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‘Life is Beautiful’ hit US theaters 25 years ago. The film’s Holocaust humor raised issues that linger today.

(JTA) — Ferne Pearlstein re-watched “Life is Beautiful,” Roberto Benigni’s Oscar-winning Holocaust film, around 2015. She was working on her documentary “The Last Laugh,” which focused on the possibilities — and limits — of Holocaust humor.

Pearlstein was struck not by how subversive Benigni’s film felt, but how tame it seemed. In the 2000s, she argued in a recent interview, Holocaust humor had become so much more ubiquitous, if not always accepted. Joan Rivers had made a joke about Nazi gas chambers on national TV. The blockbuster “The Hangover” — directed and produced by Jewish filmmaker Todd Phillips — casually tossed in a Holocaust joke. The topic has been a longstanding part of Sarah Silverman’s standup routine.

But when “Life is Beautiful” hit U.S. theaters 25 years ago last month, it rocked Hollywood and beyond by attempting to infuse humor into the setting of a concentration camp.

“I, too, remember watching it when it came out, and being amazed that anybody would have taken the time to have represented part of our story that way,” said Rich Brownstein, the author of a book about hundreds of Holocaust-themed films.

Benigni, by then a well-known Italian comedian, starred in the movie as Guido Orefice, a charming Italian-Jewish drifter who repeatedly uses his wit to get out of bad situations. In the opening days of World War II, he courts a non-Jewish woman who was set to marry a local Fascist commander, eventually marrying her and having a son.

By 1944, once the Nazis occupy Italy, Guido and his young son are taken away to an unnamed concentration camp. For the rest of the film, set in the camp, Guido attempts to shield the truth of their predicament from his son — by pretending their entire imprisonment is a game. Guido suffers under the torture of forced labor, but he finds the strength after a day’s work to keep the charade up for his son, to keep him from drifting into despair.

The film — all in Italian — was a surprise hit, and its awards season campaign was nearly as memorable as the film itself. Throughout the campaign, Benigni charmed American audiences with wild interviews and awards acceptance speeches in which he climbed upon theater seats and spoke in broken but enthusiastic English. At the Oscars in 1999, his movie won three awards, including for best foreign language film and best actor.

“This is a terrible mistake because I used up all my English,” Benigni said from the Oscar stage after winning best actor, in his second speech of the night. “I am not able to express all my gratitude, because now, my body is in tumult because it is a colossal moment of joy so everything is really in a way that I cannot express. I would like to be Jupiter! And kidnap everybody and lie down in the firmament making love to everybody, because I don’t know how to express.”

Audiences loved the film too, as it became the highest-grossing foreign language film in U.S. history at the time (although “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” surpassed it two years later).

Some critics loved “Life is Beautiful,” seeing the film as funny, inspirational and original.

“The film finds the right notes to negotiate its delicate subject matter. And Benigni isn’t really making comedy out of the Holocaust, anyway,” Roger Ebert wrote. “He is showing how Guido uses the only gift at his command to protect his son. If he had a gun, he would shoot at the Fascists. If he had an army, he would destroy them. He is a clown, and comedy is his weapon.”

The film was an enormous critical success, winning three Oscars, including best actor. (Steve Starr/Corbis via Getty Images)

But many others, from Jewish comedians to academics, were not as kind. Israeli author Kobi Niv wrote an entire book, in 2000, called “Life is Beautiful, But Not for Jews: Another View of the Film by Benigni,” which was critical of the film.

“Oh, Benigni was clearly setting himself up for trouble and he knew it,” Columbia University film professor Annette Insdorf, also an author of a book on the Holocaust in cinema, said at the time.

Many of the comedians Pearlstein interviewed for her film — who included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Gilbert Gottfried and Judy Gold — took issue with the fantastical feel of Benigni’s movie. Guido’s son is able to avoid the Nazis by hiding in the camp’s bunker, something that would not have been possible, Pearlstein noted.

But she added that the bold choice to set much of the film in a camp was a larger trigger point.

“It is sort of verboten to a lot of people to have the camps a part of it, the gas chambers,” she said. “As soon as you evoke those images, it becomes verboten for people, even if the joke was not about the victims.”

Brooks might have been expected to be a fan of “Life is Beautiful,” as someone who had shocked audiences in the late 1960s with “The Producers” — which featured a Broadway musical starring Adolf Hitler as a major plot point. He also mined the Spanish Inquisition for laughs in “History of the World, Part I.” But he hated “Life is Beautiful,” calling it “a crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp.”

“It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it,” the World War II veteran told German newspaper Der Spiegel in 2006. “The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp.”

