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The documentary Antisemitism is informative and powerful-will be screened at the Winnipeg International Film Festival Wed. May 18, 7 p.m.

by Jane Enkin, April 28, 2022

 

 

The documentary Antisemitism is a fascinating overview of the manifestations of anti-Jewish feelings and behaviour in Western Europe. Poignant personal interviews are interspersed with expert discourse. The calm, dry tone of the narration and expert interviews in this film contrast with disturbing visual imagery. It works as an illustrated history lecture, with the major focus on France. 

 

Even with this relatively narrow focus, the film is packed with information and frightening images, and the filmmakers point out that the named concept, antisemitism, arose in the West. The film has a great deal of power, many moving scenes, and answers to many questions.
 
 

The filmmakers begin with unsettling footage of antisemitic marches and desecrations of graves in contemporary France. They then explain that the term antisemitism was coined in the late 19th century, when the new concept of race combined with long-standing perceptions of  “the other” in society. They review visual stereotypes of Jews from the middle ages, many of which continue to appear in modern times. They continue with a quick survey of other tropes from over the centuries, focusing especially on the long-standing association of Jews with money and power. This arose,  they say, because of the relatively small number of Jews who acted as money-lenders and tax collectors for the nobility. As one interviewer explained, often “a culture has used ideas and images of Judaism to make sense of its world.”

 

In revolutionary France, Jews were declared emancipated, equal under the law with other citizens of France. The emphasis on human rights attracted a young Theodor Herzl to France, as a journalist. But over time he began to witness more antisemitism, and finally concluded that Jews were seen by some as “stateless”, not part of French society. This led directly to his belief in the need for a Jewish state.

 

What had changed in France? The filmmakers trace much of the rise of modern antisemitism to the influence of a very few men and their writing and public speaking. 

 

The war between France and Prussia in the 1870s was a factor. France’s defeat led to the need for a scapegoat; Prussia’s new nationalism required a focus for a newly emerging German identity.  In this context, Wilhelm Marr wrote about Jews as a separate race, interested only in their own emancipation, not Germany’s. This concept of race war, of course, erupted in Germany under the Nazi Regime. As presented in the film, Marr’s antisemitic writing appears arbitrary, without argument or reason.

 

Even more arbitrary was the blame hurled in France by Edouard Drumont and the Marquis de Mores. They connected the Jews to everything they felt was wrong in their personal lives and in France, which was undergoing a rapidly changing economy and social structure. At a certain point, I found myself thinking, “These men just made it up!” Unfortunately, many people were attracted to their lies. “This was the France of those left behind, the losers of globalization.”

 

The Dreyfus Affair receives considerable attention in the film. In 1894, young French officer Alfred Dreyfus was falsely convicted of treason, and public opinion quickly connected his supposed crime to his Judaism, and from there associated all Jews with disloyalty to the state. Although many in France defended Dreyfus, and he was exonerated in 1906, the tone was set for future French antisemitism.

 

The infamous Protocols of Zion, fabricated in Russia in the early 20th century, are shown to have had influence in their own time and up to the present. The film gives attention to Nazi Germany and to Vichy France. Holocaust denial became a new manifestation of antisemitism.

 

The complex legacy of the formation of Israel as a state is discussed. The conflicting narratives of Israelis and Palestinians spread through the Arab world and North Africa, and from there to France. One interviewee talks about the “tipping point” between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

 

It becomes clear that antisemitism in France affects many elements of French society, including the far-right, the far-left, and immigrant populations. 

 

The last part of the film covers recent terrorist attacks in France. One journalist expressed concern that for many years, murders were not seen by the popular press as antisemitic, perhaps because they appeared as random attacks that could always be explained away on psychological grounds. Antisemitic motives have become more difficult to ignore since the 2012 shooting of children in a school in Toulouse. Many of those interviewed noted the growing anxiety among Jewis in France and the decision some people make to leave France for Israel.

 

The documentary Antisemitism is an informative, troubling and clear account of a disturbing, centuries long trend.

 
 
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