Recent Films Make Jews the Victors

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Talk about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

In Quentin Tarantino's blood-soaked new film "Inglourious Basterds," Brad Pitt and his merry band of Jewish soldiers bash Nazi soldiers' heads with a baseball bat and collect their scalps in a bid to avenge their people and stop the Holocaust.

At its roots, Tarantino's World War II fantasy and its orgy of violence are little more than cartoonish savagery and perhaps a cathartic experience for some Jewish viewers. It's a sort of reverse form of Schadenfreude: Jews giving Nazis the ultimate taste of their own medicine.

Yet the film also represents a growing genre of Jewish-themed films in which the victims become the victors.

But does Judaism condone such raging retribution? Rabbis and academics point out that Judaism distinguishes between acts of self-defense and vengeance and Jewish law frowns upon torturing an enemy - even Adolf Hitler himself, said Rabbi Joel Roth, a professor at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

"On the other hand, I also understand the human emotion," he said. "Dispassionately, do you want to see them scalped? No, but you have to consider the context. And, if it's a greater deterrent that would save other people's lives, maybe one could defend it."

Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a New York-based Jewish think tank, heralds the film as a long-overdue "fun action Jewish-revenge fantasy." Roth, meanwhile, wonders about a backlash from depicting Jews as "more Goliath than David," giving more fodder to those who see Israel as an aggressor and oppressor, rather than a haven for survivors of centuries of persecution.

Yet anti-Semites weren't swayed by films like "Schindler's List" or "The Diary of Anne Frank" that focused wholly on Jewish suffering, noted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization named for a Holocaust survivor who helped bring Nazis to trial after World War II.

Cooper hasn't seen "Inglourious Basterds" yet, but said it seems like a fitting addition to the emerging genre of celebrated Jewish resistance, including last year's "Defiance," about a community of Jews who found refuge in a Belarusian forest during the Holocaust, and 2005's "Munich," about efforts to assassinate Arab terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics.

This evolution may be due to changing (internal and external) perceptions about Jewish strength, given Israel's military victories in the decades since the Holocaust, he and Roth speculated. It has also taken longer for heroic tales like "Defiance" to come out - either because of modesty or due to concerns about accuracy.

In addition to being completely fictional, the big shift with "Basterds" is that its glorified brutality contradicts the cautionary message of those previous films - that revenge, even if justified, is ultimately destructive to those who seek it, said Antony Polonsky, a Holocaust studies professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

"I don't think there is one view among Jews about these matters," he said. "Immediately after the war, there were different views among those who survived the attempted Nazi genocide. But, the strongest view was that to seek revenge by murder was to lower yourself to the level of the murderers."

Even Wiesenthal, the famed "Nazi hunter," believed in "justice, not vengeance" right up until his death in 2005, Cooper said. He refused to help Jews track Nazis down for their own purposes, or to harm their family members.

"He said we need convicted criminals, not martyrs for a cause," Cooper said.

During the Holocaust and in other times when Jews are actively threatened by their enemies, however, Cooper believes some vengeance is permissible, if not encouraged.

"I don't think there's moral ambiguity at all," he said. "Unlike in the Christian tradition of turning the other cheek, in Jewish law, if somebody comes at you with a knife to kill you, you are required to defend yourself and, if necessary, kill that person first. If your entire community is being threatened with annihilation, then you have a mitzvah (a moral obligation) to shoot these people down."continues here

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