Friday, June 30, 2017

Ehe für alle!

Ehe für alle!
Marriage for all!
Es ist vollbracht.  Biblical German for “it has come to pass…” or “it is accomplished.”
One needs lofty language for a day like this.
I’d like to say I don’t know why I’m so emotional about this, but that would be a lie. I’ve written many times now about my "history of things that never happened,“ and how I once was on the verge of emigrating to Germany when I got out of the army, got waylaid by Japan, and lived life on a different path. To this day, I feel an affinity for Germany, follow its public issues, and take a special interest in the rights of LGBT people in Germany.
I owe this to a German grandmother – won’t stop to tell the story here; I’ve repeated it many times elsewhere – who instilled in me a German sense of identity to the horror of to the Anglo-Saxons in the paternal side of my family. I’ve since put that "might have been" history out of mind for the most part. It only comes out on days like this, when Germany does something spectacularly well.
To the point. Same-sex marriage is now legal in

and now in Germany, as well.
Volker Beck, in the middle
The Bundestag voted marriage rights for same-sex couples into law Friday morning by a vote of 393 to 226. A strong majority, in other words, with only four abstentions and seven no-shows.
Emotions were strong. Erika Steinbach completed her final day in the Bundestag after 27 years, by telling the assembly that God meant marriage to be between men and women only. Volker Beck also completed his final day in the Bundestag after fighting ferociously for gay rights his entire political life. He is recognized as the “father of same-sex partnerships” and continued undaunted, even after losing his life-partner to cancer in 2009.  When interviewed on the victory just after the vote, he couldn’t hold the tears back.
His colleagues shower Beck with confetti
It is lost on nobody that this debate went on for some thirty sessions over the years. Unlike in many countries, where marriage rights were granted by courts or legislatures against slim majorities in the population, in Germany some 82% of the population has expressed support for same-sex couples. The positive side of this, of course, is that unlike in France and Mexico and elsewhere where there were large protests after same-sex marriage was legalized, this is not likely to happen in Germany, where the population has had more than enough time to get used to the idea.
It is not by accident that the chief opposition comes from the party in power, the party of Angela Merkel, and that party is derived from the church, and many in the party speak openly and regularly of their church affiliation and of the party’s values as “Christian values.” That includes Angela Merkel
the word gets out
herself, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. If there are any remaining doubts that organized religion is the last bastion of resistance to LGBT rights, those doubts can be put to rest here.
Merkel watchers gave, I think, too much credit to the chancellor for her part in this historic turn of events. I, too, wondered for a time whether she was voting her conscience or using the issue to her political advantage. In the end, we will never know – and, of course, it doesn’t really matter. Merkel went against the tide in her party, the CDU/CSU (Christian Democrats or, in Bavaria, the Christian Socialists are referred to together as the “Union”) by allowing in a million refugees. "On Christian grounds," she said, calling them out on their so-called Christian values. This seriously destabilized large segments of the society and turned many away from the CDU/CSU, and for a time it looked as if the Socialists had a real chance to unseat her in the upcoming elections. Only her incredible staying power has kept her afloat.

