Friday, May 31, 2013

Tabloid Treatment: Martin Himel’s New Documentary Series on Anti-Semitism

The inelegantly titled Jew Bashing: The New Anti-Semitism, Martin Himel’s four-part documentary series which ended on Vision TV on May 27, is certainly of vital import in terms of its relevant subject matter. But, regrettably, its execution, which often tended towards tabloid treatment and eschewing of nuance, rendered it too much of a sop to those who prefer dumbed-down, simple takes on important issues of the day. That’s not to say there’s not much of value in the series – there definitely is – but Himel, for a number of reasons, many having to do with the limitations and rules of commercial TV, didn’t do full justice to his subject.

Martin Himel (left) with an interview subject
The series was divided into four hour-long parts, including commercials, dealing with the realities of anti-Semitism in, respectively, the Middle East, Europe, the U.S.A. and Canada. Sometimes using hidden cameras, not my favourite mode of journalism, Himel dealt with all manner of present day anti-Semitic manifestations. Those range from age-old conspiracy theories postulating that Jews pull the strings of world governments and run the media and the banks to those groups who disguise their anti-Semitism through anti-Zionism, attempting to delegitimize the Jewish state of Israel by falsely labeling it an "apartheid" state and solely condemning it for its so-called “crimes” while ignoring the real human rights abusers, such as Iran, China, and the Arab world, on the planet.

It’s a lot to chew on and to his credit Himel never makes you doubt the veracity of what he is showing you. Anti-Semitism does exist, is even thriving, in a great many places, particularly so in the Middle East and Europe, and whatever lessons the Holocaust taught us have been forgotten, so much so that democratic, accepting Israel is now demonized as the new incarnation of Nazi Germany, mostly from the left side of the political spectrum. (The right attacks Israel, too, but prefers to deal with Jewish conspiracies as its main tack.) But despite the intelligence of his arguments – and when he is on camera, sparingly so, Himel, who is no grandstanding Michael Moore, asks smart, sober questions – the series is also a slapdash affair, sometimes badly edited and often zig-zagging from one scene to another to ill effect.

The Middle East segment, for instance, opens strongly, with a glimpse into anti-Semitic views and attitudes held by members of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, Muslim clerics in Pakistan and ordinary Pakistanis on the street as well as shots of the numerous anti-Semitic cartoons in the Arab/Muslim media and Internet. But Himel also seems to suggest some of this is new, particularly in Egypt where its Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was exposed by MEMRI, a group which monitors Arabic media, referring to Jews as “the descendants of apes and pigs.” True enough but even though Morsi’s predecessor, ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, didn’t necessarily utter anti-Semitic slurs, he allowed them to fester in Egypt’s media, as a sort of safety valve for the bigots to let off steam but not harass him for keeping to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, which so far Morsi has, as well. Himel’s point seems to be that Egypt under the influence of Islamists is worse then ever but I would maintain that nothing, other than a leader who is openly anti-Semitic, has really changed. 

anti-Israel protestors at Gay Pride parade in Toronto in 2012 (Photo by MichaelHudson)

Similarly, in his European segment on Malmo, Sweden, where half the Jewish community has left, chased out by Muslim extremists, Himel neglects to point out that that city’s mayor, who is not a Muslim, is part of the problem, too, with his virulent anti-Zionist rhetoric and lack of concern for the safety of his city’s Jewish population. It’s not just about Muslims attacking Jews. And in the American segment which largely focuses on the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel), Himel concentrates on the Palestinian activists who attack and malign Israel but avoids the unfortunate fact that many (self-hating) Jews are part of the noxious BDS movement, including Canada’s own Naomi Klein, to name one of the more prominent supporters.

There are just too many instances where complex details like that are missing and as I know a lot about the subject, they’re glaring omissions. But it’s the final segment of the series, set in Canada, which is the sloppiest one. Himel, for some reason, conflates two different stores in Montréal which have been targeted for boycott by the anti-Israel brigade. He interviews the Jewish owner of a store devoted to selling only Israeli-made NAOT shoes but also includes interviews with the supporters of a French-Canadian non-Jewish couple, merchants who are being harassed because one of their products happen to be made in Israel. That couple don’t appear on film even though their supporters do. (That support also comes from Jason Kenney, Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism who refers to the latter in an interview with Himel.) Then we're suddenly in Vancouver at yet another anti-Israel boycott rally but the person who is being interviewed seems to be in Quebec talking about his anti-Israel experiences there. It’s terribly bad editing, amateur hour, in fact, and makes one wonder if Himel was even paying attention to the structure of this episode. It doesn’t help that he also doesn’t know how to end the series, repeating some highlight snippets of past episodes instead of coming to a sound, clear conclusion.

