Javier Bardem teaches a lesson in antisemitism

So many struggle with a challenge. How to tell when criticism of Israel is legitimate political assessment and when it is antisemitism? Along came a group from Spain and provided an unsolicited teaching tool. JTA reports that 100 Spanish celebrities endorsed a letter accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza. ”The letter was an initiative of Academy award winner Javier Bardem. He published the text in a Catalan newspaper called El Periodico. The article,entitled “Genocidio,” described Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. “… a war of occupation and extermination against a people without means, confined in a minimal territory without water and where hospitals, ambulances and children are … suspected terrorists.” Bardem decried the “shameful Western stance {that} allows such genocide.”

This is a counter-factual declaration, a lie. But that alone does not make it antisemitic. To establish antisemitism we need evidence of a mental process of demonization. This often takes the form of a kind of inflation. Bigots tend to obsess on perceived flaws in the object of their hatred. Often it is not hard to find examples of individuals who illustrate these flaws. All groups of humans include people who do bad things. So a bigot can find a brutal Zionist Jew, a fanatic Arab terrorist or an intellectually lazy Spanish bigot. Sometimes within the hated ethnicity, we find genuine flaws in the conduct of a whole group of people within the larger collective. (Think of violent British soccer fans as a group among all British people.) A bigot takes those examples and inflates their significance with damning language. You might suggest that use of inaccurate terms is simple hyperbole. That is not the case. Exaggerated terminology helps a bigot to place the object of hate beyond redemption. The desire to get the “bad guys” to reform does not motivate bigots. In the case of M. Bardem, it is not enough to suggest that Israel could do a better job reducing civilian casualties. That may be true or untrue. But an Israel that can reduce Palestinian civilian casualties is not pernicious. What the bigot needs is the phrase that expresses ultimate evil.

The Bardem document illustrates this process with great eloquence. To be accurate, terms like “genocide” need the numbers to add up. According to the Palestinian authority there are about ten million Palestinians in the world. In Gaza there are some 1.8 million. According to Hamas there are 1800 Palestinian fatalities as of this writing. Sources debate the percentage of civilians. “Genocide” does not describe these numbers. The deaths of so many people, many of them innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, would be tragic enough. But that does not meet the needs of a bigot. “Genocide” works so well as a demonizing agent. It is especially spicy if it refers to action by descendants of some of the victims of the archetypal modern genocide, the Jews.

Faced with condemnation, Bardem issued a statement denying any antisemitic intent. Readers can analyze the document and draw their own conclusions. But even if we were to give him credit for genuine contrition, there is that diagnostic question we dare not ignore. Bardem and his wife Penelope Cruz and their 98 Spanish celebrity friends are intelligent. Why would they produce this almost Freudian revelation of prejudice? What poisoned stream of cultural animosity floats to the surface when the State of Israel is seen as a sinner? Unfortunately, they cannot reasonably ascribe it to uncomplicated outrage at the losses. Here we have an unintended social science experiment with a control. Those losses pale in sheer scale compared with the dead from the many catastrophic wars taking place around the region. But massacres on a huge scale in Syria and Iraq (including against Palestinians) did not move Bardem and co. to express themselves in this language. Here is one aspect of this letter that makes it so useful for the study of antisemitism. It can only be the perception of sins by the Jewish state that motivated Bardem and his collaborators.

The inflation of the significance of sins of Jews has deep roots in Christian, Western civilization. The judicial murder of Jesus of Nazareth was a tragedy, albeit a common one in his time. Rome, the occupying power, with the help of a corrupt local regime, murdered a decent, even extraordinary man. But Christian doctrine asserts that Jesus was Divine. For many Christians, this inflated the sinful judicial murder. It became an unspeakable evil, the murder of God’s own Self. Here we have a root from which a paradigm of bigoted thinking was able to grow. A whole society learned that a sin by a small group of Jews at a particular moment was an expression of ultimate evil.

Vatican II tore down this mental structure. Its magnificent achievement was to deflate the prejudice by stating a common-sense fact. “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures…”

Since Nostra Aetate, (issued in 1965) some internalized its approach. Yet in Western societies the inflating of criticism of Jews to the point of demonization remains common. Many now focus on demonizing Jews for exercising their right to safety and national liberation. Indeed, in his letter Bardem compared Zionism to Nazism and 99 of his friends signed off.

Yet, the long term significance of the Bardem letter may not lie in its vituperative flash of hateful publicity. Rather it lies in our ability to recognize it as a symptom. Next year we will commemorate a half century since Vatican II. What this formulation by 100 elite Spanish celebrities tell us is that Western society still has a lot of work to do. It must seek to root out the antisemitic underground stream in its culture. Poison at the root level finds expression at the top.

There is a group that owes gratitude to Javier Bardem and his friends. Those who work in researching and teaching about antisemitism have a new a visual aid. Who knows? It may become a classic.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.