Friday, June 23, 2017

At least they're talking

left to right: Verleger, Pörzgen, Maischberger, Wolfssohn,
Blüm, Mansour
The short version:
Two days ago (July 21) German television aired a documentary on modern-day anti-Semitism in Europe. The program was immediately followed by a discussion of the documentary by a group of people intimately familiar with the status of German-Jewish relations. As expected, the film, like virtually anything to do with the Arab/Palestinian - Jewish/Israeli conflict, directly or indirectly, was highly controversial. Two criticisms were especially noteworthy. First off, many found it to be biased in favor of current Israeli policy, a view held by the producers itself, who held back showing it until mistakes and omissions could be addressed. Secondly, criticism was leveled at the fact that the documentary spent too much time on the Middle East and too little on the topic it promised to address. As always, the question was raised over whether one can ever oppose Israeli policy in regard to the Palestinians without being charged with being anti-Semitic, a charge to which Germans are naturally highly sensitive. Possibly the most devastating criticism remains, as before, the damning by faint praise: “At least they’re talking.”
The longer version:

There is no more controversial topic in the modern political world than the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, or between Jews and Arabs, depending on where you put your focus. It’s virtually impossible to find a neutral position and one does not have to venture far into an exploration of the conflict before one is seen to be taking one side or the other.
These complications are compounded when Germans get involved. Like it or not, when Germans discuss Jewish issues, the rest of the world listens in. So no one will be surprised then that what caught my attention today was the fact that a documentary on anti-Semitism in modern Europe recently produced by French and German television was being shown finally on West German television, after being mired in controversy for many months.
Because the topic has become even more sensitive over time with the influx of Muslims into the German population, over half of whom are said to be outspokenly anti-Jewish (see below for source), and the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as well as the unresolved status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees continues to fester like an open wound, it is not surprising that many consider the topic too hot to handle.
So hats off to German television, for giving it a go. Pity it never really got off the ground, since they immediately became mired in a debate over whether they themselves were anti-Semitic, and whether a program purporting to be about anti-Semitism in Europe ought to be dealing with events in the Middle East, or whether that focus illustrates too strong a pro-Israel bias. Anticipating the kerfluffle, a discussion program was arranged to discuss the merits of the documentary, making the documentary, not anti-Semitism, the central focus. And as if that were not enough, yet another spin-off was felt necessary to discuss what all this spinning is really about.

First, a little background for those who might need it.
The first hurdle one faces is taking up the issue of anti-semitism is finding the line between Jews and Israelis.  Some argue it doesn’t even exist. Some who think it does would make it a simple political line between those with an Israeli passport, and those without. But since any Jew is entitled to an Israeli passport, even that assumption is not without complications. Jews living in the Diaspora fill the spectrum between those who have little or no interest in Israel and do not identify with it, and those who see Israel as the home of all Jews, and are quick to defend it against all enemies, perceived or real.
A second hurdle involves the definition of a Jew, complicated by the fact that in the West Jews are seen alongside Christians and Muslims as a religious community, even though the majority of Jews do not profess religious faith and see Judaism as a subset of Jewish culture, not religion. Nor are they a race, as any Jew of Chinese or Ethiopian ancestry can attest. And the presence of large groups of Jews from places as varied as Buenos Aires, Paris, North Africa, Russia, Iraq or Iran make it impossible to refer to Jews as an ethnicity. When forced into a category, they are today regularly classified as “Semites,” (the mythological descendants of Noah’s son Shem, as opposed to Ham and Japheth, representing black Africans and Aryans, respectively.)

