Will Mel Gibson get away with it?
Now that Gibson has been revealed as having ranted against “f—ing Jews” who “are responsible for all the wars in the world,” a debate has erupted over what consequences, if any, he should suffer.
In the past, some public figures who have made hostile statements about Jews or other minorities managed to withstand the ensuing criticism. But other celebrity bigots were less successful at weathering the storm.
The public’s minimum expectation in such cases is an admission and apology. But political connections also go a long way in making such controversies disappear.
Jesse Jackson initially denied, in 1984, that he had referred to New York City as “Hymietown.” But the Washington Post reporter who heard Jackson’s antisemitic slur was sufficiently convincing for the public, and Jackson soon admitted his guilt and apologized. Some critics may have doubted the sincerity of his apology, but because Jackson enjoyed significant sympathy, both among his political constituents and a segment of the media, he was able to continue his public career more or less unscathed.
Rep. Jim Moran apologized for his 2003 statement accusing American Jewry of dragging the United States into war with Iraq. Shortly afterwards, he was re-elected. Winning the confidence of his constituents effectively put an end to public interest in the controversy.
But others have gotten away with it, without paying any price at all.
At the other end of the political spectrum, Pat Buchanan has never apologized for blaming American Jews for American involvement in the Gulf War. Nor has he recanted his praise of Adolf Hitler, his defense of various Nazi war criminals or his claim that the gassing facilities in the Nazis’ Treblinka death camp “did not emit enough carbon monoxide to kill anybody.” Yet Buchanan to this day appears regularly on MSNBC. How many public figures or pundits have refused, on principle, to appear with him on television? It seems the perception that Buchanan represents a significant constituency has blunted some of the opposition to his bigotry.
James Baker was probably the most senior public official to have been exposed, while still in office, as having made hostile comments about Jews. And he got away with it. In a newspaper column in 1991, one of us (Ed Koch) revealed that Baker had said, “F— the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.” Although the authenticity of the quotation was widely accepted, the fact that I had to protect the anonymity of my source gave Baker the ability to deny he had said it. The elder President Bush’s support for Baker ensured that the controversy would blow over.
But others have fared differently.
Trent Lott was compelled to resign as Senate majority leader for praising the segregationist Strom Thurmond. The New Jersey State Legislature eliminated the position of poet laureate after its occupant, Amiri Baraka, authored a poem accusing Jews of having advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks.
Others, too, have lost their jobs after making bigoted comments. Major League Baseball forced Marge Schott to sell the Cincinnati Reds after she praised Hitler and degraded African-Americans. Radio show host Michael Savage was fired after making derisive comments about gays. CBS dismissed sports analyst Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder for his remarks about African-American athletes.
Mel Gibson deserves a similarly unequivocal response from the public, and from his Hollywood colleagues. Gibson’s public apology is welcome, but it’s far from sufficient. A foxhole conversion-type apology, issued in the hope of retaining one’s job or public status, can’t be taken as meaningful evidence of a sincere change of heart. That kind of change does not happen overnight.
ABC has taken the first appropriate step against Gibson, canceling its contract with Gibson’s film production company to make a miniseries about the Holocaust. But ABC promptly fumbled what would have been the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that bigotry has consequences. Its spokeswoman, Hope Hartman, said the miniseries was cancelled because Gibson’s company had yet to produce a draft of the script, nearly two years after the contract was signed. ABC should have said that it doesn’t do business with antisemites, period.
The battle against antisemitism and other forms of bigotry begins with the standard that our society sets.
One of the most important lessons of the Holocaust is the need to set that standard high, so that antisemitism never again becomes routine and accepted.
This is especially important when dealing with the problem of celebrity antisemites whose behavior sometimes gets a free pass because of their popularity. It is one thing to look the other way when a politician or an actor engages in questionable personal behavior, but antisemitism and racism in any form are too dangerous to ever receive a free pass.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and the author of The Jews Should Keep Quiet: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust, forthcoming from The Jewish Publication Society in 2019.