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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. 

Terrorism not in my name by Tariq Modood

Muslims are now at the centre of two forms of terrorism. On the one hand, acts of terror carried out in the name of Islam and/or to defend a Muslim population by fellow Muslims. And on the other, acts of terror by white supremacists carried out in the name of western, Christian, or European civilisation. How should one respond to terrorism carried out in one’s name?

I put aside for now forms of state terrorism such as those carried out by the US-led alliance in Iraq, by Israel, by the Assad regime in Syria, or by China in Sinkiang, for example, because they deserve a separate discussion.

The first thing to note on the two kinds of terrorism I am interested in is that, globally speaking, the overwhelming majority of the victims are Muslims (just think of Pakistan and countries such as those in which groups like ISIS operate). I shall, however, confine myself to western or white-majority countries. In other words, I am thinking of attacks such as those carried out on the London transport system in 2005 and on Muslim worshipers in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 – where Muslims are a minority and also a minority – albeit not an insignificant one – of the victims.

There are a number of interesting questions that can be asked about the two kinds of violence mentioned at the top of this blog. For example, the two seem to have some kind of causal or reactive connection and one could explore that aspect and wonder if both are set to increase as they feed off and copy one another. One may also ask about the role of religious identity, especially as there seems to be two different dynamics at work. In the case of Islamist-inspired violence, the relationship with religious identity seems direct, even if based on deviant interpretations of Islam. In the case of the Christchurch killer, a direct appeal to Christianity seems to be at best civilizational rather than faith-based; its relationship to religious identity is that it is explicitly in the name of opposition to a specific religious identity, namely Islam, or more precisely to a hatred of Muslims, in other words, Islamophobia.

My question here is: how should those who share the relevant generic named identity (eg., being Muslim, being white, being a Westerner) respond to the violent evocation of their identity by perpetrators of violent crimes? And, further, can there be a basis of cross-arching unity through such responses and bi-sided condemnations?

Since 9/11 many western (and other) Muslims have been numerously asked to condemn Islamist acts of atrocities. While all or nearly all do so, some Islamists and left-wing Muslims also object to non-Muslim fellow citizens asking them to do so. They bristle against the assumption that they might be supportive of such atrocities and ask why is the condemnation sought only from Muslim citizens. Isn’t the desire for public condemnation by their fellow citizens a kind of collective suspicion of all or most Muslims, which is only one step short of collective blame, which would be racist?

Requiring rituals of public condemnation of jihadi terrorism by co-citizens just because they are Muslims may indeed be Islamophobic. But perhaps Muslim co-citizens not spontaneously – without being asked to – distancing themselves from Islamist terrorism shows a diminished civic identity? Or perhaps not?

One test of this, or at least an opportunity to reflect on it, presents itself with the growing white supremacist terrorism. Should white citizens – in virtue of being white and co-citizens – feel obliged to say anything to groups victimised by such terrorists? Are Muslims or other relevant minorities owed a condemnation by co-citizens? Does it matter that such condemnation by white people would reassure and express solidarity with their Muslim co-citizens? Is the requesting of white people to make such a condemnation or the spontaneous making of it by them an acceptance of collective blame and the not making of it, siding with racism and Islamophobia?

While we should not overlook that western Muslims live under a burden of suspicion and stigmatisation with constant pressure to conspicuously exhibit they are good citizens in a way that most white people do not have to, we should all indeed strive to be good citizens. Zealous witch-hunting of Muslims is not good citizenship; but nor is not spontaneously attending to one’s co-citizens fears and anxieties and cultivating forms of solidarity.

Given that the two kinds of attacks that I have been discussing here are likely to grow at least in the short and medium-term and that they are meant to divide communities and citizenries, can bi-sided ‘not in my name’ condemnations rather than the silence of ‘nothing-to-do-with-me’ be the appropriate response of citizens and political leaderships?

This article was originally published on openDemocracy and is part of a series on Global Extremes.

Georgetown Photo.jpg

About the author:

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy and Director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol and a Fellow of the British Academy. His latest books include Multiculturalism: A Civic Idea and Essays on Secularism and Multiculturalism (2019). He recently held a seminar about ‘Accomodating Religious Diversity in Secular Institutions’ at the ISS.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.




What does Modi 2.0 mean for the world’s largest democracy? By Meenal Thakur

The mandate of India’s general election silenced the ‘if not Modi then who’ debate which had been brewing given the country’s economic instability and rising communal polarization.  The historic re-election of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister fundamentally re-ordered the country’s political landscape and reaffirmed people’s faith in him to fulfil their economic aspirations. While critics are wary of the ethno-nationalism that fueled social turmoil under the new government, others look forward to Modi’s promised vision of a ‘New India’ in his second term.

Political analysts called the phenomenon a ‘Modi wave’ that gripped the nation, when in May 2014, Narendra Modi – leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was first elected as the Prime Minister of India by the greatest mandate the country had witnessed in over 30 years.