The linguistic term “Semitic” is, like the other forms of classification, no more apt than religion, race or ethnicity, since Arabic is no less a Semitic language than Hebrew, and the majority of Jews have a language other than Hebrew as a native tongue. Nonetheless, despite its scientific illegitimacy, in common parlance, the term “anti-Semite” today refers to somebody who has a bigoted response toward Jews. [For more, see here.] And, this brief discussion of Jewish identity only gets further complicated when one notes there are Jews who would exclude from their number anyone not born to a Jewish mother, something way beyond this discussion.
A third concern – not so much a hurdle as an essential part of any discussion on Jewishness and anti-Semitism today - is the way Zionism enters the picture. Zionism was a movement founded by Theodor Herzl at the end of the 19th Century dedicated to the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which they called the “Land of Israel,” as a means of protecting Jews living in exile since Roman days, against anti-Semitism and persecution. People refer to religious, cultural and political Zionism, depending on where and how emphasis is placed. One hears terms such as labor Zionism, green Zionism, practical Zionism and revisionist Zionism, to refer to the various ideological subgroupings. Because the land has been continually occupied by non-Jews as well as Jews since Roman times, critics of Zionism claim it is a form of modern-day colonialism.

The documentary “Chosen and Excluded”
On Wednesday, June 21, the German Public Television Channel ARD (via its subsidiary the WDR)* aired the documentary, "Auserwählt und ausgegrenzt (Chosen and Excluded - Jew Hatred in Europe.)"  Anticipating an uproar, the program was immediately followed up with a discussion of the documentary on Sandra Maischberger’s political talkshow.
A major part of this story is the fact that after completion, the program was withheld by ARD for five months, apparently in response to charges that it had a pro-Israel bias. That withholding then led, in turn, to charges of censorship on the part of WDR.
The documentary was written by Joachim Schroeder and Sophie Hafner. It was their second treatment of the topic; their first was produced in 2013 under the title “Anti-Semitism Today — Just How Anti-Jewish Is Germany?”  Their current effort, “Chosen and Excluded,” was commissioned by the Franco-German channel, Arte, a subsidiary of WDR.  (See footnote for the who’s who of German television broadcasters.)
No sooner was the project completed when it was rejected by the people at Arte. Things might have remained at a standstill, but on June 13, Bild Zeitung, German’s largest newspaper got hold of a copy and leaked it online for 24 hours, giving people a chance to tear it to pieces. And tear it to pieces they did, prompting WDR to go to work on a fact-checking campaign. Once that was completed, they determined the best course of action was to present the original piece with the “corrections” laid over it, and take refuge in the claim they had done their best to bring the project to national attention and invite discussion. Discussion, after all, was what is always most called for in a democracy.


To review, here is a slightly expanded chronology of events:
1. The public TV channel, Arte, commissions a 90-minute documentary to be produced by WDR and written by Joachim Schroeder and Sophie Hafner, entitled "Chosen and Excluded - Jew Hatred in Europe."
2.  When WDR completes the project, a conflict erupts between Arte and the writers. Arte objects that WDR has not followed the prescribed guidelines. The program was to deal with anti-semitism in Europe, but instead, according to Arte, it deals overwhelmingly with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and other problems of the Middle East.
3. This leads to charges of anti-Semitism on the part of Arte and the suggestion that the real reason for withholding the documentary was that it made too many people in Europe uncomfortable - allegedly because they harbored feelings to a greater or lesser degree of anti-Semitism.
4. The Central Council of Jews in Germany protests and insists that Arte go ahead and air the film as planned.
5. Arte holds firm for five months. Alain Le Diberder, program director at Arte, makes a statement which is aired on Deutsche Welle, according to which the documentary was supposed to focus on rising anti-Semitism in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Britain, Hungary and Greece but instead “concentrates primarily on the Middle East.” He calls charges of anti-Semitism “grotesque” and insists that Arte has been actively fighting anti-Semitism for the past 25 years and will continue to do so in the future.”
6. Schroeder counters that Arte’s complaints were mere pretext, that the problem was that Arte failed to acknowledge that modern anti-Semitism is being expressed as anti-Zionism.
7. Bild Zeitung leaks the documentary and posts it online for 24 hours. on June 13, arguing that Germany needs to confront its anti-Semitism and nothing is gained by delay.
8. The program finally airs on WDR at 9:15 on June 21.
9. At some point the story-teller becomes the story. WDR's treatment of anti-Semitism becomes a story about whether WDR itself is anti-Semitic. For more on this topic see (in German) yet another spin-off discussion of the program in which the documentary is presented here.

