In case you haven’t been paying attention—or, like me, have been in a state of deep geriatric denial—you might be interested to know that ’90s nostalgia is in full swing: The Mommy Wars are back, I heard a couple of teenage girls browsing the sale racks at Anthropologie engaged in earnest discussion about where they could buy the most authentic “’90s dresses,” and Newt Gingrich has been running around loose, hairdo unchanged, being gross. But the best evidence that the decade of rollerblades, raves, and Yanni Live at the Acropolis is back may be the resurfacing of Joe Eszterhas, the luxuriously maned shlockmeister whose steamy Clinton-era extravaganzas of greed, lies, and improbable lesbianism once made him the highest-paid (and most notorious) screenwriter in Hollywood. Last week, Eszterhas returned to drop a new bomb on the American public: Mel Gibson is a raving anti-Semite.
This discovery, trumpeted in an open letter by the screenwriter to Malibu’s favorite Sedevacantist, was made during the collaboration on the screenplay for M.C.K.B.I., Gibson’s long-anticipated Maccabee biopic, during which Gibson repeatedly referred to Jews as “Hebes” [sic] and “oven-dodgers” and claimed the Holocaust was “mostly a lot of crap.” (A perplexing assertion, that: How can we be “oven-dodgers” if there were no ovens?)
Personally, I’m about as shocked by this as Eszterhas himself seems to be; which is to say, not at all. Gibson, despite the various prevarications made by obliging publicists in the cold, sober light of day, has for a long time been about as public an anti-Semite as it’s possible to be in this day and age without actually gunning down children on their way to Hebrew school, something Eszterhas—who famously cut off all contact with his father upon learning, at age 45, that the older man had been an author of Nazi propaganda in Hungary during the war—has addressed before, writing in his 2008 memoir Crossbearers: A Memoir of Faith that Gibson “shared the mindset of Hitler.”
Some have drily noted that these concerns didn’t register fully until Gibson rejected Eszterhas’ script, but I’m not going to ding him for that; even in my admittedly minor experience with Hollywood, I know how terrifyingly quickly one’s scruples, moral and artistic, can evaporate the moment you think you see someone reaching for a checkbook. But I do disagree with Eszterhas’ claim that Gibson, due to his implacable anti-Semitism, was planning to pull the plug on the project all along. Rather, I think it was Gibson’s particular brand of Jew-hatred that made him want to film the Maccabee story in the first place—and it’s also why we should be glad he isn’t.
Hanukkah, like Purim, is one of what I thought of as a child as “the happy holidays”: a rare occasion on which the constantly embattled Hebrews were pleasantly surprised to not be horribly massacred. (Passover, with its long list of culinary prohibitions and endless housework, always seemed too punitive to be included on this very short list.) Over time, it got even happier, mainly due to the frantic need of parents to prevent a full-scale Hasmonean-style revolt from generations of children faced with the assaultive pine-needled splendor of Christmas. But for all the cheerful triumphalism behind the bedazzled dreidels and oily platters of latkes, the fact remains that the historical Maccabees were not always so nice. It was a different time, and they were certainly living under a repressive regime, but the fact remains that Mattathias did kill other Jews for sacrificing (undoubtedly under some duress) to the wrong god. When, in compliance with the laws of their Syrian-Greek masters (or Assyrian-Greek, depending, as far as I can tell, on where you went to Hebrew school), some Jews refrained from circumcising their sons, Judah Maccabee came down from the hills under cloak of night and did it himself—whether they liked it or not, a fact of which Gibson is well aware.
How much of this sort of thing made it into Eszterhas’ discarded script it’s hard to say, although those in the know make it sound like quite a bit. It’s easy to imagine Gibson’s grudging respect, even genuine admiration, for such acts, brutal as they may be; he’s generally proven himself to be on the side of the fanatics. But in light of the very real debate about the moral question of “Jewish Power” being waged internally—and for that matter, externally, by those who would be more than happy to settle it for us, generally without our input—I can’t be too disappointed that a man who had in vino veritas proclaimed the People of Israel to be “responsible for all the wars in the world” (a kind of Die Juden sind unser Unglück for the new century) has voluntarily or otherwise deprived himself of the chance to film a fearsome group of Hebrew predators forcibly circumcising a screaming child, a la noted San Diego foreskin advocate Matthew Hess’ (no relation to Rudolf) “Monster Mohel,” or, say, brutally massacring the women and children of uncooperative towns in their beds. (Given his track record toward what was once politely termed “effeminacy,” it’s pretty horrifying to imagine how he might have portrayed the Hellenizers. I expect, at minimum, copious male eyeliner and hot pokers up bums—and I don’t mean that in the nice way.)
There’s a fascinating film to be made from the Maccabee story, one that tackles themes of tribalism and humanism, identity and morality, freedom and faith. But Gibson, for whom unanswerable—and as such, very Jewish—questions seem to be as horrifying as Vatican II, isn’t the man to make it. More likely, M.C.K.B.I. stood to be something else: the world’s first ostensibly pro-Jewish anti-Semitic propaganda film.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get my hands on that script.
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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.
Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.