The handsome face of an ugly reality

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 August, 2006, 12:00am

What do actor Martin Short, rock star Gene Simmons, Australian superstar Mel Gibson, ever-diligent Malibu police officers and the raging and destructive Middle East war have in common?

Let's start with the short of it. The other night at a New York theatre on West 45th Street, an audience gathered to watch a preview of Short's latest movie, Fame Becomes Me. At one point in the evening, Short performed a live comedy sketch, playing a seedy, late-night talk-show interviewer.

Simmons, the KISS lead singer, jumped out of his seat and joined the comedian on stage - all this was presumably choreographed. Short asked him: 'So, what do you think of Mel Gibson?'

The audience reacted with knowing laughter. Many were well aware of Simmons' family background as a child of Hungarian Jews: his mother was a Holocaust survivor. And many in the audience were themselves Jewish.

Most of all, everyone in the audience knew of the unpleasant mess that Gibson, the marquee actor, got himself into this week in Malibu, 5,000km away.

The usually charming Gibson was scarcely the first world-renowned celebrity to get collared on suspicion of drink-driving. Such arrests are a speciality of the Malibu cops.

But 'Mad Mel', as the tabloids dubbed him, was the first in memory to have iced the cake of his arrest by insulting the arresting officers - one of whom happened to be Jewish - with anti-Semitic and sexist epithets.

This was not Gibson's first brush with charges of anti-Semitism. His huge money maker The Passion of the Christ struck many critics as an unnecessarily pointed and vicious effort to demonise Jews.

'I am not an anti-Semite,' Gibson insisted, after sobering up, vowing to undergo rehab and apologising to all Jews everywhere. Whether or not Gibson is an anti-Semite is not in itself vitally important.

He is just one star among a galaxy of entertainers to whom we all tend to pay undeserved attention when they are off-screen or off-stage.

But the Gibson vignette did serve to uncover the widespread suspicion of many people that anti-Semitism is pervasive, pernicious and deeply buried.

Most of us have had our bad nights, to be sure; but crude comments from prominent people like Gibson make it all the more difficult for Americans to deplore the current Israeli military offensive in Lebanon.

Many people around the world sincerely believe that the remedy for the violence of Hezbollah is not waves of technological retaliation and even more violence by Israel. Individual Hezbollah hate squads can be eliminated by Israel rockets and by clandestine hit squads, but those tactics only spawn more anti-Israeli hatred.

But such a sensible line has to confront the countering view - that anti-Semitism is inherently unreasonable, and that against it, the force of logic or appeals to humanitarianism are impotent and irrelevant.

The only argument you can give to the anti-Semites, they say, is a fist to the face, as often as needed.

In reply to Short's question, Simmons muttered something about accepting the Australian star's apology at face value.

Many in the audience sniggered. And some of them were old enough to recall former US president Richard Nixon stoutly denying any wrongdoing: 'I am not a crook,' he famously said.

Simmons probably doesn't believe Gibson's about-face. Certainly the Malibu police officers won't, whatever their bosses tell them to say publicly.

There's a reason that the Gibson story played on page one in newspapers in New York, Israel and a lot of other places.

It's that the superficially pretty face of this actor might as well reflect the true and ugly face of racism in all too many men and women around the world.

Israel does tend to overreact when someone spits in its face, and doesn't listen to those of us who believe its best policy is to turn the other cheek - as did those police officers in Malibu, who showed such restraint.

After reflecting on the Gibson ugliness, it's less hard to understand why.

Tom Plate is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy. Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre