The JDL's Desparate Drive To Find Anti-Semitism Where It Ain't Continues

The Jewish Defense League (JDL) called for a boycott of Will Smith’s new movie, and for movie studies to blacklist Smith, because Smith said:

Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, “let me do the most evil thing I can do today.” I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was “good.”

The JDL’s webpage (and, I suspect, press release) carries the ridiculous headline “Will Smith Thinks Hitler Was Basically Good.”

After Smith released a statement clarifying that he thinks Hitler is evil, the JDL retracted their call for a boycott and Smith’s blacklisting, but maintained that “we stand by our original assessment that his original comments were offensive.” They haven’t revised their headline as of this moment.

Of course, Smith’s argument isn’t novel; it’s the sort of philosophy that gets chatted about among friends and family, and in Sunday school, frequently. (This was true even of my childhood Sunday school — which was Jewish). Contrary to the JDL’s reading, by using “Hitler” as his example Smith implicitly acknowledged Hitler’s ultimate evilness (the philosophical conundrum Smith discussed only makes sense when the example is a figure everyone recognizes as vile).

As Marc Lamont Hill writes:

In his quote, Smith accurately pointed out that people rarely view themselves as the living embodiment of evil. Instead, all of us are shaped by ideologies, traditions, and regimes of knowledge that shape who we are and how we view the world. As such, Hitler likely didn’t see himself as evil, but as an agent of what he viewed as positive social change. This doesn’t justify the massacre of Jews, it merely explains how individual identities and practices are constituted by coherent (though often deeply problematic) worldviews.

While I’m sensitive to Antisemitism — I supported the JDL’s boycott of Mel Gibson– this is going too far. Every time someone does more than call Hitler the devil incarnate, they aren’t supporting the Holocaust. Every time someone challenges the Zionist occupation of Palestine, they aren’t antisemitic. This type of thin skinned and reactionary media grandstanding on the part of the JDL does a radical disservice to the legitimate work against antisemitism that is being done around the globe.

Two quick thoughts:

1) Smith has publicly supported Barak Obama’s candidacy (and the JDL called for Obama to repudiate Smith); I doubt that a right-wing celebrity who had said the same thing would have gotten an angry response by the JDL. But a chance to combine liberal-bashing with publicity-grubbing isn’t something the JDL is likely to pass up.

2) The JDL’s inane attacks on innocent statements trivialize actual antisemitism.

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32 Responses to The JDL's Desparate Drive To Find Anti-Semitism Where It Ain't Continues

  1. 1
    Thene says:

    I’m tempted to disagree with you about #2 because I’ve too often heard assholes use that argument. ‘You’re trivialising REAL oppression by calling me on my bullshit!’

    Smith hasn’t done anything wrong, but I’m wary of marking as ‘trivial’ all queries into this use of Hitler as an icon of evil. His victims were real people, many of whom are still alive in this world – if we were speaking about a man who’d, say, raped and attempted to murder one person, we’d possibly consider that person’s views before arguing that that man’s motives were, in his own mind, ‘good’. We’d be careful about making our statements as clear as we could, definitely. There are pitfalls with using someone who’s still, for some, within living memory, as an icon of everything we call evil.

  2. 2
    Petar says:

    > I’ve too often heard assholes use that argument. ‘You’re trivialising REAL
    > oppression by calling me on my bullshit!’

    Thene, the two have nothing to do with each other. You ARE trivializing real
    racism when you are walking out of a boardroom when someone uses the
    word “niggardly”. And the opposite is NOT to ignore “should I steal it or sell it”
    jokes. In Will Smith’s case, there is no bullshit. He is using Hitler exactly
    because he believes that he is unquestionably evil, and by no means is he
    making excuses for his behaviour.

    He is probably right about Hitler not considering himself evil, as well. There
    are people who set out to do something because they think it is evil, but I believe
    that Hitler was twisted in a different way.

    Now if your argument is that discussion of some topics should be repressed for
    the sake of sparing some people feelings… I am not sure I would agree. I believe
    that only an asshole would discuss spontaneous abortion in front of a woman
    who has recently miscarried, but I feel that he should be free to do so… and to
    be labeled an asshole for it.

