Abba Eban once told me a story about a conversation he’d had years before with a British friend. It happened in 1970, shortly after the Six Day War. The friend complained that Israel was acting unnecessarily defensive and inflexible for a country that had just won a major victory. “You must understand, we’re a wounded people,” Eban recalled saying. “Yes,” his friend replied, “but you’re a wounded people with an atom bomb.”
Eban’s point was that Israelis, himself included, are prone to exaggerate their own vulnerability, leading them at times to overreact to perceived threats. Thinking themselves a beleaguered underdog, they end up looking like a bully.
Which brings us to filmmaker Oliver Stone. Alert readers recall that he’s faced some criticism lately over a July 25 interview in London’s Sunday Times. He talked about many subjects, including his views of foreign leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. At the end, however, he digressed briefly to discuss his upcoming Showtime documentary series, “Oliver Stone’s Secret History of America,” which purports to debunk various myths about the 20th century. Among other things, the series attempts to put Stalin and Hitler “in context.” “Hitler was a Frankenstein,” Stone told his interviewer, “but there was also a Dr. Frankenstein. German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support.”
Moreover, Stone said, “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people, 25 or 30 million [dead].”
Then why, the interviewer asked, is there “such a focus on the Holocaust?” Stone’s reply: “The Jewish domination of the media. There’s a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel has f—ed up United States foreign policy for years.”
Well, you can imagine what happened next. The American Jewish Committee said Stone had “outed himself as an anti-Semite.” Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s minister of Diaspora affairs and public diplomacy, warned that they “could lead to a new wave of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism.”
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? On July 26 Stone issued a disclaimer: “In trying to make a broader historical point about the range of atrocities the Germans committed against many people, I made a clumsy association about the Holocaust, for which I am sorry.” He added that “Jews obviously do not control media or any other industry” and that the Holocaust is “a very important, vivid and current matter today,” thanks to “the very hard work of a broad coalition of people committed to the remembrance of this atrocity.”
The apology didn’t stop the protests. The Anti-Defamation League called it “insufficient,” since Stone hadn’t retracted his remarks about the Israel lobby. Alan Dershowitz, writing in The Huffington Post, welcomed the apology but proceeded to write that Stone “urges us to see the positive side of Hitler and Ahmadinejad while imitating his two heroes by railing against Jewish control of the media.”
Lost in the din was the fact — obvious if you read the full interview — that Stone hadn’t said half the things he was accused of. He never lionized Ahmadinejad. He certainly didn’t praise or excuse Hitler. He called the Nazi butcher “a Frankenstein” — that is, a monster.
Stone’s point about Hitler was that he didn’t simply appear out of nowhere. He emerged in the context of a Europe mired in post-World War I nihilism and extremism. As historians have long noted, Hitler had wealthy, influential enablers, including American senators and clergy, who backed him as a bulwark against communism.
As far as his comments about the pro-Israel lobby — well, AIPAC brags about its influence. Whether that has “f—ed up” American policy depends upon what you think of the policy.
Stone said a whole lot more that you could call stupid, sloppy and even anti-American, but that has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Feel free to agree or disagree, but don’t toss around the term “anti-Semitic” unless the person actually hates Jews, otherwise the term loses its credibility and a very important taboo collapses.
After the first apology failed to placate his critics, Stone tried again to make himself heard, in a July 28 open letter to the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman. “I am half-Jewish and therefore personally repelled by anti-Semitism,” he wrote, “but moreover, I consider it an important part of my life’s work to call attention to the atrocities caused by racist and fascist regimes and policies.” He added that it was “wrong of me to say that Israel or the pro-Israel lobby is to blame for America’s flawed foreign policy. Of course that’s not true and I apologize that my inappropriately glib remark has played into that negative stereotype.” He said that if he criticized American or Israeli policy in the future, he would “be more careful and precise with my words.”
Foxman promptly declared that Stone “now understands the issues and where he was wrong, and this puts an end to the matter” (which in turn prompted some online commenters to call Foxman Stone’s “toadie” and “hired hack”).
Yet by the time Stone sent his second apology, billionaire producer Haim Saban and super-agent Ari Emanuel had already both called on Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, which owns Showtime, to cancel “Secret History.”
Few seemed to notice the irony: Two of the most powerful men in Hollywood, both Jewish, urging a third power player, also Jewish, to punish Stone for suggesting that Jews dominate the media. The bottom line: Stone’s comment that Jewish influence in the media stifles open discussion brought the media crashing down on his head.
But then, we are a wounded people.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).