Inside Amazon’s Struggle to Deal With an Anti-Semitic Film (EXCLUSIVE)

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Cheyne Gateley/VIP+

It’s been nearly a month since NBA star Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to an anti-Semitic film he found on Amazon Prime Video. But while the criticism seems to have shifted away from Irving to Amazon in recent weeks, the film isn’t going anywhere — for now. 

Sources familiar with the deliberations regarding the fate of “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America” at Amazon say the company currently has no plans to pull the film, or the books on which it is based, or add a disclaimer. Nor is Amazon going to publicly disclose any of that, in keeping with the company’s long-held belief in staying mum on its content guidelines, which have been fluid enough over the years to occasionally result in reversed decisions.  

But the radio silence shouldn’t be misinterpreted as indifference. To the contrary, insiders say how to properly handle “Hebrews” has been the subject of endless debates at numerous meetings, some of which have involved the top brass at Amazon.

While the company has a long and arguably inconsistent track record when it comes to policing controversial content on its own platform, “Hebrews” has been particularly challenging given how high-profile the Irving saga became. Few execs from the company’s headquarters in Seattle or its studio business in Culver City have been spared an earful from those wondering why the company is selling such vile material on its website. 

An Amazon rep declined comment.

“Hebrews” started in 2016 as a set of three books by Robert Dalton Jr. that recycled well-worn anti-Semitic tropes, from Jewish control of the media to Holocaust denial. He adapted his work to documentary form in 2018.

While media coverage has focused on why Dalton was permitted to release the film via Amazon Prime Direct, a component of the widely used subscription service that enables filmmakers to self-publish on Amazon, what’s escaped notice is that the “Hebrews” books were also self-published via Amazon as well.

Though Irving finally issued an apology for tweeting a link to the film back on Nov. 4, the controversy lingers. The Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Creative Community for Peace have called on Amazon and Barnes & Noble to cease selling the film and the books. Barnes & Noble complied on Nov. 15.

Amazon took fire from prominent commentators last week, including ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and top-rated podcaster Joe Rogan, who wondered aloud, “Isn’t that video for sale on Amazon? That’s the craziest thing ever. Kyrie’s getting in trouble and Amazon’s not?”

Amazon has not commented on “Hebrews” beyond telling The New York Times on Nov. 6 that it was “exploring adding a disclaimer to the film” in consultation with the ADL. But the ADL didn’t appear too happy with Amazon last week when the organization doubled down on its criticism, issuing a second statement from ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, who wrote, “I find it disturbing that it’s more than a week later and it appears Amazon is still ‘exploring.'”

While Amazon has cooled to the disclaimer idea, the company is currently weighing the ADL’s suggestion that the auto-fill capability in the search bar on Amazon.com not point to “Hebrews” film or books when that word is typed in by consumers. The ADL alludes to that recommendation in its latest writing on the subject to its mailing list, as well as delivering to Amazon a longer list of problematic titles available on its website.

ADL declined comment.

That auto-fill has become a consideration for Amazon is a testament to how much more nuanced these controversies are than simply keeping or pulling content. Amazon even contemplated removing the film and not the books, but ultimately nixed that idea. Also nixed: removing mention of “Hebrews” from the best-selling lists on the website that display evidence of surging sales for a title that barely mustered any sales previously.

The timing of the controversy couldn’t be worse for Amazon given heightened sensitivities concerning the troubling rise of anti-Semitism across the U.S., including recent comments made by Kanye West, who has since tweeted admiringly of Irving. The pressure is also mounting on Amazon when there are other pressing concerns on its radar: approximately 10,000 job cuts were announced by CEO Andy Jassy last week amid an economic downturn that has impacted many large corporations.

When Amazon first launched 26 years ago, book sales were the foundation on which the rest of Jeff Bezos’ empire would be built. To say he disrupted the publishing business is an understatement, and a big part of that was the way Amazon enabled self-publishing, which ballooned the catalog the company was selling.

But in the quest for scale, few controls were imposed on the self-publishing platform. In its early days, Amazon positioned itself in the free-speech corner. In a 1998 interview, Bezos declared, “We want to make every book available, the good, the bad and the ugly”; customer reviews would provide the necessary context, he suggested. The First Amendment doesn’t compel commercial enterprises to censor materials they sell unless they are illegal or obscene.

But it was books about pedophilia made available on Amazon.com that began to show the company that the balancing act between containing hate speech and defending free speech was not going to be easy. First came “Understanding Loved Boys and Boy Lovers,” which was flagged in 2002; Amazon defended itself in a statement then, making clear that while the company didn’t endorse the book, “People have the right to choose their own reading material.”

By 2010, Amazon seemed to lose its free-speech conviction after being bombarded by outraged users regarding another book, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: A Child-Lover’s Code of Conduct.” While the company initially defended its sale, the book ended up getting pulled days later when the complaints didn’t cease. Another trove of books and video depicting girls as young as 11 years old in various states of undress was spotted on Amazon.com around the same time.

It was at that time that Amazon began to wake up to the fact that its self-publishing arm was going to require drawing up a set of policies that governed what was or wasn’t content appropriate for sale, according to company insiders.