The follow up discussion - the Sandra Maischberger Show

The showing of the documentary was followed immediately by a discussion program Maischberger (hosted by popular talk show host Sandra Maischberger) at 10:45.

Guests include historian Michael Wolffsohn, who has strong praise for the program; CDU politician Norbert Blüm, longtime critic of Israel’s military policy, (and therefore often charged with being anti-Semitic); psychologist Ahmad Mansour, who identifies as Palestinian (as opposed to „Arab“), who claims anti-Semitism is a universal part of Arab and Palestinian education, admitting he held clearly anti-Semitic values himself until he entered university in Tel Aviv and became part of the modern Israeli-Palestinian progressive effort for mutual understanding. For the past ten years he has lived in Berlin where he works with the Heroes project to counter anti-semitism in the Muslim community; Reporters Without Borders journalist Gemma Pörzgen, who represents the view that the film is propaganda, shows only one side of the problem, and adequately sheds light on neither the Middle East situation nor the situation in Europe; Rolf Verleger, former professor of psychology and former member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, criticizes the view taken by the film that the Palestinians are wrong and there is therefore no justification to criticizing Israel; and finally, Jörg Schönenborn, director of programming for WDR.

Maischberger selected her guests for maximum controversy. Wolffssohn set things off with his tough exchange with Jörg Schönenborn, the director of WDR, argued that the program was well done and there was no good reason other than censorship for withholding it. Schönenborn responded that the criticisms of the program were just, that much was left out and much was inadequate and that they spent the time well fixing the problems.

Pörzgen’s issue was the conflation of the terms anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism argued. There are plenty of Israelis with a religious or nationalistic ideology who express it through Zionism. But there are equally many who do not and many Zionists who have no need of demonizing the Palestinians. The point being that it is precisely this intersection of religion and nationalism and ethnicity that should be examined without prejudice, and that the kind of mixing that Wolffsohn engages in is counter-productive.
Pörzgen takes the view that the decision to withhold the program was not censorship, but the exercising of an editorial prerogative. Censorship, for Pörzgen, is state interference to be distinguished from critical judgments made individuals.
Here’s how Matthias Drobinski of Süddeutsche Zeitung described the program. (i.e., the evaluations in the following paragraph are his, not mine.) There is good reason to take seriously the charge that the program is one-sided. WDR combed it over with presented it with an overlay of some serious fact-checking before showing it, some 29 comments in all . Problem is, the fact-checking only demonstrated what the critics had said about the piece, that there were not sufficient contrary opinions, numbers and facts were left out that didn’t fit the narrative, and the main source of information was the Israeli-approved NGO Monitor, based in Jerusalem, a fact which was originally withheld from the story.
In the exchange between WDR director Schönenborn and pro-Israel historian Wolffsohn before the actual discussion, there was a Mexican standoff over whether that information could have been worked out with the authors.  You could have told the authors, said Wolffsohn. We did, said Schönenborn. No you didn’t, said Wolffsohn. Schönenborn then gave seven more examples of violations of the rights of personalities, to justify his holding off on presenting the documentary. The two men shook hands without giving an inch and the discussion began.
What comes out of the discussion is confirmation that there is considerable anti-Semitism in Germany (16% of the population may be described as anti-Semitic, and 56% of the nation’s Muslims), according to Wolffsohn. Blüm and Verleger stress the point that there must be constant vigilance in distinguishing between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel Blüm stressing that too often the humiliation of the Palestinians is ignored. In the view of the SZ reporter, Drobinski, that should have been the starting point of the discussion, and not some week “well, it’s good we’re all talking” kind of weak conclusion.
If you are still reading, mazel tov. How representative of German attitudes are the ones expressed in this single television discussion, you may ask. In the end, it’s a glass half full/ half empty story. At least the Germans are discussing anti-Semitism, and doing it publicly.

