Turkish box office hit has anti-Semitic overtones

los angeles | A Turkish movie featuring a Jewish Army doctor who cuts out the organs of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and sells them to wealthy foreign clients is breaking box-office records in Turkey.

“Valley of the Wolves: Iraq” has been released in a few Arab and European countries, and the producer went to the Berlin International Film Festival in February to find distributors for the United States and additional markets.

The film’s arch villain is a rogue American officer, played by Billy Zane, a self-professed “peacekeeper sent by God.” He and his men shoot up an Iraqi wedding party, killing the groom and his brother in front of their mother and the bride.

Few people in the United States have heard of the movie, let alone seen it, and Jewish organizations have not commented so far. But based on their knowledge of the film’s plot, some conservative columnists, including Debbie Schlussel of FrontPageMagazine.com, have urged Jewish doctors to refuse medical treatment for Zane or Gary Busey, who plays the doctor.

An op-ed in the New York Sun characterized the storyline as “‘Rambo’ as written by Jane Fonda and Michael Moore.”

The executive and associate producers have expressed concern about the reaction of Jewish viewers. At one point, Busey’s character, scolds American soldiers for shooting up the wedding guests, “because it ruins their organs.” In another scene, a group of apparent organ-buyers includes a man clearly dressed as an Orthodox Jew.

Zane’s character is depicted as a psychopathic Christian fundamentalist who may be kind to an Iraqi one moment and kill him the next.

The producers say they oppose all forms of extremism. However, while the characters include both extreme and moderate Muslims and Christians, there is no sympathetic Jewish character to counterbalance the despicable doctor.

Some believe the hostile depiction of Americans and Jews reflects a rise in nationalistic and Islamist feelings in Turkey, the one Muslim nation considered a friend of both the United States and Israel.

The depiction of a Jew cutting out the organs of innocent people “wasn’t created out of thin air. It is a revival of the ancient blood libel against the Jews,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

A Turkish diplomat who asked not to be identified offered a more benign interpretation of the film’s plot and popularity. While noting rising nationalism in Turkey and opposition to the war in Iraq, the diplomat mentioned two incidents insulting to many Turks.

One is the 1978 film “Midnight Express,” in which an American caught leaving Turkey with hashish is thrown into prison and viciously mistreated. One Turkish newspaper wrote, “‘Valley of the Wolves’ is our revenge for ‘Midnight Express.'”

The other was a July 4, 2003 incident in northern Iraq in which troops from a U.S. airborne brigade raided and ransacked a Turkish special-forces headquarters, handcuffed and threw hoods over the heads of 11 officers, and held them for two days. American officials later said the Turkish officers were mistaken for insurgents because they did not wear uniforms.

The Turkish public was outraged and did not accept the American explanation.

“Valley of the Wolves” opens with the 2003 incident and then veers into fiction. Unable to bear the shame of the hooding, one of the Turkish officers commits suicide. His farewell letter reaches Polat Alemdar, a legendary Turkish intelligence officer and James Bond-like character, who sets out to avenge the suicide.

In the end, Alemdar and his men track down Zane and his soldiers. With the help of Iraqi fighters, they wipe out the Americans in a bloody battle.

At the film’s premiere, attended by the Turkish prime minister, the mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, told the Associated Press that the movie “was very successful” adding, “A soldier’s honor must never be damaged.”

Beyond these factors, the movie owes most of its success to the fact that it’s a spinoff from a television series of the same name, which has been Turkey’s top-rated show for the past three years, the diplomat said. In the TV show, the hero battles the Turkish mafia and its links with ultra-nationalist militants and the state intelligence service, rather than pursuing Americans.

“What makes the film so popular is not the anti-American or anti-Semitic slant, but the hugely successful TV series,” the diplomat said. “Even if the protagonist were fighting against radical Islamic terrorists, the movie would have the same success.

“If there is a ‘Valley of the Wolves II,’ you shouldn’t be surprised if the hero fights against al Qaida or hunts down Osama bin Laden.”

JTA correspondent Toby Axelrod in Berlin contributed to this story.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent