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Misleading narratives distort antisemitism discourses

Bigotry, in all its forms, is steadily rising. Clearly, being non-racist is not enough; we need to be anti-racist to be able to combat race-related bigotry once and for all. This principle should indeed apply to all forms of bigotry, including antisemitism. However, as this article explains, misleading narratives in the documentary film Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations distort our understanding, and even serve as a cover, for other forms of intolerance, which can move us closer to bigotry instead of further away from it.

Ferguson is Palestine
© George Latuff, Middle East Monitor.

Anti-black racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry are on the rise in Europe and elsewhere in the world, according to annual reports of the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance. As a result, people are rising up in protest through #BlackLivesMatter and other movements. The global outcry and calls for change following the police killing of George Floyd vividly reveals just how prevalent racism still is. Yet, it is also clear how some organizations purporting to challenge such hate crimes can use an anti-racist message as “cover” for other forms of bigotry and intolerance, as a recent documentary has also done.

Antisemitism in films and documentaries

In cinematography, antisemitism, like other forms of bigotry, often has been afforded special attention. As a Jewish youth growing up in my congregation, I watched many of these movies dealing with antisemitism—from classics such as Ben-Hur (1959) to the more recent Schindler’s List (1993). One of the most recent and acclaimed documentaries I saw was the bold 2009 film Defamation by Israeli film-maker Yoav Shamir. I was therefore curious about how antisemitism was dealt with in the recently released documentary Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations by the American film-maker Andrew Goldberg. However, I felt very dispirited after watching it. Rather than meaningfully addressing the very real problem of antisemitism in the world, this documentary reproduces misleading narratives that distort discourses on antisemitism.

In this article, I will explain how the film-maker argues that there is a moral equivalence between four different forms or “mutations” of antisemitism and what’s wrong with this conceptualization of it.

Four “mutations” of antisemitism

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations attempts to show how four different examples of antisemitism manifest in present-day society and the “logics” that purportedly drive antisemitism. The documentary is intended to provide what the film-maker regards as an honest view of antisemitism, but is so unbalanced that it ends up having the opposite effect.

In Part I of the movie, the focus is on the Far Right in the USA. After very moving, personal testimonies by victims of various violent antisemitic attacks, the documentary turns to an interview with a Mr. Walker, who is running for the state legislature in North Carolina. Walker insists that “God likes whites more than blacks”, argues that black persons and Muslims are the same, and finally reproduces a typical antisemitic conspiracy trope that “the Jew was created to destroy white Christian nations”. George Will, a prize-winning Washington Post columnist, then sums up the perverse “logic” behind antisemitism: “In a healthy society that has problems, people ask ‘what did we do to cause this’? In an unhealthy society that has problems, they say ‘who did this to us’? And the Jews are always a candidate.”

In Part II, the focus is on a smear campaign by the right-wing, nationalist president of Hungary, Victor Orban, aimed at the liberal Hungarian-American businessman and philanthropist George Soros. Classic antisemitic tropes are invoked, presenting clear examples of antisemitism through the use of grotesque cartoons and photoshopped images of Soros with exaggerated Judaic features. Moreover, the Hungarian media juxtaposes images of Muslims entering the country against accusations that they are “inundating your culture” and, moreover, are part of a “Soros plan”. Posters, billboards and television ads all reinforce these patently antisemitic and Islamophobic messages.

I am disgusted. However, something crucial is missing. While examples of antisemitism by Orban and others in his government are well established, paradoxically, as one interviewed professor notes, Orban does not want to be accused of antisemitism. Indeed, “he wants to pose with ‘them’—he even wears the hat”. Why is it, then, that Orban, his political party and the Hungarian government crudely reproduce antisemitic tropes while simultaneously object to being called antisemitic? The film-maker doesn’t address this crucial issue at all, also avoiding Orban’s very public cultivation of diplomatic ties with the State of Israel.

