient prejudices, is difficult to credit on the face of it, and on reflection, possibly quite revealing. After all, O’Hagan’s use of the metaphor of crucifixion with respect collective American/Jewish sentiment towards Mr. Gibson isdeliberately provocative, given the earlier controversies about his film and his ridiculous inflation of the American media’s mood.
Then, without apology or explanation, O’Hagan shifts his emphasis and blames Hollywood Jews, and equates them with McCarthyites of days gone by. But does O’Hagan thinks he is kidding? Hollywood Jews, like most people in the entertainment industry, are guilty of crass materialism, shallow narcissism, shameless self promotion and a narrow tribalism that often distorts their judgment on political matters. But Mc Carthyism? Not bloody likely! They know that Mr. Gibson is a poster boy for the extreme (religious) Right, Senator McCarthy’s true heirs, and that is precisely why they attack him. Given O’Hagan’s political views, he is probably a leftist or a liberal, like many residents of Hollywood – Jewish and otherwise. So why doesn’t he sympathize or support – or at the very least, ignore – their criticism of a prominent right wing figure who thrives on ceaseless controversy? Is it anti-Semitism or anti-Amercanism, or a mixture of both, that addles his brains?
Finally, one cannot help noticing the eerie resemblance between O’Hagan’s condemnation of “Hollywood Jews”, who by his account, are intent on censoring, censuring or even “crucifying” Gibson, and Mr. Gibson’s own paranoid ravings before, during and immediately after the release of “The Passion of the Christ.” After all, that is precisely what Gibson himself contended! Perhaps he sympathizes with Mr. Gibson more than he is consciously aware, or is willing to admit, even to himself. He repeatedly calls Gibson a fool, in an apparent effort to distance himself from him. Perhaps he protests too much?
Sadly, Mr. O’Hagan’s kind of cheap journalistic excess appeals to many liberals and leftists in the Anglo-American world. And there will be lots more media commentary on Mel Gibson’s outburst and apology in the weeks to follow. Though many of us have strong hunches on what is likely to follow, the fact remains that we can’t anticipate precisely what he will say or do next, or how the media will respond. So let’s sit back and wait, and try not to prejudge the issue. Perhaps we will be pleasantly surprised.
Daniel Burston, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh
Burston, D. & Denova, R. eds., 2005, Passionate Dialogues: Critical Reflections on Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’, Pittsburgh: Mise Press.