Abe Foxman calling for a “hate crime” investigation for Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic remarks? Probably not.

I had seriously considered jumping all over this story when I first saw it early Monday morning. After all, look at the headline:

Jewish groups call for hate-crime probe on Mel Gibson

A more truly ominous thing to be calling for based on a drunken anti-Semitic tirade I have a hard time imagining. As you may remember from my previous discussions of, for example, the David Irving trial, I am very much against hate speech laws. What I don’t recall if I’ve ever mentioned before is that I’m also very skeptical of hate crime laws. I can see using racial or religious bigotry as an aggravating circumstance for what would be a crime normally, but I have a hard time with the expansion of the concept to an entire class of crimes. In this, I seem to be in agreement with fellow ScienceBlogger Ed Brayton, who also thought that calling for a hate crime investigation over Mel’s little scuffle was a very bad idea.

Something, however, stopped me from posting about this story. That something was the smell test. Something about this story smelled fishy to me and set my skeptical antennae twitching. Let’s look at how the story was reported:

JEWISH groups have demanded Mel Gibson be investigated for hate crimes after the Hollywood star allegedly made anti-Semitic comments to US police officers when he was stopped on suspicion of drink-driving and speeding.

Gibson’s reported criticism of Jews, contained in a leaked police report detailing his arrest early on Friday morning, included the phrase: “F*****g Jews. The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”

He has since apologised for his actions, saying they were “despicable”, but community Jewish leaders called for Gibson to be ostracised from Hollywood, where the A-list actor is considered an industry powerbroker.

Calling for a criminal investigation into the Oscar-winning actor and director’s remarks, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the US Jewish Anti-Defamation League, said: “We believe there should be consequences to bigots and bigotry.”

So do I. Mel should suffer criticism and I have no problem with his being ostracized by people offended by his bigotry. But does this story actually report what it seems to on first glance. Consider: I noticed that these “Jewish groups” supposedly calling for a hate crime investigation were never named. Moreover, look at how Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, is quoted. There is no direct quote of his calling for a hate crime investigation. Rather, that call is quoted as a paraphrase, and the only direct quote has Foxman saying that there should be unspecified “consequences” to bigots and bigotry.

Worse, I couldn’t find any other source to independently confirm what The Scotsman had reported. Indeed, this story was starting to remind me of a story from May about how Iran was supposedly passing a law mandating color coding by religion, complete with different colored badges (including yellow for Jews–shades of the Nazi yellow Stars of David), a story that was exaggerated and that I was actually somewhat taken in by. And many bloggers, mostly conservative, were jumping on the bandwagon to lambaste Foxman in blogs such as Captain’s Quarters, Dean’s World, The Moderate Voice, Rightwingsparkle, Random and Politically Incorrect Thoughts (a particularly vitriolic rant from a blogger who, it just so happens, has been very credulous about the Hoxsey therapy in the Abraham Cherrix case), Ripclawe, and Flopping Aces, among others, all of which accepted the story at face value without considering the vagueness of the story and how it didn’t quite add up. Even Andrew Sullivan seems to have fallen for it. All of them, in their eagerness to believe the story, appeared not to have stopped to look at it a little more closely.

So I went to the ADL site and looked for any statement on Mel Gibson, and this is what I found:

Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued the following statement:

Mel Gibson’s apology is unremorseful and insufficient. It’s not a proper apology because it does not go to the essence of his bigotry and his anti-Semitism.

His tirade finally reveals his true self and shows that his protestations during the debate over his film “The Passion of the Christ,” that he is such a tolerant, loving person, were a sham. It may well be that the bigotry has been passed from the father to the son. It is unfortunate that it took an excess of booze and an encounter with a police officer to reveal what was really in his heart and mind.

We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite.

Nope. No call for a “hate crime” investigation there. Also, the above statement is consistent with Foxman’s quote about there being “consequences” for bigotry, as in urging that Gibson be shunned. It does not support the report that the ADL is calling for a hate crime investigation. Whether other “Jewish groups” are calling for such an investigation or not, I can’t tell; the groups weren’t named, and I wasn’t able to find any corroborating accounts. Now, don’t get the idea from my skepticism here that I’m necessarily enthusiastic about defending Abe Foxman in this. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s quite capable of saying some pretty idiotic things. Indeed, I even mentioned him unfavorably in a very early Hitler Zombie piece, written before I had come up with the schtick of actually portraying the Führer Zombie himself eating the brains of pundits who make idiotic Hitler or Nazi analogies. This time around, however, I suspect that he’s probably getting a bum rap and that The Scotsman story is most likely a serious distortion or misquotation.

Finally, I now note that Mel Gibson has issued a more convincing and specific apology:

August 2, 2006 — There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of Anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.

I am a public person, and when I say something, either articulated and thought out, or blurted out in a moment of insanity, my words carry weight in the public arena. As a result, I must assume personal responsibility for my words and apologize directly to those who have been hurt and offended by those words.

The tenets of what I profess to believe necessitate that I exercise charity and tolerance as a way of life. Every human being is God’s child, and if I wish to honor my God I have to honor his children. But please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.

I’m not just asking for forgiveness. I would like to take it one step further, and meet with leaders in the Jewish community, with whom I can have a one on one discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing.

I have begun an ongoing program of recovery and what I am now realizing is that I cannot do it alone. 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. Again, I am reaching out to the Jewish community for its help. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed.

This is not about a film. Nor is it about artistic license. This is about real life and recognizing the consequences hurtful words can have. It’s about existing in harmony in a world that seems to have gone mad.

Indeed, in an interesting twist, even before Gibson’s new apology, a prominent L.A. rabbi invited him to speak to his congregation on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, answering critics who don’t buy the whole apology: “Better a repentant anti-Semite than an unrepentant anti-Semite.” In addition, even the ADL has accepted Gibson’s new apology:

This is the apology we had sought and requested. We are glad that Mel Gibson has finally owned up to the fact that he made anti-Semitic remarks, and his apology sounds sincere. We welcome his efforts to repair the damage he has caused, to reach out to the Jewish community, and to seek help.

Once he completes his rehabilitation for alcohol abuse, we will be ready and willing to help him with his second rehabilitation to combat this disease of prejudice.

So, did Foxman ever actually call for a hate crime investigation? My conclusion, based on the inconsistencies between the original story and the ADL statement, my inability to corroborate the story using any other source, and the rapidity with which the ADL accepted Mel Gibson’s second apology, is that he probably did not. Barring new data or a more specific quote from Foxman from an independent source, I’m sticking to that conclusion for now. How this particular story came to be, whether from a misquoting, lazy editing, intentional misrepresentation of Foxman’s words, or a lack of understanding on the part of the writer that here in the U.S. the First Amendment would prevent any sort of prosecution of Gibson merely for spouting off about how much he detests Jews and how he thinks that Jews are the cause of all the wars in the last century doesn’t really matter much now. In the blogosphere the story was amplified rapidly beyond its rather obscure (in the U.S. at least) source. I’m just glad that, this time at least, my skepticism kept me from joining the blog swarm that over the last two days has gone wild over this dubious report.

It was a close call. I was almost taken in, and that would have been very bad for my skeptical credentials indeed–almost as bad as the time early in this blog’s history when I did fall for an urban legend about Germany forcing unemployed women to accept jobs as prostitutes because prostitution is legal there.

Fortunately back then a lot fewer people were reading.