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PBS film explores recent rise of anti-Semitism in U.S., Europe

Russell Walker (right) was a candidate for North Carolina's State House in 2018. His racist statements prompted the North Carolina Republican Party to withdraw its support for him. (Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations)

A new PBS documentary, “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” will premiere May 26.

The film, which will air at 9 p.m. on Arizona Public Media’s channel 6, explores the rise and spread of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe in recent years.

The project has been underway for more than three years, so the “Viral” title, so timely in this current COVID-19 pandemic era, is pure coincidence, Andrew Goldberg, the New York-based director, writer, and producer, told the AJP.

Anti-Semitism, Goldberg says, “has infected countries, communities, organizations, and individuals around the world for some 2,000 years. About three years ago, there were a number of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. that caught my attention.” One of these was the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.

“I realized there were few if any films that really explored what anti-Semitism is, where it comes from, and how it harms,” Goldberg says.

Doing further research, his team learned that while anti-Semitism was growing in the U.S., it had been growing much faster in Europe.

Jean-Luc Slakmon, who survived the 2018 HyperCacher kosher supermarket shooting in Paris, returns to the scene. (Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations)

“Viral” focuses on the far right in the U.S, the far left in England, a government propaganda campaign in Hungary, and violent acts including murder in France.

The filmmakers chose these incidents and locations because “we wanted to pick examples that were entirely different from one another,” Goldberg says.

“Far-right anti-Semitism,” he explains, “is often driven by people who challenge social progress and progressives. The Pittsburgh shooter blamed a Jewish organization for bringing immigrants to the U.S. — and he opposed immigration. In England, the far-left anti-Semitism comes from many of the very progressives that the far-right dislikes. It is very focused on its dislike of Israel, in ways far beyond its dislike of any other country. What’s more, this criticism of Israel often turns directly to blatant anti-Semitism. So here you have two forms of anti-Semitism which come from the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum yet lead to the same result.”

Dozens of special guests include former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair; Deborah Lipstadt, author of “Antisemitism: Here and Now”; a former white supremacist; rabbis; journalists; and survivors of the Pittsburgh shooting and the HyperCacher supermarket shooting in France in January 2015.

What always surprises him, says Goldberg, is to see “just how deep into societies this anti-Semitism runs.”

For example, although he was aware of anti-Semitism in France, the extent of the violence was a shock. “There’s a lot of it that isn’t discussed. I’m not even talking about what goes unreported. These people were pulling their kids out of schools; there’s bullying, and there’s beatings, and there’s fights and harassment, and none of that makes the papers. Nothing makes it onto any kind of discussion outside of the immediate community.”

The French government, he points out, tries very hard not to peg crimes against any particular ethnic group or community as hate crimes. Unlike in the U.S., where ethnicity is celebrated, the French ideology, founded in “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” is to celebrate “Frenchness.” It makes tracking crimes against Jews — or other groups — very difficult.

Noting that he is neither a social scientist or an activist, Goldberg says he’s pessimistic about any solution for anti-Semitism.

“Historically the world has been highly unsuccessful at arresting [anti-Semitism],” he says. “The single event that put Europe on its best behavior was the Holocaust. Never before did you see Germany so committed to fighting anti-Semitism as you did shortly after 1945.”

Germany, he says, banned political parties, made reparations, gave money to Israel, and embarked on educational programs about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. “You never saw any European country do anything like that for its Jews. Basically you saw every single European country on its best behavior with respect to Jews in its history,” although there were plenty of mistakes made and “big aberrations in places like Poland,” he says.

“Now that’s all being forgotten. Seventy years later, that whole generation of people is dying off. The Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans. People that were in power then are gone,” he says. “What does that leave you with?”