Further omissions are apparent in Part III of the film, which purports to focus on antisemitism among the “Far Left” in the United Kingdom. There is no mention of antisemitism within the Conservative Party. The focus is squarely on the Labour Party. The accusation is that Labour’s alleged antisemitism problem is due to “left-wing extremists” who condemn capitalism, criticize Israel and therefore by definition are antisemitic. This is both highly unconvincing and inflammatory, reinforced by interviews with embittered former Labour members who are also vocal supporters of Israel (and neo-liberal economic policies), such as former Labour leader Tony Blair.

Totally unaddressed are what these so-called “left-wing extremists” criticize, namely Israel’s discriminatory and brutal policies against Palestinians that have been labelled as an “apartheid regime”. While maintaining its thin claims against “leftists”, the film-maker fails entirely to engage with the many critics of these claims, such as Jamie Stern Weiner or Mehdi Hasan. Or with a comprehensive report on distorted media coverage of the Labour Party by Dr. Justin Scholsberg of Birkbeck College and journalist Laura Laker. Or with the book Bad News for Labour: Antisemitism, The Party and Public Belief by award-winning journalists and academics Greg Philo, Mike Berry, Justin Scholsberg, Antony Lerman and David Miller. To name but a few.

Part IV focuses exclusively on what the filmmaker describes as “Islamic radicalism” in France. The primary perpetrators of antisemitism, it is claimed, are “Islamic extremists”. Brief reference is made to what is described as “France’s colonial experiment”, which led to hundreds of thousands of Muslims to move to France. The implication is that those suffering from “post-colonialism” have a problem. Rather than acknowledge the country’s expansive Islamophobia, the film-maker plays directly into it, asserting that, based on “surveys”, one-third of Muslims in France are antisemitic, as compared with ten percent of non-Muslims. The suggestion that Muslims are far-more inclined than anyone else to hate Jews is both unsubstantiated, based on anecdotal examples and utterly fails to address the historical context of both antisemitism and Islamophobia.

 Time for a serious discussion about antisemitism

As the film does reveal, there is clearly a problem of antisemitism (as well as Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry and intolerance), deserving of a serious discussion. However, the film is so filled with distortions that it doesn’t help to really understand, let alone combat this problem.

The film’s fatal flaw, noted elsewhere by Michelle Goldberg, is its conflation of criticisms of Israel and antisemitism. Indeed, this becomes a conspiracy theory of its own that “people hate Israel because they simultaneously hate the Jews, capitalism, and Western democracy”. Moreover, by interspersing credible examples of antisemitism with highly questionable examples, the selective treatment of these four “mutations” and the drawing of a moral equivalence between them critically undermine the very important goal of addressing antisemitism.

The need for critical reflection

The global fight against bigotry must be taken seriously. Hence, a serious and balanced documentary about antisemitism would be something different entirely. It would acknowledge the context of antisemitism as being part of a broader pattern of hatred, intolerance and discrimination affecting many persecuted groups. It would include constructive criticism of the film-maker’s assumptions. And finally, it would not make simplistic and distorted assumptions that critics of Israel’s expansionist, colonial and discriminatory regime are de facto antisemitic.

Jeff Handmaker

About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here. 

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Legal mobilization to end impunity for international crimes by Jeff Handmaker

In 2014, on the 20th of July, the Israeli military targeted and bombed a home in a refugee camp in Gaza, killing several family members of Saad Ziada, including his mother and three brothers. Since this day, Mr. Ziada, a Dutch citizen and resident of the Netherlands, has persistently been seeking justice through legal mobilization. Ziada’s search for justice reveals the immense challenges faced by individuals and organizations seeking to hold individuals accountable for international crimes through different forms of legal mobilization.


It hasn’t been an easy journey. Ziada’s family were some of the 2000 killed, overwhelmingly civilians, during this large-scale Israeli military operation, which was extensively documented by United Nations investigators as well as representatives of Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations. Numerous reports, including extensive dossiers that have been submitted to the International Criminal Court in The Hague as part of a preliminary examination, allege that international crimes were committed during Israel’s 2014 military operation.