Brooks also took issue with the fact that Benigni was not Jewish. “Tell me, Roberto, are you nuts?” he said in the Spiegel interview. “You didn’t lose any relatives in the Holocaust, you’re not even Jewish. You really don’t understand what it’s all about.”

Benigni’s Catholic father reportedly spent two years as a prisoner in the Bergen-Belsen camp, however, and the filmmaker used his recollections of that time in crafting the story. He also consulted with Italian Jewish groups and used Italian Auschwitz survivor Rubino Romeo Salmonì’s memoir “In the End, I Beat Hitler” as further inspiration. Salmonì often used black humor in describing his Holocaust experiences.

Benigni said Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” one of the earliest satires of Hitler, was another influence.

“This is an homage to the master, because I love this movie, and, of course, making a movie — a comedy about [a] concentration camp, I watched this movie a lot of time,” Benigni said at the time.

Pearlstein said that “intent” and “execution” of Holocaust humor are also hugely important. Brooks, she said, “makes a complete distinction between humor about the Nazis versus humor in the camps.” Brownstein agrees.

“There are great Holocaust films made by gentiles, including ‘Cabaret,’ ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ ‘Au revoir les enfants’… and there are horrible Holocaust films made by Jews, including ‘Jojo Rabbit,’” he said. “To make a film of any kind, successfully, you have to have your kishkes in it.”

“Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s comedy-drama about a Nazi-era German boy who learns lessons about hate as he becomes disillusioned with the Hitler Youth he once admired, faced a similar gantlet of criticism when it debuted in 2019. Some found the main Jewish character to be hollow, or Waititi’s performance as Hitler — as imagined by the child protagonist — as too light. But the film also won Waititi — a New Zealander who is Māori and Jewish — critical acclaim, and he has since become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors.

Pearlstein thinks Holocaust humor will never fully disappear, even in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre, which was among the worst attacks against Jews since World War II.

“There might be a dip for a little time. Think about 9/11 — here was a dip, and then people need it; it’s a survival mechanism,” she said. “And that is why you always hear about Jewish people and using humor, because they have used it to survive through the worst of times.”

The post ‘Life is Beautiful’ hit US theaters 25 years ago. The film’s Holocaust humor raised issues that linger today. appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Politicians Who Abuse the Holocaust Should Be Sanctioned

Brazil’s new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures as he is sworn in at the National Congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 1, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Jacqueline Lisboa

JNS.orgThe Israeli government was absolutely right in its decision last week to announce that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—known to the world as “Lula”—is persona non grata in the Jewish state in the light of his disgraceful comparison of Israel’s defensive war in Gaza with the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews. By the same token, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a grave mistake in proceeding with his meeting with Lula in Brasilia only a few days after the Brazilian leader made his offending remarks.

The key point to bear in mind regarding Lula’s comments is that there was no ambiguity at all; in his view, Israel’s actions in Gaza are a carbon copy of the Holocaust inflicted by the Nazis.

“What’s happening in the Gaza Strip isn’t a war, it’s a genocide,” Lula declared on the sidelines of an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “It’s not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children.” There was only one historical parallel appropriate for the current situation, he continued: “When Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Frankly, it feels insulting to have to push back against such an outburst. Insulting and demeaning to have to explain that the goal of destroying the “international Jewish conspiracy” lay at the core of Nazi ideology; that before the extermination began, Nazi Germany initiated the legal degradation of the Jews, conferring subhuman status upon them through the 1935 Nuremburg Laws; that the Nazis built an entire network of concentration and extermination camps dedicated, in the main, to the enslavement and murder of Jews from all over occupied Europe; that the Nazis were so obsessed with murdering every Jew under their control that they actually accelerated the killing even when it became clear that the war was lost for them. There is no comparison here with Gaza. Indeed, there are very few historical events that warrant any kind of comparison with the Holocaust—the 1994 genocide in Rwanda might be one, for example—and absolutely none that justify the exact analogy drawn by Lula.

Nonetheless, Blinken went ahead with his meeting with Lula, fully aware of what had been said. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller was asked about Lula’s comments ahead of Blinken’s departure for Latin America. “Obviously, we disagree with those comments,” he responded. “We have been quite clear that we do not believe that genocide has occurred in Gaza. We want to see the conflict ended as soon as practical.”

All very well, but the U.S. government should do more than just disagree. It should condemn. It should point about that abusing the Holocaust as Lula did is as morally repugnant as denying the Holocaust together and arguably more insidious since it mocks the historic victimhood of the Jews by casting them as no different from their murderers.

