Does "Hollywood" have a moral responsibility to tell the truth about history, or does it enjoy a special right to perpetuate stereotypes and distortions?
These are the profound questions raised by the film "Never Forget," which aired last week on TNT.
The film tells the story of Mel Mermelstein, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who fought and won a landmark lawsuit against the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), an organization of revisionists who try to revise history to persuade the world that the Jewish Holocaust never occurred.
Mermelstein's battle is historically significant, and I was grateful that he was portrayed as the hero that he is by Leonard Nimoy.
What was profoundly disturbing to me, however, was how the film distorted the historical record about the role that the Jewish community played in winning his case.
Their role is made an issue by the producers early in the film when they depict Mermelstein as seeking assistance from two Jewish organizations. Mermelstein wants to accept a challenge made to him by the IHR, who offer him a reward if he proves that Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. The Jewish organizations are portrayed as not providing Mermelstein any assistance and, in one case, as being insensitive and even hostile to Mermelstein's desire to respond.
Mermelstein, refusing to give up, is then shown as being rescued by an Irish Catholic lawyer, played by Dabney Coleman, who takes the case and is portrayed as working alone.
In the last scene, a court agrees to grant a motion for judicial notice, which means that the fact that the Holocaust occurred would not have to be proven at the subsequent trial.
The film ends with a smiling Nimoy walking into the hallway and shaking hands with Coleman, who is beaming as a voice says, "As a result of Mermelstein vs. The Institute for Historical Review, the Holocaust became a recognized fact in a U.S. Court for the first time. The Institute subsequently made a financial settlement and signed a letter of apology to Mel Mermelstein and other survivors of the Holocaust."
The clear message from this juxtaposition of smiling client and attorney is that the Irish Catholic lawyer won the letter of apology and financial settlement too.
Although the film has a powerful and true message about the Holocaust, in my opinion, it is irresponsible in its clear distortion, omissions and misrepresentations of the role that the Jewish community played in this case.
The film's message appears to be that if a Jewish person needs help, he will have to get it outside of his own community because the Jewish community is insensitive to, or will not help, its own people.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that Jewish lawyers were part of a team that assisted Mermelstein's lawyer (who, by the way, in reality was neither Irish nor Catholic) in preparing the motion for judicial notice. Further, after the motion for judicial notice was decided, Mel's "Irish Catholic" lawyer withdrew from the case. Jewish lawyers in my firm then took the case and won it.
We spent thousands of hours and three years litigating it. We won the apology and the financial settlement that was mentioned in the film but falsely attributed to the "Irish Catholic" lawyer. In addition, we won a $5.25-million jury verdict for Mermelstein against the only defendant who refused to settle.
Why does this matter?
It matters because Jewish people are entitled to the truth about Jewish history. Stereotypes that portray Jewish people as not caring about other Jews, or as not having the courage or sense to stand up for each other, are harmful to the very existence of the Jewish people and to the self-esteem and pride of the Jewish community.
The Holocaust itself was made possible because of lies told by the Nazis about the Jewish people and their role in history.
Jewish people are entitled to the truth about their invaluable contribution to the winning of Mel Mermelstein's victory against those who would revise history. Their role should not be discounted, ignored or attributed to others.
The producers had a duty to share this truth. They should not use the excuse of time limitations or dramatic license as a reason to distort the historical record.
Like Mel Mermelstein, the Jewish people have not just been victims. They have been, and continue to be, leaders in the battle for truth.
This too is a story that must be told and a lesson that Hollywood must never forget.