The Film on Anti-Semitism That Has Germany Reeling

Anti-Semitism Documentary Chosen and Excluded
Courtesy of WDR

The documentary 'Chosen and Excluded – The Hate on Jews in Europe,' which screens in L.A. Aug. 9, has ignited a fierce debate about censorship, media bias and Europe's ugly history of discrimination.

A new film about a very old problem has become a cause celebre in Germany after two of Europe's most acclaimed public broadcasters refused to air a documentary on rising anti-Semitism on the continent.

Germany's WDR and ARTE, a French/German public network have been accused of bias, censorship and even institutional racism for their handling of a controversial film:  Chosen and Excluded – The Hate on Jews in Europe.

Directed by award-winning documentarians Joachim Schroeder and Sophie Hafner, the project had been commissioned by the two public channels but was blocked by ARTE before its broadcast. The network claimed the film was one-sided and not what was originally ordered. Only after a major public outcry and after Bild, Germany's biggest tabloid, briefly leaked the entire film online, was WDR forced to air the documentary, on June 21, but only under protest, and in a highly edited version.

When WDR and ARTE first commissioned Chosen and Excluded back in 2015, the subject of European anti-Semitism seemed especially timely. The 2014 Gaza-Israel conflict had sparked a very public wave of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment across Europe. There had been a spike in attacks against European Jews. And images, like those at demonstrations in Berlin in 2014 where pro-Palestinian marchers shouted “death to Israel” and “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig,” shocked liberal Europeans who thought the continent had put such virulent hatred behind it.

“The original idea of the film was to look at anti-Semitism across Europe: Germany, France, England, Hungary,” Schroeder told The Hollywood Reporter

Schroeder, whose doc credits include the film Anti-Semitism Today. Just How Anti-Jewish Is Germany? is known in the industry here as an outspoken and provocative filmmaker whose views on the subject of anti-Semitism are well-established.

“We knew we wouldn't get an Israeli-critical film,” admitted Jorg Schonenborn, director of television at WDR, in one of several TV interviews he has given on his channel regarding the documentary. Contacted by THR, Schonenborn declined to comment, pointing instead to his public statements on the issue.

Chosen and Excluded makes its purpose clear from the start. One of the first scenes shows Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, addressing the European Parliament in 2016. Abbas claims that Israeli rabbis have called on the government of Tel Aviv to poison the water system of the occupied territories. The claim is bogus, as Abbas later acknowledged (he claimed he was “misinformed”), but the film focuses in on it, seeing the story of “Jews poisoning wells” as one of a long history of what the film terms “anti-Jewish cliches and fantasies” that have been present in European society since the Middle Ages.

In broad strokes, Chosen and Excluded draws a direct link between the anti-Semitism of the past — from Dark Age pogroms to the virulent anti-Jewish writings of Protestant reformer Martin Luther and classical composer Richard Wagner — to attacks on Jews today in Paris and Berlin by Islamists and neo-Nazis.

More controversially, the film sees the same strain of hatred running through left-wing criticism of Israel and global capitalism. Alongside scenes of neo-Nazis and Islamists yelling anti-Semitic slogans, the documentary shows anti-globalization demonstrations and charities condemning Israel's actions in Gaza and the West Bank. Chosen and Excluded portrays them all as variations on the same, anti-Jewish theme.

“They paraphrase, they don't say: 'Jews are the source of evil in the world,' they say 'Israel is the source of evil in the world',” says Monika Schwarz-Friesel, an expert on anti-Semitism from TU Berlin University, in the film. “Instead of saying: 'Jews control international finance,' they fall back on Jewish, or Jewish-sounding names and say 'Rothschild or Goldman Sachs controls international finance.'"

In one particularly controversial section, the documentary accuses European non-governmental organizations, particularly Christian charities, of anti-Semitism for their support of Palestinian groups and anti-Israel campaigns, such as the cultural boycott of Israel. Several prominent filmmakers and musicians, including I, Daniel Blake director Ken Loach, Rogue One actor Riz Ahmed and electronic music pioneer Brian Eno, support the boycott, which calls on artists to refuse to perform in Israel or take funding from the Israeli government or institutions. Many others, including Oscar-winner Helen Mirren and Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, have vocally opposed the boycott.

Supporters of the boycott accuse Israel of enforcing a kind of racially divisive Apartheid in Palestine, similar to that of South Africa in the 1980s.

The film dismisses such protests as “propaganda” and often takes a sarcastic tone, revealing what it sees as anti-Semitism posing as humanitarianism.