Perhaps Blinken did tell Lula forcefully that what he said was wrong; we will never know, as no record of their discussion has been published. What we have been told by Lula’s adviser, Celso Amorim, is that Blinken opened that part of their exchange with a reminder that his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, had survived the Holocaust.

Again, we can only speculate, but maybe, to offer a more generous interpretation, Blinken felt that Lula would shift his understanding of the Holocaust if only he had a better grasp of its nature and enduring impact on subsequent generations of Jews. If this was the case, then it was hopelessly naive.

Lula is many things, not least a crook who went to jail for corruption before being exonerated on a technicality, without disproving the original accusations against him. However, he is not an idiot. He knows about the Holocaust and has had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem—Israel’s national memorial to the Shoah—while on a state visit to Israel in 2010. Yet this was the same visit during which he insulted his Israeli hosts by refusing to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Whatever he gleaned at Yad Vashem, this was either forgotten entirely or repurposed for his vile comments while in Ethiopia.

If American and Western leaders are serious about tackling antisemitism, they must do so first of all among their peers. Just as we expect university administrations to sanction college professors who abuse the Holocaust for the purpose of attacking Israel, we should demand the same from politicians; after all, Lula was far from being the first offender in this regard. In the last year alone, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has claimed, “They used to speak ill of Hitler. What difference do you have from Hitler? They are going to make us miss Hitler. Is what this Netanyahu is doing any less than what Hitler did? It is not.” Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, never misses an opportunity to invoke the Nazi analogy. On a visit to Germany last year, he did exactly that while standing next to Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a press conference, sneering in answer to a question from a journalist that Israel had committed “50 massacres, 50 holocausts” since 1947.

At best, we get condemnation. Scholz later declared himself “disgusted” by Abbas’s comments, but he didn’t declare the Palestinian leader persona non grata. Similarly, Erdoğan’s repulsive barbs also meet with rhetorical disapproval, but no more. If anything, those leaders tempted to also make the comparison may well feel emboldened by the knowledge that those who have already done so get away with it!

Just as a university president who can’t offer a simple condemnation of antisemitism doesn’t deserve to be in office, a political leader—whether elected or not—who compares Israel with Nazi Germany doesn’t deserve to be treated as a diplomatic partner. For years now, we’ve allowed Lula, Erdoğan, Abbas and those of their ilk to spit on the graves of 6 million Jews with impunity. Israel, the state built with the blood and toil of survivors, has now said that enough is enough. If there is any decency left in this world, other governments will follow its lead.

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Together, We Are Winning

A view shows Israelis protesting, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 25, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Oren Alon

JNS.orgIt’s challenging to remember life in Israel before the Simchat Torah massacre of Oct. 7., but it’s possible. We can remember the horrid Yom Kippur, just 12 days before the massacre, that required police to control and then stop a prayer service. For over a year beforehand, Israelis were at each other’s throats over proposed judicial reforms. Lines were drawn between right and left, religious and secular, north and south, the center and the periphery.

On Oct. 7, however, we realized that in a divided society everyone is distracted from keeping us safe and secure. Hamas saw an opening and took advantage of it.

Since Oct. 7, Israel changed in many ways. Most importantly, it changed from a divided to a united nation. Israelis from all walks of life came together to serve in IDF reserve units, send supplies to soldiers and refugees, and pray together in mass gatherings.

In early November, an iconic photo went viral on Israeli social media. It showed attorney Ran Bar-Yoshafat, the vice president of the Kohelet Policy Forum that advocated for judicial reform, standing with his arm over the shoulder of Gideon Segev, an activist with Brothers in Arms, the lead organization opposing judicial reform. They were both dressed in their IDF uniforms, rifles slung from their shoulders. They were united against Israel’s enemies.

This unity was refreshing and inspiring. Over multiple elections over the last several years, Israel’s political polarization seemed irreparable. Yet the impossible occurred: Politics gave way to unity. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz even set aside their differences and created a landmark agreement to establish an emergency wartime government. Almost all Israeli politicians refused to play the blame game and focused on fighting the enemy together.

The war isn’t over yet, but the question of whether Israel can win is no longer being asked. It’s clear that Israel isn’t just winning the war; it’s crushing the enemy. The IDF has killed over 12,000 Hamas terrorists. Over 70% of Hamas’s fighting force has been demolished. There are few Hamas strongholds left and its leaders are on the run. Israel’s soldiers have experienced unprecedented success.

Israel isn’t only winning on the battlefield; it’s winning the diplomatic war as well. It has successfully staved off the usual demands for an immediate ceasefire. It has also won in the courts. South Africa’s charge of genocide and its request for a court order stopping Israel’s military operations were rejected by the International Court of Justice. There is bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. Congress, with more than 20 Senate Republicans crossing party lines to vote for a Democratic bill that will help fund Israel’s war effort.

