‘Jews Who Love Cruise’: The Simon Wisenthal Center honors Tom Cruise

It was a Jews Who Love Cruise love-fest at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s annual entertainment industry dinner honoring Tom Cruise last week. The elephant in the room — Cruise’s high-profile affiliation with the Church of Scientology — proved too big to even joke about.

“I am not a comedian,” the evening’s emcee, the multihyphenate writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams, told the night’s 850 guests. “I am, however, a Jew who loves Tom Cruise — he’s kind, creative, smart, funny, he has a decent pair of teeth …”

And boy did Cruise have reason to flash the pearly whites. For starters, he received the Wiesenthal Center’s highest honor — the Humanitarian Award — presented by Paramount Pictures CEO Brad Grey, who praised Cruise’s “quiet generosity.”

“For a man who can’t walk down the street without being followed by paparazzi,” Grey began, “Tom has quietly provided funding for exhibits that grace the halls of the Simon Wiesenthal Center that for 18 years have helped fight bigotry and racism.”

In the tribute book, this was Ben Stiller’s ad: “Tom, You Complete Me.” Steven Spielberg wrote, “You make humanitarian missions possible.” And Jimmy Kimmel congratulated him on both his award and his “incomparable eyebrows.”

“I’m proud to be in the Jews-who-love-Cruise fan club,” Grey said, just before announcing that the world’s biggest blockbuster star helped raise $1.4 million for the Wiesenthal Center. Not exactly opening weekend numbers, but at this dinner every seat was sold.

Over the past few weeks, the Cruise award had stirred some debate because of the actor’s ties to Scientology. It was questioned whether Cruise deserved humanitarian kudos at the same time that the institution to which he is most closely linked is under federal investigation for alleged human trafficking. Some challenged the choice in light of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s funky views on the Holocaust (some say he blamed the Holocaust on psychiatrists; others cite teachings that advocate personal responsibility for everything that happens to an individual). And yet others just plain wondered about Cruise’s humanitarian work.

But, at the dinner, none of it mattered. Cruise was among his kin — including wife Katie Holmes and his adopted son with ex-wife Nicole Kidman, Connor Cruise. Cruise’s industry brethren also came to laud him, including CBS President Les Moonves, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, producer Mark Burnett, Creative Artists Agency partner Kevin Huvane and director Brett Ratner. 

“No one deserves this honor tonight more than Tom Cruise,” DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the dinner’s chairs as well as a museum trustee, said during brief remarks.

Yeah, we get it.

Aside from Cruise’s long, silky hair, other evening highlights included the Medal of Valor honors, presented by Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier to Peter Bergson, posthumously, for lobbying the Roosevelt administration to rescue Jews during the Holocaust; to Luis Alberto Urzua Iribarren, the foreman and self-styled spiritual leader for the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days last year; and to Gyongyi Mago, a Catholic high school teacher from Kalocsa, Hungary, who took it upon herself to teach her students about the lost Jewish history of their town.

There was also a brief tribute to the late Elizabeth Taylor, a longtime supporter of the center, who was honored with the museum’s first-ever Humanitarian Award in 1980. A clip of Taylor’s poignant acceptance speech played to a silent room. Then it was back to Cruise.

In his acceptance speech, Cruise told a story, told to him by Hier, about how Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, begged Simon Wiesenthal to find the man who arrested the Frank family in order to prove Anne’s diary wasn’t fabricated. It was a good choice for Cruise, who through public recognition of the Holocaust could at least shush those who claim he’s a revisionist by dint of his affiliation with Scientology.

“Our challenge, ladies and gentlemen, is to make sure that we do all in our power to see to it that there will be no more Auschwitz/Birkenaus, no more Rwandas, no more Darfurs on our planet,” Cruise said. “That our children and their children may be free to live in a world where men and women are judged by their accomplishments and deeds rather than by their race or religion.”

Some people worried that the Wiesenthal honor would offer unmerited legitimacy to the Church of Scientology, as Cruise is its reigning ambassador. But really, Cruise’s honor affirmed the power of the Jewish community to turn a potential foe into a friend.

In closing, Cruise quoted not Hubbard, but Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Humanitarian or not, the man sure can deliver a speech.

[this is an edited version of an earlier post]