Now, once again, she surprised a lot of folk by stating that she had had dinner with the lesbian foster parents of eight children and become convinced there was no legitimate reason to see them as inadequate when it comes to raising children. So her opposition to gay adoption fell away – and that was the last remaining serious reason for withholding same-sex marriage from gay people.
breakdown of the vote by party: Union (Merkel's ruling conservatives); Socialists, Left Party and Green Party
So much for Chancellor Mutti (mommy), the warm-hearted Christian lady at the head of government. Angela pulled off a coup by releasing her party members from an obligation to vote in solidarity. They could vote their conscience, she told them. 225 Unionists voted no, 75 voted yes, in favor of same-sex marriage. Since the final vote was 393 yesses to 226 nos, it would not have made a difference, in the end. The vote would have carried anyway. But this way Merkel got to have her cake and eat it too. She personally votes no, thus tightening up her conservative credentials within the party, but allows the vote to go on, thus taking the wind out of the sails of her socialist opponents, and keeping the upper hand in the upcoming elections. Shrewd lady.
I watched the entire debate twice. It is available on YouTube here. Hope they can come up with English subtitles. Watching the Bundestag at work is a treat in itself. To folks used to the bloviating in the U.S. House and Senate, the members of the German Parliament look like they're running a town hall meeting. Watching it debate this issue is a treat with double chocolate icing. Aside from one moment of uninhibited hostility, most progressives spoke glowingly about how this decision should be self-evident, since Germany today was granting rights to a minority all the while taking absolutely nothing away from the majority. The folks on the right, speaking in opposition, could only make the usual claim that they were not homophobic (after all, they had granted partnership rights) and that everybody should respect each other regardless of where they stood on the issue. The one holdout to this view was Johannes Kahrs, a gay member of the socialist party. This issue should have been decided years ago, he said to Merkel, who was sitting within spitting distance, just behind him. “Thank you, Mrs. Merkel,” he said, “FOR NOTHING!”

After all is said and done, what matters is that another barrier to LGBT rights around the world has fallen, this time in the most populous country in Europe.

Happy day.

Oh, happy happy day.

photo credits:

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Young Pope - a review

The Young Pope, a made-for-TV series in ten episodes, starring Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII, is built on a brilliant paradox. The handsome youth, the first ever American pope, would seem to be a walking advertisement for modernity and progressive ideas. In reality, he is the embodiment of the conservative extreme, as far removed ideologically from the current Pope Francis as it is possible to go.

Progressive Catholics have for some time now been trying in vain to turn their church away from the view that heterosexual men should rule the world. Vatican II has failed to get much traction so far, and time after time the Curia has managed to place one conservative after another back in power to fix the mess, as they see it, that John XXIII made in the 60s. Pope Francis’s warmth and relative informality gave great hope at first, but time has made it clear he is not really going to shake things up much. It’s still pretty much business as usual in the Vatican.
That reality has obviously had an impact on the imagination of Paolo Sorrentino, the creator and director of The Young Pope, who has created a fictional character who is simultaneously saint and psychopath. OK, Sorrentino is saying, "What if you guys had your way and got a real conservative to run the show?" And what if this conservative turns out to be the quintessential everyman, i.e., saint and sinner all rolled into one?
As the character of the fictional Pope Pius XIII begins to unfold, the contradictions come across at first as a loud noise. New York Times reviewer James Poniewozik refers to the series as a “pulpy and disjointed…art-house ‘Vatican of Cards’.”  But with time, due in part to some splendid acting, the notion of a young modern-looking pope who turns out to be the most reactionary conservative pope yet, begins to seem not all that hard to conceive of. After all, we live in the age of Donald Trump. Where once we objected that “surely they would not have put a man like this in office,” and “nobody can be quite this self-serving and egotistical,” we now know those once firmly held certainties are certainties no longer.

Trump comes to mind each time Pius frustrates and sometimes terrifies those around him with his unpredictability and his autocratic nature. The plot line has it that the manipulative progressive Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), has won out against his rival, the manipulative Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), by persuading his fellow electors in the Conclave (Voiello is simultaneously camerlengo, i.e., Vatican treasurer) that a handsome young face is just what the church needs to regenerate lagging church support after the damage inflicted by recent scandals.
The series begins to grab hold of you once you realize it’s not just about sinister self-serving old men (and yes, they are quite sinister) but about the kind of men found in all large organizations, including especially the Church itself. These are men with a utilitarian ethical system who believe (or act as if they believe) that evil done in the service of good is excusable. At one point the pope says to Voiello, who has just shown him the button under his desk which summons a nun with an excuse that his next appointment is waiting, when he wants to escape an undesirable audience, “You mean, you tell her to lie.” “Yes,” says Voiello, “But she will have plenty of time to repent.” Some have called this “moral flexibility” the “Italian way of running things.” A witty way of poking fun when it comes to little white lies. Something else again when there are larger issues at stake.