Holding individuals accountable who were allegedly responsible in either Gaza or Israel has been a non-starter. The Israeli government has not even acknowledged that crimes took place, let alone pursued investigations against the alleged individuals responsible for those crimes. Ziada has therefore been compelled to seek justice elsewhere.

The most common response to any crime committed by an individual is prosecution in the country where the crimes took place. Obviously, this is an unrealistic prospect in a country that is led by a government unwilling to even acknowledge that such crimes took place. But international crimes have a special character.

International crimes are described in the preamble of the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court as “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity”. Accordingly, multiple alternatives to prosecute international crimes have gradually emerged on the basis of what is described as “universal jurisdiction”. These alternatives include prosecution by the International Criminal Court or other specialized tribunal and prosecution in a “third country” that may have little to no association with the crime committed or the nationality of the alleged perpetrator.

The person who is prosecuted for international crimes doesn’t even need to have committed the alleged crimes themselves. For example, the Netherlands prosecuted the Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven in relation to his complicity in war crimes committed in Liberia. In 2017, the Dutch Court of Appeal found Kouwenhoven to be criminally liable for his complicity in these crimes.

Alongside criminal jurisdiction, there is the possibility to sue an individual who is alleged to have committed an international crime for damages in a civil court. This is currently the basis of the case that has been brought to the Dutch District Court in The Hague by Ziada. The case is being brought against two Israeli military commanders who were believed to have ordered the bombing, including the former General Chief of Staff of the Israeli military, Benny Gantz, who has been campaigning to become president of Israel.

Universal jurisdiction received significant attention in our 2019 book Mobilising International Law for ‘Global Justice’, particularly in a chapter by Aisling O’ Sullivan. O’Sullivan argued how the struggle for ending impunity for international crimes is locked in a struggle between two competing approaches: on the one hand, there is a desire to hold individuals accountable for the most heinous of crimes; on the other, there is a desire to maintain order between nations which can be disrupted by these kinds of criminal trials. What further complicates matters are the different power positions between states and the tendency to give “deference to the interests of powerful states” (p. 180).

Universal jurisdiction was also the topic of a seminar that I co-organized in 2010 with Professor Liesbeth Zegveld, the outcome of which was contained in an ISS Working Paper. One of the key observations at this seminar was that “while some governments show a willingness to prosecute these crimes, others see this as a ‘problem’ and even advising their nationals / soldiers not to travel abroad” (p. 14).

What we observed then as a “relatively new area of the law” (p. 15) is now gaining currency, particularly in the courts of the Netherlands. Zegveld, who is also a prominent human rights lawyer, has represented several individuals and groups who have been seeking justice for international crimes committed against them and their loved ones. This includes the family of three men, including Rizo Mustafic, an electrician, who were killed during a massacre in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovnia by Serbian military forces in 1995. A Dutch military contingent was part of a United Nations military force stationed in Srebrenica at the time and was said to have mostly stood by while the massacre took place. In September 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court confirmed that the Dutch military commanders were partly responsible for not taking sufficient action to try and prevent the massacre.

Apart from the obvious political sensitivities involved in holding individuals accountable for international crimes, these kinds of cases are incredibly complex, not least the challenges of gathering evidence to prove what happened. There are also various cultural and other challenges associated with international criminal justice, particularly through international criminal tribunals, which I have discussed in other academic work.

Zegveld represents Ziada in the case that will be heard on 17th September, 2019. Will the outcome of this particular case of legal mobilization further advance the struggle against impunity for international crimes? There can be little doubt that international lawyers, human rights groups and concerned individuals around the world will be awaiting the outcome of this hearing with great anticipation.


Image Credit: Palestine Justice Campaign


JeffHandmakerISS
About the author:

Jeff Handmaker is a senior researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) and focuses on legal mobilisation.

He is a regular author for Bliss. Read all his posts here. 

 

 

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