In France, a man known as Dieudonné appears before crowds who shout out their approval when he claims that the Holocaust has become an engine of “profit.” He then brings an actor onstage in ragged clothes who pretends to be a Jew being deported. Dieudonné is no historical denier; his point is that the Holocaust happened, but that we don’t have to pretend to give a damn. (“I shouldn’t have to choose between the Jews and the Nazis,” he says with a smirk, evoking Donald’s Trump’s comments about the Charlottesville riots.) The most shocking thing about him, though, is that Dieudonné isn’t a far-right politician. He’s a comedian. In France, the new wave of anti-Semitic fervor is more than ideology — it’s entertainment. In the 21st century, that’s how you know that it’s working.
Dieudonné is one of a dozen or so figures featured in “Spiral,” a documentary about the new rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. It’s a disquieting movie, because it attaches faces and attitudes and a close-up vision of civilized hatred to the kind of news story that, in the United States, we tend to register as a nearly statistical abstraction. The reports of European anti-Semitism that come over here are generally tied to incidents of violence. “Spiral” certainly captures the toxic phenomenon of homegrown ethnic terrorism, but it also captures how the hatred has spread like wildfire among those who don’t necessarily commit violence themselves.
A Jewish lawyer named Julien talks about a friend of his who “was attacked by five guys, had his face kicked in.” He pleaded for help in the street, and someone stopped and asked the attackers, “Is he Jewish?” When they said yes, he replied, “Well, carry on, that’s fine.”
We hear other anecdotes: about Jewish children killed in Toulouse — the first time such an incident has occurred in France since World War II; about a security guard shot outside a synagogue in Copenhagen; about protesters at an otherwise legitimate anti-Israel demonstration in Holland calling for “death to the Jews”; about a study that shows anti-Semitic acts in Britain rising to the highest level ever recorded.
The upshot of all this is that the Jews of Europe, feeling fundamentally unsafe, have begun to flee. And that, of course, is all part of the design; they’re being hounded to leave. Many emigrate to Israel, where the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has called for them to “come home.” But this may strike one as an egregious piece of opportunism (if not racism) on his part — as if Jews who’ve grown up and spent their lives in France or England or Denmark should stop calling those places “home.”
“Spiral” captures how the issue of Israel is, in fact, at the epicenter of the anti-Semitic fervor that is now escalating in Europe. Increasingly, there is mass rejection not merely of the policies but of the very notion of “the Jewish State,” which is viewed as occupied territory. In Europe, far more than in the U.S., the protests against Israel, while legitimate on the surface, are linked, just beneath the surface, to anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. An idea voiced with increasing openness is that the media controls the narrative, and that the media is controlled by a Jewish cabal. (It’s not just about Israel, either: We see a racist cartoon that links Black Lives Matter to alleged Jewish domination of the media.)
These are the kinds of “emotional” ideas that are taking hold in Europe like a virus. And, of course, one can’t help but feel that they’re a sobering throwback to an earlier time. There’s an ironic sense in “Spiral” that Jews, for decades, were protected by the Holocaust — by the reverence the world gave to its memory — and that the protection is slipping as the moral solemnity that surrounded the 20th century’s greatest horror now fades. The truth is that in parts of Europe, historical reverence for the mass calamity the Jews suffered during World War II has devolved into a kind of boredom. The new ideology is, “Enough already.”
“Spiral” is an informative documentary, but I wish it were a more meticulously crafted one. The director, Laura Fairrie, interviews Jewish families trapped in fear who have decided to emigrate, along with people like Julien who prefer to stay and fight, as well as several of the figures who are fomenting intolerance. She sits down and talks to Dieudonné ( a bold move for a documentary journalist), and also to a community activist named Nabil, who complains about media bias that treats attacks on Jews as more dire than attacks on blacks or Asians. He may have a point, but then, without missing a beat (or blinking an eye), he adds, “To the youth around here, Jews are extraterrestrials.” As if this were a commonsensical notion justified by media bias.
Where Fairrie makes a key mistake is in spending time in Israel, speaking to starry-eyed Jewish settlers and the Palestinians who look at them with fear and loathing. We’ve heard the sentiments voiced by both sides countless times before — and in a 79-minute movie, this takes crucial time away from the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe. On that score, “Spiral” lacks context, a sense of historical exploration. The film simply examines the prejudice that’s standing right in front of it. It’s chilling, but it’s the tip of the iceberg.