It was precisely this mode of thinking that led to the cover-ups in the child abuse scandals. Cardinals thought that ignoring justice and treatment for innocent child victims for the greater good of protecting the reputation of the church was just their way of doing God’s work.That thinking has since backfired badly, and provided a reason for why the church should want a pretty young face to hopefully put things right.
There is a moment in the film of delicious naivete when it becomes clear to Voiello that the pope he was convinced he would be able to manipulate has a will beyond Voiello’s reach. The pope has taken to telling his flock they should not stop to adore him or the church but go directly to God. Never mind that that message is nonsense, considering the historical role the church has taken on as explainer of God’s will through its magisterium, its teachings. Voiello wonders aloud whether it could actually be the Holy Spirit at work. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit selecting this pope in the first place, Voiello wonders aloud, and is now guiding him to reform the church, effectively announcing to his fellow bishops that this bullshit we have been sending out about how our actions are guided by the Holy Spirit is actually true! Just because you're a Machiavellian doesn't mean you can't be a believer.
This then raises the next question. Is the absolutism of the pope, the insistence on maintaining the traditions of the church, the male supremacy, the autocracy, the infallibility, the role of cleric as intercessor, the church as the “only true faith,” the sole door to Heaven, is that actually all true?
Absolutism is at the opposite extreme from openness. The logic of absolute truth is its unbending denial of flexibility, doubt, and diversity. The attractiveness of The Young Pope is its exploration of the notion of what would happen if the absolutists were to gain the upper hand, if they were able to persuade the masses that their claims to speak for God required absolute obedience and submission to the church’s claims.
The heart of the film is the scene where the Pope reveals in his address to his cardinals that these are to be the goals of his reign. He puts on the papal tiara, which he has recalled to the Vatican from a museum in America, dons the robes and sits before his cardinal minions in Oriental splendor to announce the new policy, one that the last pope Benedict XIV hinted at but never got around to actually implementing.  It is worth citing in its entirety, spoken in modern American informal English:

Knock knock! Knock knock! We’re not in. 

Brother cardinals, from this day forward, we’re not in, no matter who’s knocking on our door. We’re in, but only for God. From this day forward, everything that was wide open is gonna be closed. Evangelization. We’ve already done it. Ecumenicalism. Been there, done that. Tolerance. It doesn’t live here anymore. It’s been evicted. It vacated the house for the new tenant, who has diametrically opposite tastes in decorating. We’ve been reaching out to others for years now. It’s time to stop!

We are not going anywhere. We are here. Because, what are we? We are cement. And cement doesn’t move. We are cement without windows. So, we don’t look to the outside world. “Only the Church possesses the charisma of truth” said St. Ignatius of Antioch. And he was right. We have no reason to look out. Instead, look over there.
What do you see? That’s the door. The only way in. Small and extremely uncomfortable. And anyone who wants to know us has to find out how to get through that door.

Brother cardinals, we need to go back to being prohibited. Inaccessible and mysterious. That’s the only way we can once again become desirable. That is the only way great love stories are born. And I don’t want any more part-time believers. I want great love stories. I want fanatics for God. Because fanaticism is love. Everything else is strictly a surrogate, and it stays outside the church.

With the attitudes of the last Papacy, the church won for itself great expressions of fondness from the masses. It became popular. Isn’t that wonderful, you might be thinking! We received plenty of esteem and lots of friendship. I have no idea what to do with the friendship of the whole wide world.

What I want is absolute love and total devotion to God. Could that mean a Church only for the few? That’s a hypothesis, and a hypothesis isn’t the same as reality. But even this hypothesis isn’t so scandalous. I say: better to have a few that are reliable than to have a great many that are distractible and indifferent. The public squares have been jam-packed, but the hearts have been emptied of God. You can’t measure love with numbers, you can only measure it in terms of intensity. In terms of blind loyalty to the imperative.

Fix that word firmly in your souls: Imperative.

