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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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COVID-19 | Another top priority in times of crisis: keep democratic life up and running by Isabelle Desportes

The coronavirus crisis seems to have reduced societal functioning to the bare minimum as an increasing number of governments have limited freedom of movement in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. The introduction of several such authoritative measures needs to be counterbalanced by active citizens who continue to uphold democratic life and question these measures themselves, argues Isabelle Desportes, who studies how humanitarian emergencies are handled in settings where this is not the case. ‘Authoritarian dangers’ are not only a concern for far-away countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’, as European attempts are showing us these very days.


It is inherent to times of crises: many decisions and emergency legislative mechanisms will be enforced in countries all over the world these coming days and weeks. While such centralistic measures are often necessary, they also bear the risk of infringing on an effective and socially just handling of the pandemic now, and will shape our societies on the long term.

My research on disaster responses in Myanmar, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe showed that while responses to the disasters (a flood in 2015 in Myanmar and crippling drought in 2016 in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe) were mostly coordinated and efficient, the political contexts in which the disaster occurred meant that discussions on disaster preparedness and the modalities of relief were ignored. Important dynamics were observed for the three contexts: as the disasters destroyed homes, disrupted livelihoods and uprooted communities, their intense impacts had to be handled in the midst of ongoing marginalization of certain population groups at the hands of other groups and/or the state. Disaster responders were highly mobilized, but with little space to openly debate the modalities of relief, to have full insight into the extent of needs, and to raise concerns.

Following the disasters, a number of longer-term changes could be observed, according to the 271 disasters responders that I interviewed and who were active in organizations ranging from community groups to United Nations bodies:

  1. The already marginalized were impacted most strongly by the disasters, being the most vulnerable to start with (with limited coping capacities and safety nets, fewer rights, a lack of voice and bargaining power);
  2. Disaster responses were not always carried out in the common interest of societies at large and in accordance with humanitarian principles, but could serve as a conduit for violence, and to further enforce the interests of a few[i];
  3. This was mostly achieved not via bold announcements and clear restrictions, but through everyday acts. This includes how data is collected, analysed and shared as part of disaster needs assessments, or which seemingly bureaucratic conditions are tied to response mechanisms. The manner in which certain topics are routinely framed in public discourse also bears importance. When certain issues are not discussed transparently or not discussed at all, they cannot be taken care of[ii].

Myanmar seems to have embarked on a dubious handling of the coronavirus crisis already, denying cases of COVID-19 infections so far. But, crucially, the above described is not only a matter of concern for faraway countries long labelled as ‘hopeless pariah states’. In a 2019 article, political scientist Marlies Glasius highlights how authoritarianism applies not to entire regimes in an ‘all or nothing’ fashion, but to patterns of action that sabotage accountability between the people and their political representatives “by means of secrecy, disinformation and disabling voice”. Such practices can be applied everywhere, including in democratic settings.

The risk of this happening is especially high in situations of crisis, which, quite rightly so, call for urgent and extraordinary measures. Political leaders from France to Spain recently proclaimed that they were ‘waging wars’—rhetoric that bears the risk of stifling criticism and pluralistic views in the name of ‘national unity and security’. In academic jargon, such moves are termed ‘securitization[iii]. In Israel, the transitional government just pushed through the use of mass surveillance techniques on civilians to ‘monitor the virus’. This move is not approved nor overseen by the Knesset, to the dismay of many lawyers and human rights organizations. The Hungarian parliament might have to enter a phase of imposed hibernation, and journalists could be fined for propagating ‘fake news’. In several European countries, governments are currently negotiating with telecommunication companies to track population movements. One of the advanced arguments? ‘This was effective in China’. Yet, these privacy-invading practices can also be difficult to unwind, and can set precedents.

A key democratic concern is not only how decisions are taken, but also whether they are taken in the common interest of societies at large. Our political representatives, the media, but also every one of us have a crucial role to play in this. Social and environmental issues must be kept central, not only serve as adjustment variables to the economic or political interests of a few. To take one example even closer to home: in the Netherlands, the government is currently likely to financially support airline company KLM, which would quickly go back to launching its climate-destroying 500,000 flights a year. If such an action really is in the collective long-term interest in our times of climate breakdown deserves to be discussed.

So yes: stay home, wash your hands. But also, depending on your possibilities and preferences, and picking your fights such as to not enter into senseless clicktivism: keep our democracies alive and ensure that institutions are held accountable for the decisions they take now. This crisis can be a political turning point, and it is for all of us to make that future a desirable one.

Follow parliamentary debates and news on government decisions, interact with your political representatives, check whether political and technical institutions act in line with their mandates, keep informed about social realities different from your own, send in reader letters and challenge the media to relay these different social realities and issues, financially support independent media and civil society advocacy groups, join ‘online demonstrations’ (see for instance the alternatives proposed for the Belgian march against racism last weekend), keep mobilized within your party, union or civil society collectives, or even create your own.  And any other basic to creative means you might come up with, and would like to share in the comments?

[i] In Myanmar for instance, the government has long aimed to homogenise its multi-ethnic and religious peoples into a unified Buddhist and Bamar entity. During the response to 2015 cyclone Komen, state aid was biased against religious and ethnic minority groups, and self-help and non-state aid initiatives to help those groups were grossly hampered. Muslim communities were forcibly relocated in military vehicles following the floods, state aid was distributed from monasteries not accessible to non-Buddhist groups, and the Rohingya minority was framed in public discourse as not worthy of support.
[ii] This is linked to self-censorship practices, which I discussed with colleague Roanne van Voorst in another blog.
[iii] The term is generally associated with the Copenhagen School.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


IsabelleAbout the author:

Isabelle Desportes is a PhD researcher involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict” at the ISS.