A young man is walking to his synagogue in London when a group of boys approaches on bicycles. As they pass, one of them punches the young man in the face, unprovoked.
“That’s what happens to Jews,” he says, as they ride off.
Does the incident herald another Holocaust?
That’s not a flippant question.
When do the margins become the mainstream? When do isolated incidents become the norm? The rallying cry of “Never Again,” by its nature, demands watchfulness, because preventing a Holocaust requires the world to recognize what the seeds of a Holocaust are.
That concern underlies the tales of modern anti-Semitism in “The Monster Among Us,” a documentary shown for about 75 people at the University of Pittsburgh on Nov. 19. The screening was hosted by Hillel-Jewish University Center and other groups.
Dallas filmmakers Allen and Cynthia Salzman Mondell traveled through six European countries talking to Jews and journalists about anti-Semitism on the streets, in the schools and the press, and on the Internet. What emerges is a picture of grassroots anti-Semitism across the continent: uncoordinated, not state sponsored, but vile and pervasive.
In an attempt to determine causes, the movie touches on common theories: Immigrating Muslims bringing Middle Eastern prejudices to Europe, a left-leaning press siding with a perceived underdog in the Palestinians, the Internet’s ability to spread conspiracy theories, and European educational institutions building anti-Israel bias into curricula.
But “The Monster Among Us” is less about causes than impacts.
While the movie includes numerous interviews with journalists, the real insight comes from hearing the stories of average Jews sitting in living rooms, cafes and synagogues.
They describe a European continent where yarmulkes and Stars of David draw nasty comments, and where Jewish children move to Israel to avoid harassment in Europe.
They describe being attacked by a twisted chain of logic: Being Jewish means being Israeli. Israel equals America. America is an aggressor. Therefore, Jews are aggressors. And the proposed defense against these charges of “dual loyalty?” Become less Jewish.
Again and again, Jews young and old, religious and secular describe incidents they say would have been unimaginable even a few years earlier. Most of the footage comes from 2004, just a few years after the Second Intifada and 9/11, at the height of the Iraq war.
The movie is not an academic work. It’s closer to advocacy journalism. Allen Mondell admitted that the film is biased and one-sided, but said they weren’t trying to offer a complete look at the intricacies of the problem. They wanted to offer a barometer of the Jewish mood in Europe, giving a voice to people who sense growing hatred around them.
In that sense, the movie is valuable, but limited. It requires a split reaction.
Diligence in confronting anti-Semitism is one of the greatest traits of the Jewish community; it shows the tremendous value Jews place in protecting even one fellow Jew, and this movie will and should inspire some Jews to help brothers and sisters abroad.
But at the same time, it’s important for viewers, especially Jewish viewers, to temper the immediate anger and shock that almost certainly will come from watching this material.
It’s important to ask: Does each story of anti-Semitism in the movie represent 100 similar untold stories, or for each person in the movie are there 100 European Jews living peacefully? And does grassroots anti-Semitism across a continent automatically threaten to spill upward to government policy, or does the relative lack of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in Europe promise to keep the popular hatred on the streets in check?
When a German Jewish journalist in the film says he is “convinced that we’re going to have another Holocaust,” it’s important to accept his claim, but only with skepticism. As the journalist himself goes on to note: Germany, with its personal knowledge of the impact of the anti-Semitism, is unlikely to allow another Holocaust to come to pass.
In the movie, a college student describes an incident. A professor kept referring to Palestine. So after class she went to the professor and told him that since 1948, the land he called Palestine is known as Israel. So the professor called it Israel from then on.
“Even though we don’t see anti-Semitism everyday, we have it in our roots. We have it in our blood,” a Belgian woman says in the film. She means that thousands of years of being hated have given the Jews a rare ability to detect negative shifts in public opinion.
Maybe, though, it’s best for Jews to get anti-Semitism out of our blood and put it into our brains. Worry will not prevent a Holocaust, but continuing to educate the world about the consequences of intolerance, building coalitions to combat anti-Semitism and other hatred, and having a place in the world for Jews to call home no matter what just might.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)