Sadly, if there is a better illustration of the concept of “damning with faint praise,” than “at least they’re talking about it” I don’t know what it is. Like most political issues, each time a hot topic is raised, they roll out the usual subjects who bang on about what is to be done.

I’ll tell you what I got out of this program.

I found Jörg Schönenborn’s argument believable that the original text of the program was too slanted, and needed commentary. Wolfssohn, whom I’ve listened to seriously in the past, lost some credibility here. Pörzgen’s comment that the blurring of lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a mistake strikes me as obvious. She gets credit here, and Wolfssohn slips a bit more. Blüm’s appeal for sympathy for the Palestinians strikes me as a good thing, but it doesn’t further the present discussion. The two members of the panel who carried the day for me were Mansour and Verleger. Mansour because he’s a Palestinian who was once a Jew-hater and today works full-time trying to educate Muslims about anti-Semitism in their midst. And Verleger because he is a Jew willing to do the same in his community about their blind spots when it comes to Muslim-hatred.

In the end, though, it’s not the arguments that stick with me. It’s things like the fact that a majority of Muslims living in Europe are anti-Jewish, some violently so, and if the anecdote at the end of the documentary about the exodus to Israel from France has legs, that’s something to pay serious attention to.

So maybe this isn’t just a tempest in a teapot, after all. Sometimes the main story is a distraction and the attention is in the details.

read more on the documentary at Haaretz, Deutsche Welle, the Times of Israel, The Tower, and an interview with Gemma Pörzgen in Deutschlandfunk.

*The ARD is a consortium of German public service broadcasters. It runs a national television network known as “Das Erste” (Channel One). Das Erste runs on land, satellite and cable channels, as well as a “free-to-air” digital channel. Its regional members cover the entire nation and include BR (Bayerischer Rundfunk) in Bavaria; HR (Hessischer Rundfunk) in Frankfurt (Hesse); MR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk), the PBS of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxon-Anhalt, located in Leipzig, Dresden, Erfurt and Magdeburg; NR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) in the states of Hamburg, Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Schleswig-Holstein; RB (Radio Bremen); RBB (Rundfunk Brandenburg-Berlin) in Berlin and Potsdam; SR (Saarländischer Rundfunk) SWR (Südwestrundfunk) covering the states of  Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland Palatinate in Stuttgart, Baden-Baden and Mainz; and WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) in Cologne, covering the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. A parallel network (which is effectively more of a channel than a network) is the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen – Channel Two), based in Mainz, maintained by subscriptions and accessible to the entire country. The Franco-German TV network known as Arte (Association relative à la télévision européenne) is a subsidiary of both ARD and ZDF.

photo from Maischberger show

Friday, June 9, 2017

Who's the Man?

At about the same time former FBI chief James Comey was calling Donald Trump a liar on national television yesterday when addressing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Donald Trump was addressing the evangelical community, promising them:

“As long as I’m president, no one is going to stop you from practicing your faith or preaching what is in your heart.”
“And as you know,” he continued, “we’re under siege.”