“We are truly sorry for Israel, that they are in part doing to others what they suffered themselves,” a spokeswoman for Bread for the World, a Christian charity active in Gaza, says in the film. Followed by the scornful voiceover comment by the film's narrator: “This Holocaust comparison brought to you by Bread for the World.”

Schroeder and Hafner delivered their documentary to WDR in December. It was approved by WDR editor Sabine Rollberg and handed over to ARTE. That's when the problems began.

ARTE, specifically the French side of the channel, rejected the film. In an internal email forwarded to Schroeder and seen by THR, Alain Le Diberder, director of ARTE programming, says the documentary deviated dramatically from the commissioned concept and was “unbalanced.”

“Programs must adhere to editorial guidelines, which cannot be altered by producers on their own initiative,” Le Diberder said in a statement defending his decision to block broadcast of the documentary. The film, network argued, was supposed to be about anti-Semitism in Europe but half its running time was spent in the Middle East. ARTE also said the film didn't meet its “editorial standards.” The documentary was sent back to WDR. ARTE did not respond to a request for comment from THR.

Schonenborn bluntly dismisses the accusation of bias. “I don't know how you can be 'objective' about anti-Semitism,” Schonenborn tells THR. “Should I make an 'objective' film about Auschwitz and tell the other side there too?”

What happened next depends on who you talk to.

According to Schonenborn, when WDR watched the film, its executives shared ARTE's concerns and worked to correct the many “journalistic and legal issues” they had with the movie before deciding whether to broadcast it. The channel has said aside from Schroeder and Hafner's editorial stance, their documentary didn't meet WDR's journalist standards because the filmmakers did not get comments from several of the companies and organizations they discuss. WDR also questioned many of the facts cited in the film.

According to Schroeder, WDR, scared the film was too close to the mark, decided to shelve it. “I think, from their response, you can see we hit the nail on the head (with regards to persistent anti-Semitism in Europe)” he says.

Schroeder says ARTE France was worried from the start that the movie could offend the French Muslim community, a powerful lobby group. When they saw the finished film, he says, they balked.

Schroeder claims WDR did not approach him with suggestions for changes or edits to the film. His only communication with the commissioning broadcasters, he says, were two nearly identical emails from Alain Le Diberder forwarded to him by WDR editor Sabine Rollberg. The emails, which THR has seen, are vague about the channel's reasons for refusing to broadcast the film, saying only that “the finished film, in several key aspects, does not correspond to the (commissioned) project” and that the documentary is not sufficiently “balanced.”

In April, Schroeder decided to go public, speaking to German newspapers about the film and the broadcasters' refusal to air it. The response was immediate and intense. Newspapers, from right-leaning tabloid Bild to Berlin's left-leaning Taz, accused ARTE and WDR of censorship. (Bild slammed the two publicly-funded channels for denying viewers the right to see the documentary and make up their own minds).

The Central Council of Jews, the umbrella organization for the Jewish communities in Germany, called on the broadcasters to release the film. There were also a handful of critics who lauded the broadcasters' decision. Chief among them was Jakob Augstein, a columnist for Spiegel Online and a prominent TV pundit, who dismissed the film's very premise, saying Germany actually suffered from an “obsessive anti- anti-Semitism.”

On June 13, Bild took the unprecedented, and highly illegal, step of releasing the entire documentary on its website. Julian Reichelt, editor-in-chief for online at Bild, justified the move. “The fight against anti-Semitism has an overriding public interest in Germany,” he said in a statement.

It is unclear where the copy of the film Bild posted came from. Schroeder says he did not leak the film but said the production company sent out links to the film to several reviewers. According to Bild's own figures, the film, which was online for 24 hours, logged 200,000 views. A significant figure, though a fraction of Bild's online and print readership in Germany.

Bild's leak forced WDR's hand. Bowing to public pressure, both WDR's parent network ARD and ARTE broadcast Chosen and Excluded on June 21 — first in German, then, dubbed, in French. WDR added its own commentary to the film in the form of title cards questioning or contracting the statements onscreen. The channel also ran a crawl at the bottom of the screen pointing viewers to a website with “fact checks” of all the information, and opinions presented in the film.

“They butchered it,” says Schroeder.

But WDR was mistaken if it had hoped airing the film would end the controversy surrounding Chosen and Excluded. The debate surrounding the film has only continued to grow. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has agreed to screen the movie in Los Angeles on Aug. 9.

In a televised discussion following the German broadcast on June 21, Michael Wolffsohn, a prominent German-Jewish historian, and a fan of the movie (“by far the best, smartest and historically deepest documentary on this topic”) sarcastically congratulated WDR's Schonenborn on a “masterly PR move: you took a film that nobody would have seen and have turned it into a world event.”