  3. 3
    Ginger Root says:

    “Choose your battles,” comes to mind.

    I once knew a Jew who referred to the Gaza Strip as an “open-air prison.” Was he being anti-Semitic?

  4. 4
    Thene says:

    Nope, I said nothing about repressing anything. Just that unthinkingly adopting someone as an icon of evil, as if they were removed from reality, is really stupid when so many people affected by him are still around, so you’ve got to be careful about making your statements clear and non-assholey, especially if you’re famous enough to be influential and you’re saying it in public.

  5. 5
    Myca says:

    I just simply don’t believe that there are very many people who didn’t understand exactly what Will Smith meant when he said this.

    I mean, really.

    I have little patience for, “everyone knows what you mean, and knew it as soon as you said it, but you shouldn’t have said it anyhow because some people are real assholes who will deliberately misinterpret what you say so as to smear you.”

    Seems to me, Smith’s not the one with the problem in this case.

    —Myca

  6. 6
    Sailorman says:

    The fill Will Smith quote from the article was:

    Remarkably, Will believes everyone is basically good.

    “Even Hitler didn’t wake up going, ‘let me do the most evil thing I can do today’,” said Will. “I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good’. Stuff like that just needs reprogramming.

    “I wake up every day full of hope, positive that every day is going to be better than yesterday. And I’m looking to infect people with my positivity. I think I can start an epidemic.”

    That part in italics? It’s not in quotes. Will Smith did not say that part. That italicized text represents the opinions and edits of the U.K. Daily Record’s reporter/editing staff.

    Not only is the JDL attacking the statement using twisted logic… they’re not even attacking the right PERSON!

    Sheesh.

  7. 7
    NotACookie says:

    I don’t think Will Smith said anything unreasonable. As near as I can tell, all he actually said is that many people who do bad things, including Hitler, don’t understand that they’re doing bad things. This claim is true, unremarkable, and should be uncontroversial.

    The JDL, the organization quoted as making a fuss, is not at all the same thing as the ADL. The ADL is a mainstream organization to combat anti-semitism. The JDL isn’t.

    The JDL was founded by Meier Kahane, and was characterized by the FBI a few years ago as a “violent extremist Jewish organization.” I don’t know how violent they are these days–, but they’re definitely extreme. I think they’re stirring up a spurious controversy to get attention.

    Pay no attention, they’re basically crackpot.

  8. 8
    Madeline says:

    I don’t agree with Smith. Somehow, I can’t imagine that Hitler didn’t have any idea that killing millions of innocent people might be a bad thing.

    But I wouldn’t deny Smith his right to believe (and say) that Hitler thought he was doing good, and I don’t think that his statement was antisemitic. Nothing in his statement justifies what Hitler did.

  9. 9
    Emily says:

    I don’t know, I wouldn’t call Smith’s statement anti-semitic, but the “stuff like that [like Hitler's worldview] just needs reprogramming” is pretty dismissive. As if changing Hitler’s worldview would have been a piece of cake if someone had just gone about it the right way. I can see Holocaust survivors being offended by it. Not because his words are supportive of what Hitler did (which they’re not), but because they suggest that Hitler is not 100% culpable or to blame for what he did. Saying that he “just” needed “reprogramming” suggests that if someone had provided that reprogramming, he wouldn’t have done all these evil things, i.e. – it’s not just his fault. That’s going to upset some people. But it’s not anti-semitic.

  10. 10
    SamChevre says:

    Two random observations:

    Wasn’t JDL the group that put out the “Everyone in favor of gun control, raise your right hand” poster–one of the best pieces of poster propaganda I’ve ever seen? (Just to be absolutely clear–I’m saying it was skilful and effective, not desirable.)

    And a Jewish Sunday School–I know I’m ignorant, but sometimes I feel extra ignorant. Isn’t Jewish worship always on Saturday?

  11. 11
    Sailorman says:

    Sam,

    the jewish day runs from sundown to sundown. the jewish sabbath starts friday night at sundown (friday night services are common) and continues until saturday night at sundown.

