JOURNAL / By FRANK RICH, NY TIMES 27 Jan 1997
Show Me the Money
In recent weeks, Ted Turner has likened Rupert Murdoch to Hitler, Gloria Steinem has likened Larry Flynt to a Nazi and Richard John Neuhaus, the neoconservative theologian, has likened the United States to Nazi Germany. But when it comes to loose talk that trivializes both Nazism and the Holocaust, leave it to Hollywood to do so in the grand manner we expect from an industry that can dream up "Evita."
Two weeks ago, 34 show-business heavies, ranging from Goldie Hawn, Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Stone to studio heads, signed a $56,000 full-page ad in The International Herald Tribune scolding Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany for his Government's "shameful pattern of organized persecution" of the Church of Scientology. Drawing parallels between today's Germany and Nazi Germany, the "open letter" ominously added: "In the 1930's, it was the Jews. Today it is the Scientologists."
In a word -- Oy! This proclamation has provoked outrage not only from German officialdom but from Jewish leaders like Ignatz Bubis, president of Germany's Central Council of Jews, who called it "insulting to the memory of the [Holocaust's] victims." Back home, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League also protested Hollywood's missive as "ludicrous" and "an affront" to the six million dead. "Even after 'Schindler's List,' they're totally ignorant," says Mr. Foxman of the ad's participants.
Why have so many Hollywood names, none of them Scientologists and many of them Jewish, invoked the Nazis on behalf of Scientology? At least half of the 34 signatories have past or present professional ties to Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology's most famous recruits. Others may be along just for the ride (what other document has been signed by both Tina Sinatra and Gore Vidal?), but still others, as one producer put it, "would like to be making a movie with Tom Cruise or John Travolta as soon as possible."
The ad was conceived by Bertram Fields, Mr. Cruise's lawyer, who says he became alarmed when the youth wing of the Christian Democratic Union, Chancellor Kohl's party, called for a boycott of "Mission Impossible" because Mr. Cruise is a Scientologist. (Hardly the equivalent of a Nazi book-burning, given that "Mission Impossible" was a hit in Germany, grossing $23.6 million there.) Mr. Fields says his client knew nothing of the ad, which was prompted by his own outrage. He also points out that its text scrupulously refers to Germany in the pre-Holocaust 1930's, never mentioning the death camps.
Mr. Fields's defense of the ad makes sense -- up to a point. It is true that Germany has vilified Scientologists and denied them civil liberties, as other impartial observers have noted. It's also true that Hollywood's open letter doesn't mention the death camps. But the ad still trivializes the Holocaust.
Michael Berenbaum, the Georgetown University professor of theology who was research director of Washington's Holocaust museum, notes that Germany's measures against Scientologists, however offensive and worthy of protest, fall considerably short of a prelude to genocide. And he doesn't think the ad can get off the hook simply by limiting its historical analogies to Germany in the 30's. "When we close our eyes and think of Nazi Germany, we don't distinguish between before and after '39," he says. "The image we see is the shoveling of dead bodies. . . . There's no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Germany would again go that route for anyone -- whether Jews or Scientologists."
What makes the ad even more frivolous is that it studiously ignores the controversy over Scientology itself -- which is at least as heated as the controversy over Germany's treatment of Scientologists. Flo Conway's and Jim Siegelman's book "Snapping" and a 1991 Time cover story have most recently raised serious questions about this church, with Time arguing it is "a hugely profitable global racket that survives by intimidating members and critics in a Mafia-like manner." Mr. Fields says he didn't know of Time's story, even though it prompted a huge libel case that vindicated Time (subject to a Scientology appeal).
But were any of the letter's signatories to actually look into complaints against Scientology, they might risk forgoing business with two of the industry's most bankable stars. That would require a courage that in Hollywood is far harder to come by than 56,000 bucks.