Yes, leaders should rebuke a man lionized by the Jewish community

Whenever questions are raised about the accuracy or the truth of something portrayed in a film, the moviemakers and/or their public-relations representatives have a ready-made response.

“It’s just a movie,” they say. “Lighten up. Nobody expects movies to be historically accurate or true.”

That answer has a lot of resonance with the public. Movies are a big part of our imaginative life, but by and large they exist in a fantasy world, not the one in which we live and work.

Yet there are times when some of us do get pretty worked up about the impact a film might have. Witness the Jewish community’s reaction last year to the release of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

It’s true that those who predicted the film would foment violence misunderstood their non-Jewish neighbors, if not Gibson. But that sort of hysteria aside, the Anti-Defamation League and its national leader, Abraham Foxman, were right to speak out about the danger of the deicide myth that Gibson’s film seemed to be raising.

But when another flick with the potential for damage to the interests of the Jewish community recently opened, the ADL frontman was taking quite a different line.

When asked whether he was concerned about the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” Foxman wanted no part of the dustup. This is, mind you, a film that goes out of its way to portray Palestinian terrorists in a flattering light, and whose conclusion centered around the rejection of Israel on the part of a disillusioned member of that country’s intelligence services.

Foxman only praised it.

“The film presents the issues in a sensitive light,” said the ADL head in a USA Today article. He was quoted in the Jerusalem Post as asserting, “We do not think this is an attack on Israel. We do not think this is a film of moral equivalency.”

Nor was Foxman deterred by the fact that the source for the movie is bogus, and has been roundly refuted by virtually everyone in Israel in a position to know about the events.

“This is not a documentary, and nobody’s pretending it is,” Foxman said.

A dispassionate viewer might think it odd that a man who was prepared to go to the barricades about the potential impact of a film only a year ago would be so willing to give “Munich” a pass.

This is a time when the right of the state of Israel to defend itself against terrorism has never been under greater attack in the media and from the liberal Christian denominations. At such a moment, doesn’t Foxman think a movie that invokes the image of the World Trade Center’s twin towers — in a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the idea that Israel is the reason America was attacked — is at least as incendiary a notion as the idea that the Jews killed Jesus?

If the potential for a distorted view of the history of the first century was so great in “The Passion,” why is the ADL so disinterested in a slanted view of the events of the last 35 years?

The fact that the movie portrays Arab attacks on Jewish targets as being merely a response to Israel counter-terror operations is something that should have restrained this leader’s praise.

Arab terror directed at Israeli and Jewish targets predated the Munich atrocity and, contrary to the film, subsequent attacks were not predicated on Israel’s counterattacks. Palestinian terrorism continues whether Israel is making peace or making war — or whether it’s undecided about what it should do.

The real problem here is that “Munich” is not the work of a wacky extremist like Mel Gibson or even a talented conspiracy maven like Oliver Stone. It is a movie made by a man who has been lionized by the Jewish community for an award-winning film about the Holocaust.

Seen in that perspective, maybe taking on Gibson and “The Passion” as Foxman did wasn’t as daring as it seemed at the time. Maybe the real test of institutional courage comes when the director of “Schindler’s List” puts forward an offensive film — not when it’s done by an easy mark for the organized Jewish world.

When all is said and done, like “The Passion,” “Munich” is just a movie, and even if it wins some Oscars, it will be gone soon enough from theaters. But if the defenders of the Jewish community and Israel have understood anything in the past, it’s that a defeat in the world of ideas and popular culture can be as dangerous as one on the battlefield.

It’s just too bad that some of our leaders were unprepared to fight when the battle didn’t look like an easy one.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, where this column previously appeared.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review.