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'Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations' review: Rational, humane look at a growing evil

Russell Walker, Republican candidate for North Carolina State

Russell Walker, Republican candidate for North Carolina State House in a scene from PBS' 'Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations." Credit: Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations

DOCUMENTARY "Viral: Anti-Semitism in Four Mutations"

WHEN}WHERE Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Veteran filmmaker Andrew Goldberg breaks up his exploration of anti-Semitism into four parts and four countries — the U.S., United KIngdom, Hungary and France. It begins with the Oct. 27, 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, then looks at the surge of anti-Semitism online. In Hungary, he looks at how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used billboards attacking George Soros to maintain power. In the UK,, he seeks answers to why anti-Semitism had flourished in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and wraps with France, where violence against Jews has grown rapidly. Seen on-camera throughout, Goldberg interviews experts, a few culprits, and also former President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.   

MY SAY Somewhere in the world, someone is blaming COVID-19 on the Jews, and according to recent news reports, that "somewhere" is as close as New Jersey or Brooklyn. The deep web crawls with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and the shallow web too. Meanwhile, the ADL reported a near-record 1,879 acts of anti-Semitism in the U.S. in its most recent audit (2018). This program says "10-12 percent" of Americans hold anti-Semitic views, which is (what?) thirty million people?     

And so it goes. As old as human history, now enriched in the nuclear reactor core of the internet, anti-Semitism very much remains that multi-headed hydra except that there are far too many heads to count. Goldberg instead went with the virus metaphor and considering the moment, his is far more apposite and invidious. He explores four "viral mutations" although by implication and cold logic, the viewer may assume that there are many more. In fact "thousands more," per this program, which — far from hyperbole --- actually starts to look like understatement by the time it wraps. 

Goldberg last tackled this topic back in 2007, but the timing makes this film feel more urgent. His approach is also less analytic, more human, which makes it all the more chilling. "To understand something so big, you have to start small," he explains. Indeed, these canards almost seem rooted in the subconscious of those infected — beyond the reach of rational thinking or even sanity. The man running for office in North Carolina who seems reasonable enough until he starts frothing about the Jews. The leader in Hungary who has spent a decade demonizing George Soros, but when challenged falls back on the "My Best Friends Are Jews" defense. The Labour leader in England proclaims his friendship with Hamas. 

By breaking this up into four manageable chunks, viewers can get their heads around the breadth of anti-Semitism. Mostly, they can get their heads around its many weird manifestations. 

But even at 90 minutes, "Viral" may at times seem incomplete or insufficient. It gets into the anti-Semitism of the far left of England, but there's no mention of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement here which some American Jews believe is anti-Semitic as well (and is openly anti-Zionist). Hungary isn't the only country with a major problem. An 2019 survey of 18 countries around the world by the ADL found a "marked increase" in anti-Semitism in Argentina, Brazil, Poland, Russia, South Africa and Ukraine.

Goldberg knows all this, and knows the scope. But his line about "starting small" is a good one to remember while watching. Viruses are small too. We know all too well what they can do. 

 BOTTOM LINE As a guide through this hellscape, Goldberg is calm, rational, humane. At least someone is. Someone has to be. 


 

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