  12. 12
    LarryFromExile says:

    Oh, good grief. I can’t believe what he said was that controversial. I don’t doubt that Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot all thought they were serving the “greater good” despite the 10s of millions of bodies required to fulfill it.

    If anything, it is a gruesome lesson in what can happen when politicians use state power to achieve a “greater good” (which of course is subjective).

  13. 13
    Sally says:

    And a Jewish Sunday School–I know I’m ignorant, but sometimes I feel extra ignorant. Isn’t Jewish worship always on Saturday?

    The Jewish sabbath is on Saturday, but observant Jews worship every day. There’s no law that says that Hebrew school has to be on shabbat. I went to Hebrew school on Saturday mornings and after school on Wednesdays.

    I don’t think what Smith said was anti-semitic. It was, however, pretty darn trite. I don’t think he necessarily deserves to be pilloried for failing to be a deep and subtle thinker, though.

  14. 14
    hf says:

    Smith’s point seems absolutely vital, especially since even people here can fail to grasp it. Now, he confuses the issue slightly by adding deliberate extreme optimism. Saying “stuff like that just needs reprogramming,” is like saying, “stuff only falls because of gravity.” It won’t save you from smashing your head on the ground. But nobody sees themselves as a villain. People who knowingly do wrong justify it to themselves by saying that X did it to Y first, or that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Don’t like it? Take it up with the human brain. It took me forever to find those bits of research I linked — that says to me that we haven’t harped on this nearly enough.

    Pop quiz: which do you think Bin Laden remembers better and thinks about more, the atrocities he’s committed or the atrocities of the Middle Eastern governments he seeks to overthrow? (Bonus question: in the linked situation, who sees themselves as hard-headed realists for taking actions that lead to retaliation? A. Zawahiri B. Egypt’s government C. Bush D All of the above)

  15. 15
    Sally says:

    But nobody sees themselves as a villain. People who knowingly do wrong justify it to themselves by saying that X did it to Y first, or that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. Don’t like it? Take it up with the human brain.

    I don’t think the issue is so much with the idea that nobody sees herself as a villain as with the “stuff like that just needs reprogramming,” as if Hitler might have devoted himself to something worthwhile if he’d just been given some positive outlets for his creativity and energy. Maybe some art classes or something.

  16. 16
    hf says:

    From the “true” story of Eris and the apple in the Illuminatus! trilogy:

    Now they saw trains, many trains, all of them running on time, and the trains
    criss-crossed Europe and ran 24 hours a day, and they all came to a few
    destinations that were alike. There, the human cargo was stamped, catalogued,
    processed, executed with gas, tabulated, recorded, stamped again, cremated and
    disposed. “This is Bureaucracy,” said Dionysius, and he smashed his wine jug in
    anger; beside him, his lynx glared balefully. And then they saw the man who had
    ordered this, Adolf Hitler, wearing still the mask of Oliver Hardy, and he turned to
    a certain rich man, Baron Rothschild, wearing the mask of Stanley Laurel, and they
    knew this was the world created by the god Hegel and the angel Thesis was
    meeting the demon Antithesis. Then Hitler spoke the eternal words: “Now look
    what you made me do,” he said.

  17. 17
    mythago says:

    Amp, this is a little disingenuous of you.

    The JDL is an extremist organization whose former leaders were charged with terrorism (one of whom pled guilty). It is hardly the leading, or respectable, Jewish or pro-Semitic organization in America. The Anti-Defamation League, on the other hand, praised Will Smith and took a swipe at those who wanted to take his words out of context.

    I know you have a beef with pro-Israel groups, but this smacks of trying to hint that all such groups are crazy and overreact with cries of “anti-Semitism!” over nothing.

  18. 18
    Robert says:

    Well, it could be that, Mythago, but Amp has a history of picking on wacky right-wingers. Which is perfectly fair; when I go to write about how you lefties are bad and wrong I don’t pick on some polite moderate Democrat, I pick on ANSWER or Cindy Sheehan. Why try and hit a squirrel when there’s a perfectly fine elephant wandering past?

