After his admission, can Gibson be forgiven?

Admitting to anti-Semitic words,  movie star Mel Gibson begs the Jewish community for forgiveness.

Published August 1, 2006

Actor Mel Gibson admitted Tuesday shouting anti-Semitic insults during a drunken driving arrest last week, apologized to “everyone in the Jewish community” and appealed for face-to-face meetings with Jewish leaders “to discern the appropriate path for healing.”

But for Shmuley Boteach, the Orthodox rabbi from New Jersey who has written 15 books and hosts TLC’s Shalom in the Home self-help show, these moves should just be the beginning of Gibson’s work toward forgiveness.

“You have to regret what you did, you have to confess it … and you have to turn the apology into action; you have to make it right,” said Boteach, of the steps toward atonement he often counsels for others. “I think the Jewish community is very forgiving people. And Mel Gibson didn’t kill anyone. He’s just filled with bigotry and hatred.”

Gibson’s arrest Friday sparked headlines worldwide, as word spread that the 50-year-old Oscar winner reacted belligerently after being stopped for speeding in Malibu.

According to police reports, Gibson said, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” asking the arresting officer — who is Jewish — “are you a Jew?”

Already Gibson has paid a professional price: A miniseries he was developing with ABC-TV on the Holocaust has been canceled by the network, which blamed the lack of a script and did not mention the controversy. But his next movie, a self-financed epic called Apocalypto that features ancient Mayan culture, is due to be released by ABC owner Disney Corp. in December.

Endeavor talent agency founder Ari Emanuel, who represents director Michael Moore and Seinfeld creator Larry David, called for Hollywood executives to show concern by “professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him” in a commentary for the Huffington Post blog before the star’s latest apology.

Boteach’s concerns were echoed by other Jewish leaders locally and nationally Tuesday as word of Gibson’s admission spread and an obvious question emerged: Once one of world’s biggest movie stars has admitted making ugly, anti-Semitic statements, can he be forgiven?

“If he would have insulted me personally, I might have said 'Let’s get together and talk,’ but he insulted my entire people,” said Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize-winning author, Holocaust survivor and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

“His father was one of the most notorious Holocaust deniers. … I wonder, has he ever discussed this with his father or tried to get him to stop his work?” said Wiesel, referring to Hutton Gibson, who told the New York Times and other media outlets in 2004 that the widespread extermination of Jews during World War II was mostly fiction.

“Mel Gibson should say, 'I want to study Jewish history and Jewish culture privately and learn the truth of their beliefs.’ But even if he does, how can you know it is not just for (favorable public relations)?”

After his arrest, Gibson issued a statement apologizing for saying “despicable” things, without detailing what he said. But on Tuesday, the Lethal Weapon star admitted the substance of his words, saying: “There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of anti-Semitic” insults.

“Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite,” read another portion of the statement. “I am not a bigot. … I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery.”

Gibson admitted to a problem with alcoholism, stating his intention to enter a treatment program.

Harry Costello, Florida general manager for the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, said Gibson has done what he can to manage the bad publicity, but it is too early to tell whether his career has been irreparably harmed.

“He’s taken ownership and he’s trying to resolve the issue quickly, and in crisis situations, that’s what you want to do,” said Costello, who noted how Web sites spread news of Gibson’s arrest -— along with his mug shot — almost instantly. “On top of this, there’s the issue of Israel (fighting in Lebanon) right now. The career is tainted.”

Both Wiesel and Boteach said they have considered Gibson an anti-Semite since the release of his 2004 self-financed and self-directed movie, The Passion of the Christ. Offering a graphic depiction of the last 12 hours in Jesus Christ’s life, the film angered some Jewish people by showing Romans acting compassionately toward Christ, while Jews conspired to kill him.

“I’m concerned about the misperception he’s put into the minds of millions,” Boteach said. “Rerelease the Passion of the Christ with a disclaimer saying any Jewish leaders shown were in the employ of Rome. That would at least correct the world’s oldest lie.”

Others worried that, since Gibson didn’t admit any personal bigotry, that he might not be acknowledging the full extent of his problems. Rabbi Richard Birnholz of Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa said he hoped Gibson’s situation might at least serve as a lesson on the enduring nature of anti-Semitism and the dangers of drunken driving.

“The reality is, those who aren’t anti-Semitic find it hard to believe others are, and those who are anti-Semitic believe their views are legitimate,” he said.

 “If, over the next few years, he promotes Jewish causes, works for general understanding among all people, stops drinking and driving, and generally behaves as a mature human being, I think we can look back and say he has changed his ways.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.