December 14, 2018

Movies Hollywood won’t make

It has all the elements of a classic Hollywood international legal thriller.

An American Jewish family goes to court seeking restitution for anti-Semitic wrongs committed against it in a faraway country.  After a decades-long court battle over venue, jurisdiction, and property titles, the family wins a judgment against the foreign government.  Only then can it begin the equally arduous process of trying to collect.

What’s that you say?  You’ve seen that movie already, because you saw “Woman in Gold”?

You were watching a movie about a woman whose painting was stolen by Nazis during the Holocaust.

I was describing Americans maimed by Iranian-backed Hamas in a triple suicide bombing in Israel.

On September 4, 1997, Hamas, a client of the Iranian mullahs, executed a triple suicide bombing on Jerusalem’s popular Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall.  Five Israelis were killed, and a number of Americans were severely wounded.

Relatives of those families filed suit, Rubin v. The Islamic Republic of Iran, to hold the ultimate sponsors of those attacks responsible for the damage they had caused.

After winning a $71 million default judgment in federal court, the plaintiffs tried to force the sale of Persian antiquities and owned by the Iranian government and held by the University of Chicago.  In 2013, the courts ruled that while the Iranians owned the antiquities, the artifacts were not exempt from sovereign immunity, preventing the plaintiffs from claiming them.

However, the Obama administration’s plan to unfreeze Iranian assets held in US banks as part of the nuclear deal gave the plaintiffs new hope.  A federal district court in Chicago issued a Citation to Discover Assets. If and when those assets are unfrozen, they must stay in the US pending their distribution to the families of those whom Iran paid to have murdered and maimed.

Of course, you haven’t seen this movie.  And chances are, you won’t.

It certainly is true that if you’re an Islamist bad guy, screen time is awfully hard to come by, but some will point to Hollywood just being its risk-averse self.  After all, look at how few films portray Chinese as the bad guys – and how important Chinese distribution is.

The question isn’t why filmmakers are risk-averse, but rather who gets to set risk.

Hollywood’s problem here is as much Israeli good guys as it is Islamist bad guys.  The days of “Exodus” or “Sword in the Desert” are long gone.  In 1993, the Year of the Rabin-Arafat Handshake, Steven Spielberg could have Holocaust survivors singing “Hatikvah.”  By 2005, his Mossad agents meting out justice for the 1972 Munich murders are emotionally destroyed by the job.

TV is little better.  “N.C.I.S.,” a fine police procedural, always had a dark edge around its Mossad characters, even before the writers turned it into an unreliable ally altogether.  Even on USA Network’s “Covert Affairs,” where Islamist terror has a face, Mossad has its agent double-cross the series’ heroine.

The last unambiguously admiring reference to it in popular culture that I can recall came from Bollywood, when the head of an undercover ops group nixes an operation on Saudi soil by asking, “Who do you think we are, Mossad?”

But American audiences know something that the studio moguls don’t want to acknowledge.  Despite studios’ aversion to incurring the Wrath of CAIR by showing Muslims as villains, Americans know the enemy is Islamists.  “American Sniper” was the top domestic grossing film with a January wide-release in history, and it had the top domestic gross of any film released in 2014.

Likewise, Americans know who the good guys are.  Polls continue to show Americans supporting Israel by wide margins, and with highly favorable ratings independent of the conflict.  This is respect both for a country that fights for itself, does so morally, and manages to maintain a liberal democracy and an innovative, dynamic economy even as it does so.

If Hollywood isn’t catering to American box office tastes, who is it catering to?  World opinion and American elite opinion.  While Israel is increasingly developing business and technical relationships with other countries, it remains less popular than here in the US.  And American elite opinion is also increasingly hostile to Israel.  Unlike France, Israel always seems to have had it coming.  Even among Israel’s supporters, the apologias are too often apologetic.

One need only look at American attitudes about gay marriage to recognize both the potency of popular culture in forming broader public opinion, and the speed with which that opinion can change.  It’s commonplace now that it wasn’t really court decisions that created gay marriage, it was “Will and Grace” and “Modern Family.”

We need to ask ourselves: if not showing Islamist villains is the first step, and not showing Israeli heroes is the next one, how does this story end?

Joshua Sharf is a Fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and is head of the PERA project at the Independence Institute, a Denver based free-market think tank. Follow him @joshuasharf.