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‘Viral’ Explores the Origin and Impact of Global Anti-Semitism

In Jewish communities across the United States, the signs are literally on the wall. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and attacks against Jews are becoming more violent. In 2014, 609 anti-Jewish hate crime incidents were reported to the FBI. By 2018, that number had risen by 40%. And it’s estimated that 75% of these hate crimes go unreported. The global statistics are just as alarming. A 2018 study by the European Union found that 40% of European Jews live in fear of being attacked. Through archival video and images and interviews with notables including former President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, journalist and author Fareed Zakaria, political commentator and author George Will and historian and author Deborah Lipstadt, the documentary “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” explores the sources of and reasons behind anti-Semitic hate.

“We wanted to pick the most visible and clear examples of how anti-Semitism is presenting itself today,” filmmaker Andrew Goldberg told the Journal. “There are thousands and thousands of mutations. We chose four, but we could have done 400 or 4,000.” He zeroed in on the far right in the U.S., the anti-Israel far left in England, Islamist extremists in France, and the Hungarian government, where a propaganda campaign has made Jewish billionaire George Soros the scapegoat for the country’s problems. “In every case, the Jews are seen as a power working behind the scenes, controlling the economy,” he said. “It’s a spoke of a conspiracy wheel. And it never changes.”

Goldberg began the project in 2017, when reports of anti-Semitic vandalism and bomb threats escalated and personal attacks and rallies like Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Va., became more common. “It was not hard for us to see it coming. We thought it was time to make a film,” he said. “I thought there was a hole that needed to be filled. I don’t think the mainstream media particularly cares about this issue and the Jewish community doesn’t have a lot of allies in this fight. I wasn’t able to fundraise from a single non-Jewish organization or foundation.”

Goldberg spent three years on the project, continually researching and updating as more hate incidents occurred. More than 100 people worked on the film, including three full-time archivists. His biggest challenge was changing “very preconceived notions about what anti-Semitism is, how it works, where it comes from and what needs to be done about it. Those narratives vary greatly across the population and many of them are wildly inaccurate. It’s a struggle that we have as journalists to report things when people don’t want to hear it.”

“We wanted to pick the most visible and clear examples of how anti-Semitism is presenting itself today. There are thousands and thousands of mutations. We chose four, but we could have done 400 or 4,000.” — Andrew Goldberg

While growing up in Chicago, Goldberg encountered very little anti-Semitism, but he didn’t feel that being Jewish was an asset. “I didn’t feel like my friends and peers welcomed it. I was often the only Jew and I was always an outsider because of it whenever religion came up,” he said. “I didn’t think being Jewish had any value.” His maternal great-grandfather was a well-known cantor in Chicago, but Goldberg was raised in a Reform family by parents who were not religious. “My kids are more involved in Jewish education than I ever was,” he said, noting that his three children attend Hebrew school near their New York City home, and the family celebrates Jewish holidays and Shabbat. “We want them to have that.”

A genealogy buff, Goldberg traced his forebears’ Russian roots to towns in what is now Ukraine. They emigrated in the early 1900s, but their kin who remained in the town of Kremenets perished in the Holocaust, shot and thrown in a mass grave. “Viral” includes interview footage of a witness to the atrocity.

A former broadcast journalist who freelanced for ABC News and CNN, Goldberg found his way into documentary filmmaking when he was offered the chance to work on “The Armenians: A Story of Survival” in 2001. Since then, he has directed documentaries for PBS, NPR, “CBS Sunday Morning,” and has made several with Jewish themes, “Jerusalem: Center of the World” and the Emmy-winning “A Yiddish World Remembered” among them. He currently is working on a film about animal cruelty.

As for “Viral,” there are plans beyond its theatrical release. Besides a showing on PBS later this year, “We’re talking with one major educational group about distribution in high schools and colleges,” Goldberg said. “We’d really like to show it in schools with a Christian emphasis, places like that.” He believes increasing awareness and understanding is the only hope of preventing anti-Semitism from escalating further. But he’s not optimistic.

“I absolutely think it will get worse and I have no idea what will turn it around. This is an ugly world we’re living in. How can I, as a journalist and documentary filmmaker, tell someone in France what to do about Islamists? Or tell someone in Hungary what to do about the government’s propaganda campaigns that have created a Jewish bogeyman? It’s far beyond the scope of the film to come up with solutions,” he said. “But we do feel that educating the population about the problem is the most important first step.

“People need to realize it’s a problem and understand that just because visible parts of the community are doing well doesn’t mean that anti-Semitism isn’t a danger. Anti-Semitism is often the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “When it starts to emerge, you know that other problems will be coming.”

“Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” opens on March 13 at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles and Town Center in Encino.

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