CONTROVERSY: L.A. Times gets called out for calling ‘Ben Hur’ a ‘Palestinian’

“Ben Hur was a Jew!” declared a staggering press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in response to an L.A. Times article about the 50th anniversary DVD release of the film “Ben Hur,” in which they referred to the lead Jewish character as a “Palestinian nobleman.”

“As anyone who has seen the movie or read the book knows, this is the story of a Jew, Judah Ben Hur,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “There was no Palestine, nor Palestinians back then. The term ‘Palestina’ was the name imposed by Rome after they crushed the Jewish revolt more than 100 years after the death of Jesus.”

Other outfits, such as conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood have echoed the outrage, angrily calling the LA Times a “reliably anti-Israel newspaper.

The 1959 epic “Ben-Hur,” starring Charlton Heston as the Judean nobleman, Judah Ben-Hur, is based on Lew Wallace’s novel about a wealthy Jerusalemite enslaved by the Romans who later encounters Jesus Christ. The film, directed by William Wyler, won 11 Oscars that year, including best film, director, actor and supporting actor and is now being released in a special 50th anniversary edition DVD and Blu-Ray.

But some Jewish organizations are not celebrating.

The online media watchdog, Camera, which monitors anti-Israel news coverage, accused the LA Times of trying to “remake” Ben-Hur as a Palestinian. According to their Snapshots blog, this characterization is a departure from the way the Times has portrayed Ben Hur in the past.

Noting, as the Wiesenthal Center did, that there was no “Palestine” until 100 years after the death of Christ, Camera acknowledged the Times’ earlier coverage as being more accurate: “In earlier coverage, the Los Angeles Times had correctly described Ben-Hur’s Jewish/Judean identity. For instance, a March 15, 2001 article referred to ‘the rich, honorable Jewish man Judah Ben-Hur’; a June 17, 1994 article correctly described him as ‘the Judean’; and a Sept. 14, 1990 article referred to him as ‘prince of Judea.’

But even a seemingly simple misattribution begets extreme politicization. With last week’s Palestinian appeal to the UN to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, heightened sensitivities have prompted defensive reactions from Jews.

“Perhaps the paper’s 2011 remake of Ben-Hur, the Judean, into Ben-Hur, the “Palestinian,” is testament to the success of ongoing efforts to misleading the masses into believing that a sovereign Palestinian entity did in fact exist before 1948,” read the post on Camera’s Snapshots blog.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the Times had not issued a correction to the article, though several online commenters had chimed in with their disapproval.

One commenter, listed as NotJStreet wrote: “Man! The J word really makes you guys choke up doesn’t it?”

Another, posted by SRiley wryly remarked, “Ben-Hur was Palestinian? So does that make Pocahontas an American instead of Powahatan?”

Big Hollywood blogger Robert Avrech did not withhold any of his vehemence for the Times, accusing the paper of denying both Jewish and literary history. In a militant tone, Avrech portrayed the Times as a kind of co-conspirator in what he calls “Palestinian history replacement ideology.”

The Times’ ill-informed claim that Ben Hur was a Palestinian may be off-base and factually false, but perhaps it was an innocent mistake. If it was intentional, it was wrong. But, even more frightening than intentionality is the possibility that it was not; this would mean the ubiquitous efforts made to delegitimize the Jewish state are having a very powerful and very real affect.