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

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