Commentary Magazine


Topic: Steven Spielberg

Obama’s Holocaust Hypocrisy

Yesterday President Obama was in Los Angeles to hobnob with some of his biggest fans in Hollywood. He gave his usual stump speech blaming the Republicans for all the country’s ills at a private fundraiser where he rubbed elbows with Barbra Streisand and Jeffrey Katzenberg. After that, he attended a gala for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation where he was honored with the organization’s Ambassador of Humanity Award and where he listened to Conan O’Brien tell jokes about Donald Sterling and was serenaded by Bruce Springsteen. Showering Democratic presidents with love and cash is what Hollywood liberals do and there’s no point complaining about it. Obama’s award was, no doubt, part of the price for getting him to show up at the event. But like the undeserved Nobel Peace Prize that he collected in the first year of his presidency, the notion that he is in some way deserving of an honor that is linked to a Holocaust memorial or the fight against the current crop of international despots that threaten world peace is hard to swallow.

While much of what he said in accepting this award about opposing anti-Semitism and defending the State of Israel was praiseworthy, it is difficult to read some of the president’s remarks at the event without wincing. As our Michael Rubin wrote yesterday about Samantha Power, Obama’s United Nations ambassador, the disconnect between this administration’s rhetorical flourishes about its opposition to human-rights violators and the reality of what it is actually doing—or to be more precise, what it is not doing—is staggering.

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Yesterday President Obama was in Los Angeles to hobnob with some of his biggest fans in Hollywood. He gave his usual stump speech blaming the Republicans for all the country’s ills at a private fundraiser where he rubbed elbows with Barbra Streisand and Jeffrey Katzenberg. After that, he attended a gala for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation where he was honored with the organization’s Ambassador of Humanity Award and where he listened to Conan O’Brien tell jokes about Donald Sterling and was serenaded by Bruce Springsteen. Showering Democratic presidents with love and cash is what Hollywood liberals do and there’s no point complaining about it. Obama’s award was, no doubt, part of the price for getting him to show up at the event. But like the undeserved Nobel Peace Prize that he collected in the first year of his presidency, the notion that he is in some way deserving of an honor that is linked to a Holocaust memorial or the fight against the current crop of international despots that threaten world peace is hard to swallow.

While much of what he said in accepting this award about opposing anti-Semitism and defending the State of Israel was praiseworthy, it is difficult to read some of the president’s remarks at the event without wincing. As our Michael Rubin wrote yesterday about Samantha Power, Obama’s United Nations ambassador, the disconnect between this administration’s rhetorical flourishes about its opposition to human-rights violators and the reality of what it is actually doing—or to be more precise, what it is not doing—is staggering.

Let’s specify that Spielberg’s Foundation, which centers on collecting the testimony of Holocaust survivors, is very much to the famous director’s credit. Like his film Schindler’s List, which led Spielberg to take up this work, it is a worthy effort to preserve the memory of the victims and the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. But the notion that Obama’s policies have been inspired by the imperative that the world not stand by silently when other crimes against humanity are committed, as the award and the rhetoric heard at the event seem to imply, is absurd.

During his speech, the president spoke both of the hate that still stalks the globe and the challenges this creates:

We only need to look at today’s headlines — the devastation of Syria, the murders and kidnappings in Nigeria, sectarian conflict, the tribal conflicts —to see that we have not yet extinguished man’s darkest impulses.  There are some bad stories out there that are being told to children, and they’re learning to hate early.  They’re learning to fear those who are not like them early.

And none of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust — the individuals who are the victims of such unspeakable cruelty, they make a claim on our conscience.  They demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action.  And that’s not always easy.  One of the powerful things about Schindler’s story was recognizing that we have to act even where there is sometimes ambiguity; even when the path is not always clearly lit, we have to try.   

That’s all quite true. But coming from the mouth of the man who has stood by impotently as the Syrian tragedy escalated into a conflict that has taken up to 150,000 lives including perhaps as many as 11,000 children, Obama’s pieties about remembering the Holocaust ring hollow.

In Syria a small-scale conflict centering on the efforts of a brutal dictator to remain in power might have been ended quickly by a decisive Western intervention. But since Obama preferred, as is his wont, to “lead from behind,” it grew into a bloody war in which Assad, assisted by the operatives of Iran and Hezbollah and supported by Russia, has slaughtered the Syrian people by the tens of thousands. Like Power’s astonishing rhetoric about the need for action against such crimes, Obama’s words give new meaning to the word hypocrisy.

But while he basked in the glow of Hollywood’s approval and honor for his supposed stand for human rights, it should be remembered that this is also the president who is trying desperately to appease and craft a new détente with perhaps the most brutal anti-Semitic regime in the world in Iran. While Iran’s leaders have denied the Holocaust and threatened the globe with the possibility of a new one via their drive for nuclear weapons, Obama has been consistently slow to enact sanctions and seems determined to forge new bonds with a government that embodies all that he purports to oppose. His diplomacy that is supposed to be aimed at stopping the Iranian nuclear threat is instead empowering the regime and only seeking to delay their move toward a bomb.

No one should begrudge the president the right to defend his policy of impotence on Syrian atrocities or his inability to even make good on the enforcement of his “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Nor should we deny him the opportunity to justify his drive toward appeasement of Iran. But that he should do so while claiming to honor the memory of the Holocaust and the need for the U.S. never to stand by again while such horrors are perpetrated is intolerable.

