Yes, well, these things do happen. And they happen to people with an iron grip on thoughts and words -- would you believe Woody Allen? A prime exhibitor of other people's confusions?
Woody is in Cannes. He has a new movie, and people who have new movies go to Cannes. The objective is very simple: You are to ingratiate yourself and, derivatively, your new movie. Or the other way around. In any case, you want to leave Cannes with the critics there saying pleasant things of the kind you can deposit in the bank.
So two weeks ago Allen is in Cannes and the subject of French anti-Semitism comes up. The charge has been especially piquant since the dinner party in London a few months ago at the home of Lord (Conrad) Black, where the French ambassador complained about preponderant influences in Mideast politics. All the more annoying, he remarked, given that, after all, Israel is a "sh-tt- little country."
That was at best a diplomatic blunder, at worst, the True Voice of France. Not long after, a number of synagogues in France were defiled and firebombed. Then there was the upset success of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is of course a nationalist and bigot, but will forever be remembered for saying that Nazi gas chambers were a mere "detail of history." And lowering in from the banks of history, always, is the dastardly record of French cooperation in loading French Jews onto trains headed for that detail in history. Most recently on the subject, we had President Jacques Chirac, dining with Mr. Bush in Paris, heatedly denying that the French were anti-Semitic.
So along comes Woody, and the last thing he wants to do is antagonize the French, whose critics are at Cannes and voting. Asked to opine on the question, he volunteered that he had "never felt that the French people in any way were anti-Semitic."
The American Jewish Congress had, in full-page ads, shaken a finger at the gathering in France. The ads called on U.S. film stars and producers to boycott the Cannes film festival in protest against anti-Semitism. "Please consider: France, 1942 ... France, 2002."
Woody Allen rejected boycotts, but said that "the truth is much of the world is anti-Semitic, and to single France out with a boycott seems wrong to me."
Back home, Woody got a letter from Ed Koch. Mr. Koch was mayor of New York, is relentlessly articulate and probing, and will find anti-Semitism even if it is hiding in a cocoon. He is not above finding it where it does not exist, as in his statement a year or so ago that the America First Committee was an anti-Semitic movement.
Anyway, Koch wrote to Woody that "many knowledgeable observers believe anti-Semitism in France and elsewhere in Europe is equal to what it was in 1939. I do too."
Woody replied: "Without getting into it too deeply, let me just say that I do not believe the French are anti-Semitic because I know a number of French Jews who strongly believe they are not."
That's a step improved on saying that he had French Jewish friends. But it hardly handled the question. French Jews who deny national anti-Semitism are hardly difficult to find. Up until Kristallnacht, you could find German Jews who denied national anti-Semitism. Any suggestion that what anti-Semitism there is in France is to be likened to the situation in Nazi Germany would be found preposterous.
But Woody wasn't through. "Try to understand," he wrote Koch, "that when I speak at interviews, I'm there to plug my movie and give fast, impromptu answers to suddenly interjected, complicated questions." But on the question of a boycott of -- movies! -- Allen wrote that a boycott "in certain extreme cases" could be "a justified tactic."
Then Woody apologized for the whole thing. His response "was perhaps too general and based on" his reaction against "clear unfairness to the French."
But was it unfair? We have Woody Allen (a) making an exonerative statement, (b) qualifying it by saying that everybody is that way, (c) reminding us that all he was really interested in was selling his new movie, (d) telling us he knows French Jews who are on his side, and then (e) saying he wished he hadn't said anything on the subject to begin with.
Woody qualifies to act in one of his own movies, as a person caught up in the mumble of his thoughts, like W.