Mel Gibson’s Holocaust Problem

by Dr. Rafael Medoff and Benyamin Korn

(Dr. Medoff is director, and Mr. Korn is assocciate director, of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which focuses on issues related to America’s response to the Holocaust  –

The involvement of Mel Gibson in the production of a forthcoming television miniseries about the Holocaust has brought to the fore important questions, not only about denial of the Holocaust by the actor’s father, but about Gibson’s own troubling remarks regarding the Nazi genocide.

Gibson, whose film “The Passion of the Christ” caused so much controversy while attracting tens of millions of viewers last year, has now been tapped by ABC Television to produce a four-part series on the most sensitive of Jewish subjects.  The memoirs of Dutch Holocaust survivor Flory Van Beek will be dramatized for television by Gibson’s company, Con Artists Productions, which expects to complete the project in 2006 or 2007.

Not surprisingly, ABC-TV regards the involvement of the controversial Gibson as an attention-getter that will draw bigger box-office proceeds.  “Controversy’s publicity, and vice versa,” said ABC official Quinn Taylor.  “Because of their success in the marketplace with ‘Passion of the Christ’ they will … aid greatly in attracting the largest possible audience to the project.  That’s the goal.”

While it is understandable that ABC seeks the maximum number of viewers –and anybody interested in Holocaust education would share the same goal– it is also important that the content of the planned series not be in any way compromised for the sake of ratings considerations.  In that respect, the public has reason for concern about Gibson’s involvement.

The actor’s father, Hutton Gibson, has repeatedly made statements denying the Holocaust and has spoken at events organized by Holocaust-denial organizations.  In a radio interview last year, for example, he asserted that the Germans could not have murdered six million Jews because it would have taken too long to burn the bodies.  The Jews in Europe were not killed, but rather emigrated to the United States and elsewhere, he said.

Those are the words of the father, not the son.  The problem is what Mel said when asked about the subject.  In a February 2004 interview on ABC Television, Gibson was asked by Diane Sawyer about his father’s denial of the Holocaust.  Gibson replied:  “He’s my father.  Gotta leave it alone, Diane.  Gotta leave it alone.”

It’s not clear why Mel felt unable to express even mild disagreement with his father’s publicly-expressed views, especially when those views can be recognized by any reasonable person as patently antisemitic.  Sawyer was not asking him to disown his father.

But then it got worse.  In an interview with Reader’s Digest the following month, Mel was asked by interviewer Peggy Noonan, “You’re going to have to go on record.  The Holocaust happened, right?”  Gibson replied:  “Yes, of course.  Atrocities happened. War is horrible.  The second World War killed tens of millions of people.  Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives.  In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933.”

Gibson’s remark severely distorted the historical record.  The six million Jews who died in the Holocaust were murdered by the Germans and their collaborators as part of a systematic campaign, anchored in ideological antisemitism, to kill every single Jew.  That is not the same as combatants who died in World War II, or civilians of various countries who suffered as a result of the war, or the victims of random atrocities that occur in every war.  Nor is it comparable to the famines caused by the Soviet regime’s cruel economic policies (the forced collectivization of agriculture) in the Ukraine in the 1930s.  By depicting the Holocaust as just one more in a long list of bad things that happened during the course of World War II, Gibson minimized its nature and significance.

In view of Gibson’s record on the Holocaust, there is ample reason for concern about the content of the Holocaust miniseries that ABC has chosen his company to produce.  Because there is a black cloud hanging over Mel Gibson when it comes to the Holocaust, ABC should have the decency to insist that Gibson publicly repudiate Holocaust-denial and acknowledge the uniqueness and magnitude of the Holocaust.  Failing that, ABC should choose a more suitable producer for the series.

December 2005