In January 2021, Amazon posted its “Approach to Controversial Products and Content,” which makes crystal clear that “the sale of products that promote, incite, or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual, or religious intolerance or promote organizations with such views” are prohibited. The company also has fairly detailed public-facing guidelines posted on Amazon.com regarding Offensive and Controversial Materials, as well as Content Guidelines for Books and Video Content Guidelines.

Amazon’s content guidelines are also fluid enough to be reactive to heightened sensitivities in times of crisis, such as nixing the streaming of the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show, with its ample imagery of Confederate flags, in the wake of the 2015 shooting at a black church in South Carolina. More recently, Amazon yanked the novel “The Turner Diaries,” which depicts an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government, just days after the Jan. 6 uprising. Other QAnon-related merchandise was pulled as well.

That responsiveness has also manifested on the anti-Semitism front. In the wake of a 2018 shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, Amazon was prompted to rethink the exception it had granted to anti-Semitic works of historical significance, like “Mein Kampf,” in its store; the Adolph Hitler book is known to be the only text on the website that carries a disclaimer, written more than 20 years ago by the ADL.

“Kampf” is back on Amazon.com today with the same disclaimer, but in a special edition in which it is re-contextualized by academic commentators, which is now a requirement for any work of that kind.

Will “Hebrews” become the second Amazon book to get a disclaimer, as the ADL had requested? Highly unlikely for the simple reason that Amazon won’t want to be seen as elevating a book and film that was almost entirely ignored prior to Irving’s tweet to the kind of stature “Kampf” has.

That’s just one of many theories floating around Amazon to explain the company’s strategic non-response to “Hebrews.” Another is the slippery slope Amazon would undoubtedly find itself on were it to withdraw the book or the film at such a high-visibility moment; such a move would open the floodgates to renewed demands from many other constituencies seeking action on content they don’t want to see on Amazon, either.

The ADL’s involvement also makes the “Hebrews” predicament difficult from an optics perspective: It’s not a good look to ban a book that alleges Jews control the media by having a company bend to the will of a Jewish advocacy organization.

The company has learned the hard way about being sensitive to being seen as censorious of marginalized communities. Tensions that arose earlier this year between management and LGBTQ+ employees over a range of issues, including the company’s refusal to take down books that offended transgender staff including “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters.” But another volume, the more conservative-friendly “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement,” was yanked from Amazon.com.

Amazon signaled in 2021 that the company has “chosen not to sell books that frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.” It was a rare articulation of policy beyond its guidelines, in contrast to the often vague references to content quality the company has offered as justification to producers and authors for previous removals.

Some of them have reported that Amazon has given no rationale at all, such as its nixing of streaming some films featuring graphic homosexual imagery, including “The Prince,” “Saint-Narcisse” and “Shortbus,”which can only be viewed by purchasing DVDs.

As Oscilloscope Pictures president Dan Berger told Indiewire when its doc “The Male Gaze: Nocturnal Instincts” was de-listed in May, “There’s no shortage of dicks readily available on Amazon, and apparently, there are plenty behind the scenes, too.”

While Amazon doesn’t look like it’s going to be changing its mind on “Hebrews” anytime soon, note that the company has reversed itself more than once before. In 2020, journalist Alex Berenson saw a booklet it published via Amazon, “Unreported Truths about COVID-19 and Lockdowns: Part 1: Introduction and Death Counts and Estimates,” get removed.

That raised hackles among conservatives, who have already been vocal about other content they believe Amazon is censoring to further a progressive agenda, as it did over the past few years by pulling pro-life documentary “Babies Are Murdered Here” and Supreme Court biography “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words.”

But the ensuing uproar prompted Amazon to do a 180 and put the booklet back on the platform, citing human error. The pandemic forced the company to play Whack-a-Mole in early 2020 as the first signs of COVID-19’s global spread materialized, prompting them to remove a plethora of misinformation and offensive merchandise.

The Prime Direct program where Dalton uploaded his film launched in 2016, inviting a flood of amateur content to Amazon, a boon to a site that prided itself on having the largest library of many different kinds of products.

But in subsequent years, the program narrowed that flood by taking steeper cuts of royalties. And then in February 2021, Prime Direct announced it would stop accepting documentaries and short films amid a purge of those types of content that were already uploaded; the company explained it as a “regular update to their service, based on customer viewing behavior.”

Because of its global footprint, Amazon is seen as an influential player in the marketplace for information. But that reach comes with its complications, as it did earlier this year over in the United Arab Emirates, where the government successfully prodded Amazon into blocking search results to all LGBTQ+ products.

Of course, Amazon isn’t the only digital giant that curates its catalog to please overseas markets where leaders enforce problematic ideologies; Netflix, Apple and Google have made similar pullbacks.

A more apt comparison for the predicament Amazon finds itself in with regard to monitoring content is with leading social-media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.

Nevertheless, there is also a key difference between Amazon and social platforms in that the latter is home to clearly identified user-generated content. But on Amazon, there isn’t much distinction made between premium and self-published content. Prime Video lends even the most poorly executed docs a veneer of respectability as they sit side by side in viewer recommendations for similarly themed but higher-quality product. 

Irving himself seemed to be struggling with how he was supposed to know to make that distinction when he told reporters of Dalton’s work, “It’s on Amazon, a public platform. Whether you want to go watch it or not is up to you.”