PBS Television. May 26, 2020
Reviewed by Dr. Eugene Fisher Distinguished Professor of Theology, Saint Leo University
This excellent televised analysis of antisemitism likens it to an unstoppable virus, most appropriate for this time when the world is grappling with the ongoing threats of the outbreak of coronavirus/Covid-19. It is a helpful metaphor for the “infection” of antisemitism in European history. Antisemitism evolved from the ancient Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism, which goes back to the earliest centuries of Christian history and morphed into numerous forms over those centuries. Christian anti-Jewish teachings provided the basis for what in the 19th century was to become modern racial antisemitism.
What distinguishes the Christian teaching of contempt from antisemitism is the notion of race. Whereas, under Christianity, a Jew could escape opprobrium and be accepted into society by converting to the “true” faith, under the racial theory the subhuman status of Jews is ingrained in their genes, their “race.” The term antisemitism was invented by a Jew-hating German who wanted to make his hatred more acceptable by using a pseudo-scientific term. This pseudo-scholar, though, did not understand the meaning or origin of the word he used. “Semite” has nothing to do with race. It refers to a group of languages which evolved from an original Semitic tongue. These include Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, so “Semitic” refers not to a race but simply a wide range of folks who speak related languages.
I watched this television program in the safety of my home. Interestingly, I am about half-way through a book, Norman Lebrecht, Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947 (New York: Scribner, 2019, xx + 439 pp.). This book narrates the lives of the many Jews of that period, such as Sigmund Freud and so many other thinkers and artists who contributed so much to the development of Western civilization in that period. Shadowing over all of these individual stories, of course, was the spread of the disease of antisemitism in the larger society, the source of the anxiety of the book's title. In this way the book provides the larger historical context for the contemporary antisemitic developments narrated in the television show.
Viral features experts in science and history, as well as appearances by such notables as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Julianna Margulies. It notes that as with medical viruses there have been thousands of mutations of anti-Jewishness and antisemitism over the course of time. Some, though the show does not note this, can be seen reflected in the attacks on Jews and Judaism narrated in the Hebrew Scriptures, one of the main themes of which is the ability of Jews, divinely inspired, to survive over the centuries.
The TV show is organized around “four mutations” of the antisemitic disease in recent history: the United States, Hungary, the United Kingdom and widespread Islamic radicalism, especially in France.
In the US, the narration centers on the massacre of eleven people by a single gunman in the Tree of Life Synagogue. It plays the police tapes while showing scenes of what happened. A member of the synagogue laments that this incident reflects the reality that some Americans still do not consider Jews to be fully American: “We are the other and will always be unwelcome here.” The narrative notes that some people, who oppose equality for African Americans, i.e. White Nationalists, believe that “the Jews” were behind behind the movement for civil rights in the 1960's and beyond. In point of fact, most American Jews and many others, including many Catholics, favored the civil rights movement. I myself, helped to organize the entire student body and faculty of Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit to join a march sympathizing with the marches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the marches in Selma. This section also noted the attacks on the Rodef Shalom synagogue and that in Poway, California, featuring an insightful interviews with Bill Clinton and with the scholar of the Holocaust and antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, who points to the view of many antisemites that Jews are “globalists,” i.e. not fully American patriots.
The second “mutation” of the virus is depicted in Hungary, in which right-wing politicians seeking to grab power pointed, beginning in 2010 and continuing today, blame George Soros, who is pointedly depicted as Jewish, as spending his money to bring in Muslim immigrants into the country in order to wipe out its Christian nature. Soros has indeed helped immigrants, but he has also spent millions building up the infrastructure of Hungary to help all in need and to make it a viable democracy, which it seeks to be.
The third mutation comes from the far left in the United Kingdom, in which antisemitism infused the Labour Party, unopposed by its leader, James Corbyn, who has since been kicked out of office by the UK's voters. This section goes into the way in which valid critiques of the policies and practices of the Israeli government can morph into opposition to the very existence of the Jewish state, and then into modern racial antisemitism.
The fourth and last section deals with Islamic radicalism in Paris and throughout France, which it rightly and carefully distinguishes from Islam as such and from the views of mainstream Muslims. This centers on the gunman who burst into a kosher grocery market in Paris and shot all the people he encountered. A survivor of the attack narrates what happened and the fact that the gunman kept shouting “All Jews must die!” Obviously and tragically this murderer was trying to achieve a one man genocide of the Jewish people, modelled obviously on Adolf Hitler.
I highly recommend this program to all who can see it. I would recommend that it be shown to dialogue groups of Jews and Christians, and trialogue groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It would also be helpful in groups dealing with other intergroup, interreligious and intercultural discussions. It would be very helpful in classrooms, since the next generation and future generations must learn the evils of antisemitism and strive for ways to combat it so this virus, and similar hate viruses do not fatally affect future generations of Americans.
The show asks, but does not fully answer, the key question of “why now?” Why is there such an upsurge in our times of this hateful virus?
One can ask, in closing, whether this TV show has provided some kind of cure for the disease that is antisemitism or a vaccine to protect viewers from becoming antisemites, now and in the future.
If not now, when will it be stopped?