Can’t argue with that.
We know that Democrats are waiting to pass laws to prevent any American from turning the other cheek and to give their coats (to say nothing of their cloaks) to strangers who ask for them. If they regain power, the first thing Democrats will do is make Islam the national religion and replace the cross on St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a Star of David. Stores will be required to stay open on Christmas and Easter and pot-luck dinners will be allowed only if catered by immigrants.
History books will be rewritten in a way to suggest that the Pilgrims came to America to search for gold for the coffers of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the singing of Amazing Grace will be permitted only behind locked doors in soundproofed rooms.
Evangelicals know who’s on their side. 80% of them voted for the Mango Man in the last election and 75% of them, when polled after his first one hundred days, thought he was doing a great job, as compared with 39% of the population as a whole. They understand that while he is twice divorced and thrice married, and has boasted publicly of being able to grab women by their genitals because he’s a star, that he’s still their representative. He lives in a tower apartment he lines with gold as the embodiment of a man who “lays up for himself treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break in and steal,” but their new prosperity gospel, not to be confused with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, allows them therefore to identify him as a smart man. OK, so he sometimes gets prideful, sometimes gives in to wrath, sometimes bears false witness. That doesn’t mean Jerry Falwell couldn’t designate him “the dream president.”
They understand that his plan to throw 20 million Americans off their health insurance plan is actually the Christian thing to do, because it will give them more options to select a better health plan than they have at present.
They know that the separation of church and state is a myth, that America was founded by God-fearing Christians to be a Christian nation and the watering down of the Constitution by those of other faiths or (worse) no faith at all, has to be stopped. And Trump is just the man to do it.
Evangelicals understand that our country was founded by white people from England and other parts of Northern Europe. Of course, laborers who came here from Africa helped build this country, and some people prefer a Bar/Bat Mitzvah over a christening or confuse a quinceanera with a debutante ball, but they should be allowed to do their thing as long as it doesn't interfere with the American way. They should recognize their place in the hierarchy, not get too uppity, and show a little gratitude. Trump understands this and will make sure the government does its duty by its Christian citizens.
Laws requiring Christians to keep their prayers and their religious symbols out of the public sphere, on the flimsy excuse that no one’s religion should dominate, go against the grain of what it means to be a real American. Trump understands that. Born-again Christians of the 700 Club take their cue from their leader, Pat Robertson, who informs them that to be against Trump is to be against God and we would all do well to follow their example.
Trump is rewarding Evangelicals for their support. On May 4, he signed an executive order fostering what he calls “religious liberty.” It allows churches to engage in politics from the pulpit without endangering their tax-exempt status. It also provides relief to people who don’t accept that people can be transgendered or who want to marry a member of their own sex. They no longer have to follow laws requiring them to deal with such people in the same way they deal with their own people.
He understands we are under siege.
He’s the man.

photo credit

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Same Sky - a film review

The Same Sky is a  made-for-TV miniseries in six episodes, a German spy thriller about the “good old days” in Berlin when everybody and his Uncle Otto seemed to be engaged in some kind of espionage. It’s a bit clunky in places, but overall, it’s well done. Good acting. Good tension-filled moments to keep you on the edge of your seat.

It’s told from a German perspective, but that begs the question, which German perspective. The story involves two GDR (East German) families and their struggles to make their way in the police state which confines them, but which also commands their loyalty. But the film's consciousness is very much that of the victorious West, which swallowed up this ideological showpiece of the Warsaw Pact. The German Democratic Republic collapsed of its own weight in the end and it’s a good and proper thing that the stories of its rigidity and oppressive nature are now being told. And I, for one, have no problem with the need to gussy up the details at times to make them digestible to an audience who prefers entertainment to history taken straight.

It sounds like there’s a but in here somewhere. There isn’t. Who doesn’t love a good romp through spy-vs.-spy territory. And it’s not as if the GDR doesn’t have it coming. All I would ask is that the stories be told in a way that goes beyond winners and losers, between good guys and bad guys. Happily, The Same Sky succeeds in this. The lead character, GDR soldier Lars Weber (Tom Schilling) is sent to the West to seduce women working against the interests of his country, and might well be portrayed melodramatically twirling his moustache. Instead, there are moments when you hold your breath hoping he doesn’t get caught as he plants listening devices in the home of his chosen victim’s family. That suggests good writing, directing and acting.

