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).
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.