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Spielberg’s Lincoln

I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

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I have no talent for creating plots and characters, and so I must leave it to God to do that job for me; I write history instead of fiction. Fortunately, He is very good at plots and characters. Has there ever been a better sea story than that of the Titanic’s maiden (and final) voyage? Could the best practitioner of the art of “romance fiction” have come up with a story to match the reality of Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson?

History, of course, can shade off into fiction, sometimes with terrible results but sometimes with sublime ones. Docudramas make up dialogue but are supposed to stick to historical reality otherwise. Historical fiction, however, can alter historical reality for dramatic purposes.

At its best, historical fiction can be a wonderful window into the past. If you would like to be vastly entertained while getting a real sense of what mid-18th century England was like, you can’t beat the movie of Tom Jones. The Hornblower novels of C. S. Forrester are, likewise, an accurate as well as page-turning introduction to the realities of the Nelsonian Royal Navy. (But stay far, far away from the recent television dramatization of the Hornblower saga. It was appallingly, insulting-to-the-intelligence ahistorical, like a symphony played with half the instruments out of tune.)

All this is in introduction to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which opened last month to great reviews. It is historical fiction, to be sure, but like the best historical fiction it is a window into a lost world of the past, in this case the final months of the Civil War.

There are occasions when the movie parts company with historical reality for its own, legitimate purposes, as the noted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer pointed out in the Daily Beast. Mary Todd Lincoln would never have listened to debates in the House of Representatives in 1865, still less accompanied by her black servant. Thanks to gas light, the interiors would have been much better lit than they appear in the movie. The Gettysburg Address had not yet become iconic. Lincoln did not appear on the 50-cent piece. (Indeed only allegorical figures appeared on American coinage until 1909, when Lincoln was put on the penny to celebrate his hundredth birthday.)

But none of that matters. Daniel Day-Lewis’s amazing portrayal of Lincoln brings the 16th president to life as, say, Daniel Chester French’s magnificent statue in the Lincoln Memorial could never do. French’s statue is the Lincoln of legend, the quite literally larger-than-life figure who saved the Union. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is the story-telling, disheveled, deceptively shrewd prairie lawyer with the emotionally unstable wife. He is the Lincoln who fought his personal demons every day, kept his fractious, ambitious cabinet under firm but subtle control, and practiced down-and-dirty politics with genius to achieve his goals.

The other characters are also extremely well portrayed (especially Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, and Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones). The settings and scenes, especially the killing field around Petersburg and the petitioner-clogged halls of the White House, could hardly be better.

If you would like to know the historical Lincoln, there are a thousand biographies. Perhaps the best recent one is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. But if you would like to get a glance of the real Lincoln, the human Lincoln, you must see the movie. It is a masterpiece.

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Assassination, Spielberg-Style

I have no idea whether these details, reported in Haaretz, about the assassination last month in Dubai of Hamas honcho Mahmoud al-Mabhouh are accurate, but they certainly sound plausible. Citing a Paris-based intelligence journal, Haaretz reports:

One of the female agents dressed herself in the uniform of a reception clerk at Al Bustan Rotana, the hotel where Mabhouh was staying, and then knocked on his door.

When he opened it her fellow operatives rushed him and stunned him with an electric device, the journal said, then they injected poison into his veins, in order to disguise the cause of death.

All 10 agents carried European passports, the journal said.

Sounds like something out of Munich, the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie that presented a fictionalized account of how Israeli agents hunted down and killed members of the Black September organization responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spielberg put a spin of moral equivalence on the operation, with Mossad agents worrying that they were becoming as bad as the Palestinian terrorists. That’s ridiculous. Members of terrorist organizations are legitimate targets for elimination — whether they are killed by Predators over Pakistan or by hit teams in Dubai. If Mossad was indeed responsible for Mabhouh’s demise, it deserves the thanks of all civilized countries. Such targeted killings won’t eliminate the threat from Hamas, but they will certainly help to diminish, at least in the short-term, that odious organization’s capacities for mayhem.

I have no idea whether these details, reported in Haaretz, about the assassination last month in Dubai of Hamas honcho Mahmoud al-Mabhouh are accurate, but they certainly sound plausible. Citing a Paris-based intelligence journal, Haaretz reports:

One of the female agents dressed herself in the uniform of a reception clerk at Al Bustan Rotana, the hotel where Mabhouh was staying, and then knocked on his door.

When he opened it her fellow operatives rushed him and stunned him with an electric device, the journal said, then they injected poison into his veins, in order to disguise the cause of death.

All 10 agents carried European passports, the journal said.

Sounds like something out of Munich, the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie that presented a fictionalized account of how Israeli agents hunted down and killed members of the Black September organization responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Spielberg put a spin of moral equivalence on the operation, with Mossad agents worrying that they were becoming as bad as the Palestinian terrorists. That’s ridiculous. Members of terrorist organizations are legitimate targets for elimination — whether they are killed by Predators over Pakistan or by hit teams in Dubai. If Mossad was indeed responsible for Mabhouh’s demise, it deserves the thanks of all civilized countries. Such targeted killings won’t eliminate the threat from Hamas, but they will certainly help to diminish, at least in the short-term, that odious organization’s capacities for mayhem.

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