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Hollywood's endangered species list

By Avi Davis
web posted December 2, 2002

So much has been written on Hollywood Jews' unwillingness to publicly condemn the Palestinian terrorist campaign that the subject is becoming raw. The screenwriter, Dan Gordon, summed up the Jewish community's puzzlement most eloquently when he observed that " in an industry where Jews take a stand on everything there's been a disturbing silence on Israel. I'd love to see the indignation about homicide bombers that is reserved for smokers." Many seem to agree that there is more protest in Hollywood against potential threats to endangered birds than there are against the Palestinian plans for Israeli extinction.

But lately the temperature in the debate has risen. In October, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal presented a bitter exchange between Dennis Prager, the conservative talk show host and Michael Tolkin, a liberal screenwriter. Tolkin chose to waste his column on a puerile personal attack. But Prager's observations were incisive. He suggested that in Hollywood there is an inverse relation between power and morality that can be represented as 'strong equals wrong; weak equals right' . This, he implied, guides all political opinion in that world, a world fuzzy on morals and even less in touch with reality.

This analysis may be accurate, but does not go quite far enough. Because Hollywood's moral framework is not inexact or relative but instead quite firmly defined. The film industry enjoys viewing itself as a temple of free thinkers and non-conformists, its moral judgments unconditioned by any particular religious view, and their courage denoted by a willingness to explore themes no one else is willing to touch.


Mel Gibson as Braveheart

But it is all self-delusion. If Hollywood is a temple, then it is a sanctuary of strict conformists whose shrine is new age liberalism - a religion with its own moral code that masquerades as empathy but usually reveals itself as little more than a pandering self-indulgence. This became clear to me recently when I came across Braveheart, winner of the 1995 Academy Award for best picture, a movie that I had neglected when it appeared. For its two and half hours, a mostly blood-spattered and blue-faced Mel Gibson portrays William Wallace, a 13th century Scottish brigand who capably harasses the English army in a struggle for Scottish independence. The movie has all the flinging broadswords and crushed skulls one would expect of a medieval epic. It also has the standard distinction between good guys (Wallace and his band of adventurers) and bad guys (King Edward I - nicknamed Longshanks - and his generals). No effort is spared to enlist our sympathy for the hero - his more intemperate moments carefully explained away. His merciless rages are driven, for instance, by his lust for freedom; his barbarism is a result of emotional loss; he has suffered.

But save your tears. For soon our hero gets inexplicably wooed by the demure Princess of Wales, a woman for whom savagery has an odd carnal attraction. She ennobles Wallace's quest for freedom by protecting him and eventually bedding him. In a sweep of cinematic overindulgence of which only a Hollywood epic is capable, their love child becomes the unintended heir to the English throne.

There are, no doubt, more preposterous story lines than this – though I can't say I'm aware of any of them. Yet as this bloated juggernaut rolls on, anyone watching might consider some disturbing analogies. Modify the scenery slightly, change the characters' names, overdub a new language, bring in costume design to add a touch of reality and 13th century Scotland transforms into 21st century Israel! Here, with a little make up, Mel Gibson could be turned into a less pudgy Yasser Arafat - the selfless revolutionary battling for the liberation of his people. King Edward would fit neatly into the shoes (although perhaps not the pants) of Ariel Sharon, the cynical, repressive warlord, determined to wipe out resistance to his rule. As for a love interest, the Princess of Wales character would find a receptive vehicle in Chava Alberstein, the Israeli singer whose far left views and recent performances have transformed her into an apologist for Palestinian terror.

If you think this flippant or that Hollywood would never embark on such a ludicrous undertaking, think again. The theme is popular and prolific. So effective was the formula in Braveheart that Gibson opted for an identical role five years later in The Patriot, with the backdrop this time changing to Revolutionary America. The theme repeats in such films as Michael Collins (where an early 20th Century Irish guerilla leader is transformed into a peace loving freedom fighter); Gladiator (where the central character's own brutality is excused by his sense of betrayal) and almost anything made by Oliver Stone. It should be no surprise that Stone, the doyen of the Hollywood good/evil, power/moral dialectic is reportedly now wrapping up production on a documentary that casts Arafat and Sharon in roles similar to those described above. If Stone can resort to such characterizations then is it really a stretch to think that Sharon or the country he leads, a mini-superpower possessing one of the world's most capable armies, has been transformed in movieland's imaginings into the equivalent of Braveheart's ruthless Longhshanks?

More than this, however, it reveals how new age liberalism has morphed into a such an oily mix of socialism and class struggle, filtered through the lens of commerce. For decades it has been rote for Hollywood movies to offer representations of an oppressor and an oppressed, absolute wickedness contrasted with absolute righteousness all manifested as an elevated struggle between haves and have-nots. But never would the old studios have thought about serializing the early struggles of a Francisco Franco or even given the time of day to a story about Mussolini's rise to power. Today that is not the case. A producer who had recently obtained the rights to the movie version of Leon Uris' Exodus confided to me that while he had discovered that a series on the life of Adolf Hitler is currently in production, he was unable to get even one callback about turning Exodus – surely one of the industry's more stirring accounts of a struggle for freedom - into a four part series.

Still, its not an easy time to be seen championing terrorists and in the wake of September 11 Yasser Arafat's fans are not exactly winning popularity contests. Perhaps that explains the silence. After all, it is an old public relations axiom that you offend no one by saying nothing. Domestic politics also, no doubt, plays a role in Hollywood's reticence. With such a pro-Israel Republican government in power, it is simply bad politics to support a cause that George Bush so openly embraces.

History, though, is not kind to such Jewish fence-sitters. Today no one forgives the Hollywood moguls for turning their backs on their fellow Jews and refusing to lobby Washington to bomb Nazi death camps. (When Harry Cohn was approached about Jewish relief he famously snapped "Jewish Relief? How about a little relief from the Jews?") Barbra Streisand may not be Harry Cohn but her accusation, in a memo to Dick Gephardt last month, of a right wing conspiracy designed to drag the United States into an unnecessary war with Iraq, gave a new face to Hollywood paranoia. Streisand's known sympathies for Peace Now and hatred for anything smacking of right-wing politics makes her one of the leading proponents of anti-Sharon sentiment in Hollywood.

The problem is therefore not that Hollywood's Jewish eminenti don't get it. They get it all too well. In their neat parsing of the world into good and evil spheres, it is perfectly natural to see Palestinians as resistance fighters and Israelis as oppressors. The fact that it is their co-religionists who are being blown to smithereens in restaurants, discos and pizza shops seems not to faze them. Nor are they moved by the fact that that Americans themselves have had so recently harvested such a bitter of crop of Middle East rage. Mitigating circumstances can always be found for even the most depraved acts of heroes. William Wallace is driven to savagery? Well, he's an oppressed man, struggling for his freedom. Yasser Arafat lets loose suicide bombers on innocent Israeli civilians? Well, just look at his peoples' suffering.

In the great conformist world of Hollywood, savagery can always find a justification, genocidal mania a patronizing nod and brutality the imprimatur of respectability. That is the legacy of Hollywood liberalism. And that, sadly, is why Israelis may never quite make it onto its vaunted endangered species list.

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies in Los Angeles and senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.com.

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