Just as Israel’s division resulted in its devastating losses on Oct. 7, its newborn unity has resulted in its military success. A unified nation is no longer distracted by the divisions that weaken it. It can focus its efforts, energies and resources on the country’s safety and security. Its leaders, soldiers and citizens can focus on preserving the nation’s values. It is strong.

It’s unfortunate that such a devastating tragedy was necessary to unite the people of Israel. It would be easy to allow regret to overcome the nation. Instead, it’s time for the Jewish people to redouble their efforts to preserve our newfound unity.

It won’t be long before Israel’s leaders and the IDF declare victory over Israel’s enemies and the end of the war. There will be celebrations of victory and memorials for the heroes we lost. The post-war recovery will be shortened by convening commissions of inquiry and holding new elections. That is when the Israeli people must apply the lessons of Oct. 7.

If Israel has learned its lesson, it will come together and hold a civilized election while maintaining its essential unity. Thus, Israel will remain strong and secure. But if Israel hasn’t learned its lesson and unity dissipates, it will be weakened and less secure.

To avoid this, the Israeli people must incorporate the lesson of unity into their national soul and ensure that it remains eternal.

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A Strong Europe Benefits the US and Israel

Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump speaks as he campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, US, August 12, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

JNS.orgWhen former President Donald Trump speaks, exploding heads tend to follow, often for good reason. His recent comments about NATO, saying he would not protect European countries that do not pay their dues to the alliance, set off alarm bells at home and across the Atlantic. In the case of Trump, however, one can despise the messenger and recognize that his message has some merit.

At a recent rally in South Carolina, Trump caused chaos by speaking of a conversation he had with a foreign leader when he was president. Trump claimed he told the leader that not only would he “not protect” NATO members that are delinquent in their payments or fail to meet their defense spending requirements, but he would also encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” with them.

European Council President Charles Michel responded by saying that Trump’s statements “serve only Putin’s interest.” Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg said, “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S.”

These are valid concerns and point to real consequences that could result if Trump’s words become U.S. policy.

At the same time, however, Michel himself acknowledged that Trump’s statements underscore the importance of European investment in the continent’s “nascent efforts” to strengthen its “strategic autonomy” and defense capabilities. European nations have already started that process and well they should.

According to a 2023 NATO report, Russian and Chinese defense spending has increased 277% and 566% respectively since 2000, while European investment remained flat. Despite signing the 2014 Defense Investment Pledge following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, only two of the top five European NATO allies—Poland and the United Kingdom—kept their promise to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. According to 2023 estimates, they spent 3.9% and 2.07% respectively. Only 11 of the 31 NATO countries are expected to meet their defense obligations in 2024.

However, there has been some movement on this issue. Germany will reach its goal of spending 2% of its GDP on defense in 2024 and the E.U. has pledged $54 billion to Ukraine, relieving the United States of some of the aid burden.

The existing NATO-based global security apparatus can be understood as a triangle with the U.S. at the peak and NATO allies together with Israel forming a narrow foundation. Such a triangle is highly unstable. Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s ongoing power plays and Iran’s malign behavior are proof of this.

The United States, Europe, Israel and all Western-aligned countries are better off with a militarily strong Europe. After decades of neglect, European nations must refortify their military capabilities and reassess their strategic partnerships in key areas such as defense, energy, security, supply chains of essential goods and technology.

European nations that understand this have been forging a deeper and broader relationship with Israel. Germany is now Israel’s largest defense trading partner and has acquired the Arrow missile-defense system.

Led by Poland, Central and Eastern European nations that fear Russian aggression are aligning with Israel due to shared strategic interests. European nations are looking to friendshore essential goods to Israel and the other Abraham Accords countries. There’s hope that Saudi Arabia won’t be too far behind.

What does all this mean for the Western alliance and the United States?

Assuming America maintains its status as the top military power in the world, it will remain at the peak of the global security triangle. However, if Europe and Israel align their strategic interests and invest commensurately in their respective defense and security capabilities, the base of the triangle widens, creating a more stable triad that can better withstand and confront global instability.

Moreover, strengthening Europe and Israel strategically and militarily reduces the burden on the United States.

Trump is often his own worst enemy, relying on over-the-top and insolent rhetoric as his preferred means of persuasion. In this case, however, his language, as outlandish as many consider it to be, contained an important warning.

That is, there may come a day when Europe can no longer depend on the United States to protect it. As a result, European leaders need to look after their own countries’ national interests.

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