From this day forth, that’s what the Pope wants, that’s what the Church wants, that’s what God wants. And so the liturgy will no longer be a social engagement, it will become hard work. And sin will no longer be forgiven at will. 

I don’t expect any applause from you. There will be no expressions of thanks in this chapel. None from me. And none from you. Courtesy and good manners are not the business of men of God. What I do expect is that you will do what I have told you to do. There is nothing outside your obedience to Pius XIII. Nothing except Hell. A Hell you may know nothing about, but I do. Because I’ve built it, right behind that door: Hell.

In the past few days, I’ve had to build Hell for you, that’s why I’ve come to you belatedly. I know you will obey, because you’ve already figured out that this Pope isn’t afraid to lose the faithful if they’ve been even slightly unfaithful, and that means this Pope does not negotiate. On anything or with anyone. And this Pope cannot be blackmailed!

From this day forth, the word “compromise”, has been banished from the vocabulary. I’ve just deleted it. When Jesus willingly mounted the cross, he was not making compromises. And neither am I.


Part and parcel of Roman Catholic conservatism is the elevation of the person of the pope to near-divine status. Pius IX declared the pope infallible during Vatican I, and even though that applies strictly speaking when he is speaking ex cathedra, most of his pronouncements take on near infallible status. To maintain this status, the pope is garbed in sumptuous silks and satins, his fingers covered in jewels and his feet in red slippers. This distinction from ordinary men carries over to the hierarchy as well, with the Cardinals being referred to as “princes” of the Church. Sorrentino makes much of the power of this visual distinction between ordinary men and those with claims to be divinely associated. The film is a feast for the eyes. And Sorrentino has gone even further. His pope is a beautiful hunk of man, seen to be pumping up at regular intervals in the gym. Beautiful and strong and powerful is our “young pope.” With big blue eyes, yet.

I stumbled at first over the fact that Sorrentino decided to have the pope actually be a saint in reality (fictional reality, I mean, of course). He has him perform certifiable miracles. I saw that as confusion on Sorrentino’s part over whether he meant to make the pope an actual saint or simply a vehicle for his audience to question what one would have to be like to qualify. Does one simply have to hold out against abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights, and euthanasia? And maintain clerical celibacy and hierarchy? Or does one have to persuade God to put aside his natural laws in response to prayers as well? Are Catholics watching the film meant to be persuaded this may be an actual saint? Or is Sorrentino seeking to subvert the conservative project?

The weakness of the series is the weakness of all series; it is hard to maintain a constant level of interest for ten solid hours. As a binge-watcher, I am an advocate of not allowing too much time between episodes to pass, so that the characters and events remain vivid. But I understand that all series require soap opera like subplots to fill the time, and often those subplots can become distractions which have the same effect as long breaks. In the end, several of the subplots I first assumed to be distractions turned out to be carefully woven twists that both kept the plot going and revealed the true nature of the main characters. The manipulation of the alcoholic Monsignor Gutierrez (played effectively by Javier Cámara of Talk to Her fame) into becoming his better self by sending him out into the world for the first time to deal with a priest abuse crisis, for example. And the way the pope learns to love the child he has brought into being through a miracle.

Examples of good writing, in other words. To go along with some good acting, generally. (Wish that applied to Diane Keaton, the only actor I thought was badly cast.)
In the end, as much as The Young Pope is considered by some to be satirical, the story is not a critique of the church, unless you (like me) insist on making it one. It is much more the story of an imperfect soul, not that different from the rest of us, who gets to imagine for a while that he can change the world.

The underlying story line is powerful. Lenny Belardo, an orphan who grows up to be pope, is haunted by the need to find his parents, whom he learns at some point are still alive, but do not want to be found. In times of despair, that search becomes a reason for carrying on, and a plot device that carries the story throughout. Some seriously good writing here. Even an occasional bon mot. ("Goodness, unless combined with imagination, runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism.")

I’m not sure that applies to the decision to put a kangaroo in the garden. Have to think about that some more.

photo credits
(with cigarette:

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