  19. 19
    mythago says:

    Which is perfectly fair; when I go to write about how you lefties are bad and wrong I don’t pick on some polite moderate Democrat, I pick on ANSWER or Cindy Sheehan.

    Like you, I assume Amp is a clever fellow and capable of both understanding and utilizing subtext. And I’ll call you on it too, as you well know.

  20. 20
    Joe says:

    Isn’t this what advocacy groups do? Use any possible pretext to make their cause seem important and urgent? Seems pretty par for the course to me.

    What he said sounds like pretty standard dorm room philosophy imo.

  21. 21
    Kevin Moore says:

    Will Smith is the Sartre of our generation.

  22. 22
    mythago says:

    Isn’t this what advocacy groups do? Use any possible pretext to make their cause seem important and urgent?

    Oddly, no. And the JDL is not an ‘advocacy group’ any more than the John Birch Society is.

  23. 23
    Ampersand says:

    Mythago, point well taken; I was feeling pissed off when I wrote this post, but in hindsight maybe it would have made more sense to just ignore it, because it’s the JDL. Or at least to better contextualize the post with an explanation of what the JDL is.

    The ADL has acted better than the JDL regarding this incident, but I still take issue with some of their response; I don’t think it’s true that Smith was “citing Hitler in what appears to be a positive context.” The only “positive context” that existed was the prose in the article surrounding Smith’s quote, but Smith isn’t responsible for that. And I don’t think this episode shows how important it is for celebrities to “weigh their words carefully”; the wrong-doing here was done by journalists, gossip sheets and the JDL, and it’s they who should be admonished, not Smith.

    That said, on the whole I don’t think the ADL’s response was bad enough to really be objectionable, and obviously they were miles better than the JDL.

  24. 24
    zombie z says:

    Perhaps Will just knows his history better than many people?

    Hitler didn’t set out to kill all the Jews — just to remove them from Germany. The original plan was more like a massive-scale segregation of the “racially pure” and…everyone else. The problem was, no one else wanted them.

    After spending some time reading about the stuff that went on before the actual Holocaust, before the death camps, I’m thinking there is a lot more blame to go around. Himmler, for instance, who embodied Will Smith’s sentiment exactly: he went to his grave without any regrets, insisting that he did the right thing.

    Either way…it’s pretty silly for anyone to get worked up at a comment such as this. :) And I’m trying to bring “niggardly” back — after all, it’s an etymological stranger to the similar-sounding racial slur. People should use their brains before they get offended!

  25. 25
    fidelbogen says:

    And certain it is, that the JDL is far from the only group of people “looking for things where they ain’t”.

    Alas! THAT proclivity seems to be the official psychosis of our time. . .

  26. 26
    mythago says:

    Amp, taken in context it seems pretty clear that the ADL isn’t admonishing Smith–they’re admonishing others who aren’t as careful with their words *cough* Mel Gibson *cough* and taking issue with the people who deliberately misstated what Smith said.

  27. 27
    Ampersand says:

    Huh. I don’t think that’s clear — obviously, that’s not how I had read it. But maybe I misunderstood what they meant.

  28. 28
    Tom T. says:

    “I doubt that a right-wing celebrity who had said the same thing would have gotten an angry response by the JDL.”

    Note that the JDL sarcastically criticized Mel Gibson after his famous anti-semitic tirade.

  29. 29
    Ampersand says:

    Tom, do you really think there’s any reasonable equivalence between Gibson’s tirade and Smith’s dorm-room philosophizing?

  30. 30
    Tom T. says:

    No, but they were harsher on Gibson, calling him a certified Jew-hater, while stating in Smith’s case that “we do not believe Will Smith is a Jew-hater by any stretch of the imagination.”

    I’m just pointing out that they’re not exclusively choosing targets on the left.

  31. 31
    Ampersand says:

    Fair enough. I don’t think they, or the ADL, chooses targets exclusively on the left; I think that they’re more likely to comment negatively on “borderline” cases from the left while giving a pass to some seemingly similar cases on the right.

  32. 32
    Tom T. says:

    Agreed.