I took the photograph that leads this column a little over a year ago, when my summer vacation was turned upside down by a revolution called Taksim Square. It sits near my desk and caught my eye when I was thinking today about the force of nature that is Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, someone I deeply admire even though he hasn’t always been a friend of open discourse. He managed to stir the pot on both sides of the continent in recent days.
My wife and I had come to Istanbul for R&R after a trip she takes each spring with college students, mostly non-Jewish, along with Holocaust survivors, to experience firsthand sites of mass murder, torture, violence, starvation and cremation in Germany and Poland.
But it turned out to be the weekend that Taksim Square erupted in alternating waves of tear-gas suffused violence and placard-wielding protest as students, workers, shop keepers and just-folks joined ranks against the increasingly right-leaning government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, specifically, his plan to bulldoze one of the last green spaces in the crowded city and put up a shopping mall. Propped against a young woman camping out among the hundreds was her sign, carefully lettered in Turkish and English: Ifade Ozcurlugum Icin Buradayim: I Am Here for My Freedom of Expression.
Writing about Taksim Square, like the other human rights stories I covered during eight years at Bloomberg News, was a humbling counterpoint to my work as a critic and reporter of art forms in which love, loss, risk, sacrifice, even death are generally metaphors and the greatest thing at stake is the cost of a ticket. In Taksim Square I encountered people willing to risk everything for their freedom of expression.
Battling anti-Semitism has put Abe Foxman at the forefront of the complicated, charged confrontation between free speechniks like me and those who, knowing its grave consequences, wish to control hate speech. First he led the charge on the Metropolitan Opera’s plan to broadcast in movie theaters its upcoming fall revival of the John Adams-Alice Goodman opera The Death Of Klinghoffer. The 1991 work — an oratorio nearly devoid of action — recounts the 1985 takeover by pro-Palestinian terrorists of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, whose crime was to be a Jew and whose punishment was to be shot and tossed overboard with his wheelchair like so much garbage.
More than two decades after its premiere in Brussels, there are still those who argue that, by giving voice — any voice — to the undisputed villains of the story, Adams and Goodman make a morally bankrupt case for equivalency. And so Foxman went to work and, in a compromise that rankled nearly everyone save the Klinghoffer family, convinced Peter Gelb, general director of the Met, to cancel the broadcast (though not the production itself). That led to an uproar among the chatterati that continues to this day, accusing Gelb and the Met of caving to special interests -– i.e. The Jews.
In a letter published in The New York Times a few days ago, the daughters of Leon Klinghoffer wrote: “We are strongly opposed to censorship and resent the implication that we would want to censor an artistic event.” Of course, there’s a “but” on the horizon: “But Klinghoffer is justified as a ‘work of art’ and an opportunity to ‘debate’ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” they wrote. “This is an outrage.”
The Klinghoffer family is right to be outraged; it was their Leon who was murdered. That doesn’t diminish one bit the fact that Klinghoffer is indeed a work of art, a provocative and sensitive one at that (unlike Foxman, I’ve actually seen it), doing what art must do: inspire passionate debate. Yes, so does hate speech, but Klinghoffer isn’t hate speech by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an attempt by serious artists to make sense of the incomprehensible.
Which brings me to Gary Oldman and his Playboy interview, in which he expressed irritation over the culture of political correctness in general and what he takes to be the systemic hypocrisy of Hollywood liberals in particular. You know, The Jews. I must take mild exception to my colleague Mike Fleming’s favorable characterization of the 7,500-word profile: Nearly all of the news-free conversation reveals shallow thinking and barely hidden contempt, and it’s hard to take anything in it very seriously.
But: To back up his assertion that p.c. hypocrisy rules, Oldman cites the case of Mel Gibson and his drunken anti-Semitic rant. “Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him — and doesn’t need to feed him anymore because he’s got enough dough. He’s like an outcast, a leper, you know?” Oldman avers. “But some Jewish guy in his office somewhere hasn’t turned and said, ‘That fucking kraut’ or ‘Fuck those Germans,’ whatever it is? We all hide and try to be so politically correct. That’s what gets me. It’s just the sheer hypocrisy of everyone, that we all stand on this thing going, ‘Isn’t that shocking?’”
And here comes Abe Foxman, predictable as Tuesday, calling bullshit on Oldman for “irresponsibly feed[ing] into a classic anti-Semitic canard about supposed Jewish control of Hollywood and the film industry.”
And just like the Met’s Peter Gelb, Oldman sort-of caved, releasing an unctuous statement that might as well have said some of his best friends are Jews. In fact it did: “I have an enormous personal affinity for the Jewish people in general, and those specifically in my life. The Jewish People, persecuted thorough the ages, are the first to hear God’s voice, and surely are the chosen people.”
What was wrong with Oldman’s comments in Playboy wasn’t just the loopy historical mashup of ’30s Hollywood and today’s. It was the smug and self-serving notion that we’re all hypocrites, so anything goes. In the same interview, he suggests that Jon Stewart can get away with calling Nancy Pelosi a “useless fucking c**t” whereas he could not. Guess what, Gary? I don’t think so.
I admire Foxman for fighting the good fight at the ADL since 1965. But we are here for our freedom of expression. Even the “outrageous” expression of Klinghoffer, even the dopey expression of unthinking star. I only wish he’d choose his battles more carefully. Neither The Death Of Klinghoffer nor Gary Oldman is worthy of his righteous rage. The opera deserves to be heard and debated; a media spotlight turned Oldman’s small-talk into a squall, giving license to the usual vile anti-Semitic slime with nothing better to do than post anonymous comments on Deadline faster than we can trash them. In the end, Oldman will no more be a victim of his free expression than Gibson has been. You can take that to the bank.