Photo by
Jew Bashing is further hampered by Vision’s intrusive commercials, every ten minutes or so, seriously disrupting the flow of the series. If Moses Znaimer, Vision’s owner, thought the series was so important (and the network was certainly promoting it heavily, in newspapers, too, along with a show on Muslim persecution of Christians in the Middle East), why on earth did he allow it to be cluttered and cheapened by vapid ads? Couldn’t it have run commercial-free or with a sponsor who would only allow limited advertising? All this, the commercials, the missing nuances, the hidden cameras, unfortunately lent Jew Bashing a cheesy, low rent tone that worked against the urgency of its message. After all, when Israel is branded an apartheid state, which is patently untrue, you have to wonder about the motives behind such vile utterances. In that light, a moving testament by a participant in Tel Aviv’s gay pride parade hurt and appalled that Israel is being condemned as an apartheid state cannot help but be strong testimony to Israel’s freedoms. (Israel, of course, is the only country in the Middle East where gays and lesbians can safely have a parade to celebrate their diversity; they would be taking their lives in their hands anywhere else in the region if they were even to attempt to march proudly and freely.)

It’s when Himel gets some of those anti-Israel racists to hang themselves with their own words that Jew Bashing scores some direct hits. The anti-Israel spokesman of the United Church in Canada, for example, has the chutzpah to answer the question of why his church does not criticize those Arab countries - Syria, Egypt, Iraq - who persecute their Christian populace, but fixates only on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, by blandly stating that they weren’t asked by those persecuted Christians to say anything. Really, you have to be asked to condemn injustice? That hypocrisy manifests itself often in the series, including from virulently anti-Israel writer Alice Walker (The Color Purple) who bristles when she is questioned as to why she is picking on the Jews and not anyone else. Her comments about Zionists running America is classic anti-Semitism, of course, but she’s convinced herself otherwise.

Drawing by Carlos Latuff (2010)
Those straightforward exposés and the casual comments of racist Americans who speak proudly on camera about wanting to exterminate the Jews make for startling drama. But these sequences beg the question of why Himel resorted to so many hidden cameras elsewhere in the series if so many anti-Semites were prepared to be interviewed on their offensive views? Those surreptitiously shot scenes were really not necessary. (Much of the hate is disseminated online and contrary to what you might think, those sites are often quite well written and slickly put together. I stumbled across one while doing some research for a Jewish themed class I was teaching and it took me a couple of minutes before I realized what the website was all about. ) The clips of the TV adaptation of the anti-Semitic Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which purports to expose the Jewish plot to rule the world, which ran on Iranian TV as well as in Egypt during Ramadan, no less, can’t help but disturb the viewer. And the footage of a French-Canadian blogger who targets the growing Orthodox Jewish community in French speaking Outremont, in Montréal, at a meeting meant to bring French Canadians and Jews together, shows how cyberbullies can harbour base motives even when they claim to be speaking up for their own community. (Again though, Himel neglects to point out that some of the Orthodox have illegally tried to expand the boundaries of their synagogues and have often alienated their neighbours with their standoffish attitudes towards non-Jews. The Outremont issue is not quite as black and white as Himel makes it out to be.) And smart spokespeople, including lawyer/activist/author Alan Dershowitz (The Case for Israel) and British writer Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question) contribute some salient commentary. My favourite comment, though, is from the U.S. Anti-Defamation League’s National Director Abraham Foxman who points out that he has no problem with you being anti-Zionist if you are against all nationalisms, Arab, Chinese, French etc. But if you only single out one nationalism, the Jewish one (Zionism) for opprobrium, then, you’re nothing but an anti-Semite. If I can immodest, I’ve been saying that for years.

Yet, despite its virtues, Jew Bashing: The New Anti-Semitism fails to satisfy or impress on many levels. I don’t know whether it’s because of Himel’s deficiencies as a journalist/investigator, the problematic aspects of Vision’s commercial broadcast policy or the fact that three hours (when the ads are taken out) is probably not nearly enough time to tackle this detailed, wide ranging issue, or a combination of all three, but I generally got the sense that with this urgent subject, Himel bit off more then he could finally chew.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

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