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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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Distorted anti-Semitism allegations in UK’s Labour Party are a cover for Israeli apartheid by Jeff Handmaker

On 18 February 2019, Luciana Berger and six other British Members of Parliament (MPs) left the UK Labour Party. The most prominent reason provided by the departing MPs, led by Berger, is that the Party had become ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’, due mostly – or so it would appear – to Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s outspoken criticisms of the Israeli government and military. As discussed in this blogpost, which draws on a longer article published on Mondoweiss, these allegations are both dangerous distortions of anti-Semitism and serve as a shameful cover for Israel’s regime of apartheid.


In the extensive reporting that followed the departure of the Labour MPs, a Spectator columnist alleged that this was the beginning of the end for Labour, while the Guardian claimed that the party faced an anti-Semitism crisis. It was hardly mentioned in any of this reporting that the seven Labour Party members who decided to leave were all closely tied with Labour Friends of Israel, an avowedly pro-Israel organisation. Berger is its former director.

A report by the Media Reform Coalition identified ‘myriad inaccuracies and distortions’ in the reporting of anti-Semitism claims against the Labour Party, which prompted a public statement by prominent journalists and scholars. Fomenting a strategy of disinformation is consistent with claims made by Jonathan Cook, a highly respected author and long-time journalist, who has established that the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs has long been actively seeking to marginalise its critics through a range of measures.

But where did the anti-Semitism claim come from?

The IHRA Definition

The contemporary ‘debate’ over anti-Semitism within the Labour Party relates to August 2018, when pro-Israel members of the party proposed the incorporation of a highly controversial definition of anti-Semitism. Called the “Working Definition of Antisemitism” and drafted in 2016 by a group called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the IHRA definition contains vague and dangerously far-reaching conflations of criticisms of Israel and references to the holocaust.

The lobby to incorporate the IHRA definition was fierce and unrelenting, largely led by Berger and others affiliated with Labour Friends of Israel. At the time of the August 2018 debate, there were even efforts to smear Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz who had once spoken at a Labour Party rally where he made comparisons between the Nazi regime and his observations of Israeli policies. Meyer, an outspoken retired theoretical physicist, recorded his experiences in a moving memoir The End of Judaism: An Ethical Tradition Betrayed, published in 2012.

Steven Garside, a member of the UK Labour Party and Palestine Solidarity Campaign who strongly opposed the IHRA definition, maintained that erroneous allegations of anti-Semitism were in fact related to Corbyn’s harsh criticisms of the Israeli government and military. Ash Sarkar of the Sandberg Instituut condemned the move as a threat to free expression. Prominent human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson warned that the definition would suppress legitimate criticism of Israel while failing to cover genuine cases of anti-Semitism.

But despite these criticisms and warnings, Labour ultimately decided to incorporate the definition in full.

Since then, emboldened by the wide-ranging IHRA definition, groups such as Labour Friends of Israel and the Jewish Chronicle, with very little substantiation, have sought to equate criticism of Israel as “Jew hate”.

For liberal supporters of Israel, adopting the IHRA definition has been a crucial strategy. However, the true aim of such vacuous, yet highly damaging allegations is to avoid a critical dialogue on Israel’s policies of apartheid against Palestinians. Unlike South Africa apartheid, which from the 1960s became increasingly reported, understood and eventually condemned, Israeli apartheid has been shamefully underreported and is far less understood.

So what does Israeli apartheid look like?

The many forms of apartheid in Israel

Israeli apartheid takes many forms, whether this be the overt racism enshrined in Israel’s 2018 “Nation-State law” that discontinued Arabic as an official language, which is now being challenged in Court, or Israel’s continued blockade and bombing of Gaza (since 2005) that is currently the subject of a preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court.

Apartheid also takes the form of literally hundreds of insidious Israeli military orders, including Order 101 that makes it impossible for Palestinians to legally protest. Israeli regulations make it virtually impossible for Palestinians to build a home. This is due to the fact that Israel’s land and zoning regulations are, according to Israel’s Basic Law, oriented around “preserving” the land for Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.

But the most insidious manifestations of Israeli apartheid are the decades-long, everyday experiences of Palestinians. Farmers have to stand in long lines to reach their sheep in the agricultural village of Qalandia (that is surrounded by a high, concrete wall). School children in Hebron cannot walk to school without being stopped daily by soldiers at a military checkpoint to check the contents of their schoolbags. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has heard numerous cases of official abuse against Palestinian women, including a seven-month pregnant woman assaulted at a checkpoint.

Given these examples, and much more, of Israel’s apartheid policies, it is exasperating that there is such a resistance to criticise Israel. And yet, this is exactly what happens. Liberal groups such as Labour Friends of Israel in the UK, Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands and others repeatedly fuel the public’s outrage on anti-Semitism through disingenuous use of the IHRA definition, yet simultaneously maintain a silence that Israel’s policies amount to apartheid, not unlike the approach of like-minded liberal groups in Israel.

Apartheid cannot compete with a global social justice movement

Just as was ultimately the case in South Africa, neither Israel’s government, nor its most adamant, liberal supporters, can compete with a global social justice movement committed to ending Israel’s regime of apartheid. Rooted in equal rights claims, this movement is bolstered by growing judicial attention to Israel’s commission of war crimes and a highly successful, Palestinian-led global campaign of boycott divestment and sanctions (BDS).

The success of the BDS movement is acknowledge to have transformed the debate on Israel-Palestine. Indeed, as prominent Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has put it, BDS has been a true success story for the movement, succeeding to undermine Israel’s strongly cultivated image as a liberal democracy.

The conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that just like those who turned a blind eye for decades to apartheid in South Africa, the failure of Luciana Berger, Labour Friends of Israel, CIDI, and others to confront Israeli apartheid will place them all on the wrong side of history.


Image Credit: https://www.stopthewall.org/apartheid-wrong


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.