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Do Tarantino's 'Basterds' jibe with Jewish beliefs?

August 28, 2009|Religion News Service

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

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

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. Anne Frank is no longer hiding in the attic; the fate of Judaism no longer depends on benevolent gentiles like Oskar Schindler.

In short, the Jews are fed up. And they're not going to take it anymore. But does Judaism condone such 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 such as "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 seemed 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 Belarus 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 because of changing perceptions about Jewish strength, given Israel's military victories in the decades since the Holocaust, he and Roth speculated.

In addition to being fictional, the shift with "Basterds" is that its glorified brutality contradicts the 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.

"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."

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