Five years later, Modi was expected to come back to power but with reduced numbers, however, Modi proved the naysayers wrong. Not only did he get re-elected, but his party won 303 of the 542 parliamentary constituencies, breaking its own record of 282 in 2014. The Modi wave, stronger than ever before, consumed whatever came in its way. BJP candidates, including one with terrorism charges against her, piggybacked on Modi’s popularity and rode their way to the Parliament. The biggest casualty being India’s Grand Old Party- The Indian National Congress which was sent back to the pits as it failed miserably to even win enough seats to become the leader of opposition.

The two sides of Modi’s staggering victory were captured by the Time Magazine days before the election ended. The magazine’s May cover called Modi “India’s Divider-in-chief”- a play on his religious nationalism which has resulted in a hostile environment for Muslims who constitute 14% of India’s population.

However, the magazine also carried a counter-view –‘Modi the Reformer’ where it pinned Modi as India’s best hope for economic reform. A similar line was towed by many publications and political analysts back home- India needs change, the opposition is in shambles and Modi remains the only person who can deliver.

The unassailable megalomaniac

This election and the BJP’s historic mandate raises fundamental questions about the values of secularism and liberalism that are the cornerstones of the world’s largest democracy. While India has taken pride in its diverse social fabric- something that its founding fathers and mothers had cherished deeply as the nation’s strength- Modi’s victory acted as a mirror to the Indian society. Blow by blow, he decimated the popular perception of ‘Unity in Diversity’ and appealed to the darkest corner of the middle-class Hindu’s mind.

Modi fanned, and vehemently so, the burning yet unexposed cauldron of religious intolerance in the Indian society. Issues of rising unemployment and farm distress raised by the opposition were overshadowed by Modi’s hyper nationalism. A strategically crafted election campaign coupled with Modi’s gift of the gab roused powerful emotions in the electorate who were made to believe that Modi was the one who would protect the cow (a sacred animal for Hindus) and the country (in the wake of attacks by Pakistan-based terrorist groups).

To be sure, if the BJP’s thumping victory was a result of a toxic ethno-nationalism which painted the country saffron (the colour of India’s Hindu right wing), it also reflected a resonance with Modi’s economic and foreign policies in the last five years. To his credit, Modi’s first tenure saw improved relations with the United States, China, and Japan. Hugging his counterparts on foreign visits not only made for great optics but also earned him the praise of millions of voters for putting India on the world map.

Back home, his social sector schemes helped him expand the BJP’s voter base from upper-caste Hindus and penetrate the lower caste votes.

Road ahead

The pro-incumbency votes mean that people still believe in Modi’s hallmark motto ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (Collective effort, inclusive growth) and expect him to deliver on reviving economic growth and addressing rising unemployment and farm distress.

Just a day after the BJP government was re-elected, unemployment figures were released showing unemployment at a 45-year high in India. Many allege that the government suppressed the information until the election was over. While the Modi government’s aversion to transparency is the subject matter for another article, let’s just say that the next five years will make or mar the aspirations of millions of unemployed youth constituting more than 50% of the country’s population.

The government also has the task of reviving India’s aviation sector and continue working on the hard-pressed infrastructure sector with the same rigor as shown in its previous term. Challenges will also arise in the health sector for which the government has announced affordable universal health coverage, popularly known as ‘Modicare’- another testament to Brand Modi.

Economic policies aside, Modi’s next term will also shape what political scientist Yogendra Yadav calls ‘the idea of India.’

Concerns have been expressed about the alarming rise of anti-intellectualism as well as subversion of democratic institutions under the BJP government. For example. the appointment of Hindu nationalist ideologue, Swaminathan Gurumurthy (the key person credited with advising Modi to undertake the disastrous demonetization drive in 2016) to the board of the Reserve Bank of India in 2018. However, this is just one of the salvos of the BJP government privileging Hindu religion and identity politics over science and rationality. BJP ministers have in the past dismissed Darwin’s theory of evolution as unscientific.

The next five years will also be crucial for minorities (mostly Muslims and Dalits) who have suffered episodes of mob lynching by self-appointed cow vigilantes who seem to be getting emboldened since the BJP came to power. Silence on Modi’s part and inflammatory statements made by BJP leaders to incite communalism do not bode well for the minorities in India.

The absolute majority with which Modi won has bolstered the already aggressive Hindu right wing and has heightened fears of India heading towards an authoritarian democracy. Nevertheless, the mandate also gives him the legitimate power to decide, act and deliver and, take India on the path of progress.

Meanwhile, the world watches India to see whether the absolute power wrested in Modi would make our worst fears come true. I hope not.

Image Credit: narendramodiofficial on Flickr

Screenshot_20190707-213122About the author:

Meenal Thakur is from India and is currently pursuing her masters in Governance and Development Policy at The International Institute of Social Studies. A former journalist, she wrote on politics and development for one of India’s leading national dailies before joining ISS.