Lars has been groomed to work his way into the lives of women in West Berlin working with the Western Occupation Forces and romance them out of their secrets. He takes aim at one vulnerable woman and when that fails, without skipping a beat, he launches into the seduction of a second. It’s an ambitious plot line which stretches credulity at times, but spy drama fans should for the most part be able to generate the requisite suspension of disbelief.

There are two subplots. One is the grooming of a young girl for the Olympic Swimming team, and the family drama that ensues over how far she is being pushed. The second involves the efforts of a gay man to find a way across the Berlin Wall. The plots are standard ones, in other words and so are the expected reactions. Toss in doubts on the part of fanatic cold warriors, to make them more complex characters, and you have all the ingredients for a cookie-cutter standard Cold War drama.

What saved the film for me from becoming lost in cliches was the absolute howler it contains. From 1963 to 1965 I worked at a listening station on top of Devil’s Mountain in Berlin, listening to the conversations first of Russian soldiers stationed in the East, and later to German Communist Party officials performing the mundane tasks of running the country. Although the site grew in size and importance after my time (and the setting of The Same Sky is a full decade or more after my time), unless I am badly misinformed, I doubt it ever quite achieved the status of pulsating heart of the battle between East and West, as it is portrayed in the film. Both of Lars Weber’s intended victims work at Devil’s Mountain, and many scenes take place there, with large numbers of high ranking officers walking around and discussing foreign policy. I call that howler material because the site, when I knew it, was little more than a listening post maintained by low ranking soldiers whose real challenge was avoiding pathological boredom. But one takes liberties for the sake of art. (And yes, I’m being sarcastic.)

The inflation of Teufelsberg (Devil’s Mountain)’s importance was not the only howler. Lars’s training involves learning how to seduce a woman. Look in her left eye, he is told, because women are all about emotion and the left eye is the key to the right brain where emotions are located. If she looks down after you catch her eye, she’s interested. If she looks back after first looking away, you’ve hooked her.

Also a bit troubling is the ease with which Lars seems to work his way into the lives of his victims. There is the question of his origins, for example. He claims friends and family in Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, even though he has never been to those places. It is unlikely, it seems to me, he would never run into anybody who might question his knowledge of street names or other facts about those places, or somebody who might detect his actual origins in his speech patterns. On the other hand, considering the fact that East German spies must have done this very thing – impersonate West Germans – maybe the question should be how were so many able to pull it all off?

The story worked, however, proof being I'm replaying the events of the binge over and over in my head and feeling frustration that they have only produced one season, so far. A second season is apparently at least a year off.  Since there is a second season, though, it's too soon to declare this is just another soap opera masquerading as a thriller, as I did a couple times when Lars' first victim's son began turning into a Baader-Meinhof gang type. (Is that where they are going with this, touching all historical bases?)   

One feature which distinguishes TV serials from ordinary films is that there is plenty of time to speculate where the filmmakers intend to take the story in the future. Is this a story for old Cold Warriors or will its appeal cross generational lines? Will they design the tale for a new generation who might be wondering what all the fuss was about? Will they get philosophical, in other words, or will they avoid all the heavy stuff and stay at the level of the spy chase? The challenge of The Same Sky will be whether the characters will hold their fascination a year from now when the story picks up again. Will the gay character fly away in his air balloon? Will Klara's body be allowed to begin menstruation once she wins the Olympic battle? Will Lars decide he's too much in love with the woman he’s seducing to break her heart? Will he decide there's no there there back in the GDR? I have to admit they’ve got me hooked and I want answers to those questions. I’m coming back for more.

There are better films. Goodbye Lenin has a great deal more heart. The Tunnel is a much better escape thriller. The Lives of Others has much more power and credibility. But just as any Russian can tell you, there’s always another World War II story to tell. And for those of us who lived through the Cold War, that applies to that time, as well. When I learned that Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks were going to do Bridge of Spies about the exchange of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for Russian spy Rudolf Abel, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away. That’s probably true for any tale from the time of the Berlin Wall.


photo credit