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Mel Gibson the Maccabee? How an Irony-Filled Project Fell Apart

December 12, 2012 1:37 am 5 comments

Mel Gibson at the 2011 Cannes film festival. Photo: Georges Biard.

For Mel Gibson and Joe Eszterhas—who had planned to collaborate on a recently shelved film on the life of Judah the Maccabee, one of the Hanukkah story’s heroes—it was an unlikely shidduch to begin with.

The Eszterhas family has a history of anti-Semitism. Eszterhas’ father was a Nazi propagandist in World War II Hungary who escaped detection until the late 1990s. When his father’s past was revealed, Eszterhas cut off all contact. “I turned my back on my father and his beliefs: my loyalty is to the 6 million dead,” he wrote for The Daily Beast.

Gibson’s father Hutton is a known Holocaust denier and a member of the “Latin Church,” a Catholic sect that rejects the Vatican II declaration that “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” In contrast to Eszterhas, however, Gibson, has “stayed loyal to his father’s beliefs,” Eszterhas said.

Perhaps the most notorious evidence of Gibson’s attitude came to light on a summer night in Malibu, Calif. in 2006, when Gibson was stopped for driving drunk. According to police reports, he called the officer who cited him a “motherf*r” and threatened to “get even.” Then came the line that reverberated throughout the Jewish world.

“The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” Gibson demanded of the deputy.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as a film producer and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, said in an interview with JNS.org that Gibson “has never shown the slightest inkling to come to terms with his anti-Semitism” despite the tapes exposing him.

“Considering Gibson to play Judah Maccabee was outrageous,” Hier said. “He never earned a second chance, never apologized. For me Mel Gibson is a non-starter.”

How did Gibson and Eszterhas come to collaborate in the first place, and how did their unlikely partnership fall apart?

In September of 2011, Warner Brothers announced that it would produce a film based on the life of Judah Maccabee with Mel Gibson. Eszterhas was to write the screenplay, and Gibson was to star on the big screen as Judah. Work began, and Eszterhas and his family were invited to Gibson’s house in Costa Rica.

In The Atlantic that December, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg (who is writing a biography of Judah Maccabee) questioned Gibson about why he wanted to make a movie about the 2nd-century BCE Jewish hero. Gibson, according to Goldberg, responded that the Book of Maccabees (I and II) makes “ripping good reads.”

By April 2012, slightly more than six months into the project, the Maccabees project was put on hold by Warner Bros. Eszterhas says he quit; Gibson claims he was fired. JNS.org was not able to reach either one of them for this report.

Eszterhas, speaking with radio host Howard Stern, recalled his family’s Costa Rica experience, specifically Gibson’s alleged threatening and hate-filled anti-Semitic rants, recorded by Nicholas, his 15-year-old son. Eszterhas claims the child was so fearful that he slept with a kitchen knife.

Eszterhas wrote a nine-page letter to Gibson in which he accused the actor of using “The Maccabees” film project—a story about Jewish heroism—”in an attempt to deflect continuing charges of anti-Semitism which have dogged you, charges which have crippled your career.” He continued, “Let me remind you of some of the things you said which appalled me… You continually called Jews ‘Hebes,’ ‘oven-dodgers,’ and ‘Jewboys.’… You said the Holocaust was ‘mostly a lot of horsesh*t… I’ve come to the conclusion that the reason you won’t make “The Maccabees” is the ugliest possible one. You hate Jews.”

Gibson, in a letter to Eszterhas, called Eszterhas’s assertions “fabrications.”

“In 25 years of script development, I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time,” he wrote. “The decision not to proceed with you was based on the quality of your script, not on any other factor.”

Eszterhas claims Gibson never intended to make the movie, but rather, that he just wanted to garner positive PR. He told Stern, “I worked for a year without pay because I wanted to write the story of the great Jewish hero.”

“I strongly believe that unless he seeks and receives some kind of psychiatric help, someone is going to get hurt,” Eszterhas told Stern regarding Gibson.

The Wiesenthal Center’s Hier told JNS.org that Gibson “is an unrepentant anti-Semite” who “repeatedly exhibits his position despite having done real damage.”

Hier does “believe that [Gibson] uttered those words” to the police officer in Malibu in 2006. “There’s an old Yiddish expression: what you do or say when you’re drunk, is what you’re really thinking,” Hier said.

Jewish comedian Jackie Mason was among those who defended Gibson after the 2006 incident.

“He never afflicted a Jew in his life personally,” Mason said in a Fox television interview. “How a guy lived for 50 years is what should count, not one remark when you’re drunk. He never joined a club that was anti-Semitic. He never refused to give a guy a tip at a restaurant because he found out he was Jewish. His house doesn’t have a sign in front of it that says ‘no Jews allowed.'”

But even before the episode with the police officer, in 2004 Gibson “solidified his anti-Semitic position” with the production of “The Passion of the Christ” film, “portraying Jews so negatively” and conveying an “insult to the entire Jewish people,” Hier said.

“Everyone identified as a Jew in the movie is shown as a buffoon, an idiot, or a sadist,” Hier said. “It is a cruel portrayal.”

“Pope Benedict has acknowledged that Jesus was not killed by the Jews,” yet “in The Passion of the Christ, the actor crucified the Jewish people,” according to Hier.

“Jews portrayed by Gibson are cruel, dishonest,” he said.

Hier is sharply critical of Gibson for his “so-called apology” conveyed after the 2006 anti-Semitic outburst, when a public relations professional was hired to write the apology.

“This is not what you do,” Hier said. “You use the opportunity to apologize to the Jewish people personally… Find a quiet way of showing repentance, perhaps visit a concentration camp. But do it yourself! Then people might forgive.”

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