If anti-Semitism is not, as is often claimed, the world’s oldest hatred, it is certainly in the running, and the documentary “Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations” briskly examines the how and the why.
As directed by veteran television filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, “Viral” makes the point that one of the reasons for anti-Semitism’s survival is its ability to adapt and spread like a virus. Of the “thousands of mutations” available to examine, narrator Julianna Margulies explains, the film has focused on a very visible quartet.
Though “Virus” could have lived without the presence of director Goldberg as an on-camera through-line, it is at its best in presenting strong and vivid examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions.
As much as we see and know that the virus is out there, actually hearing things like a Washington, D.C., councilman proclaiming that global warming exists because “the Rothschilds control the climate to create natural disasters” is little short of boggling.
The first of the four episodes, the longest and most involving of the group, is not surprisingly the one from the United States where anti-Semitism is a creature of the far right.
After setting things up with a recap of the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue where 11 died (“the suspect keeps talking about killing Jews,” the police radio says, “he doesn’t want any of them to live”), “Viral” takes off in a few different directions.
First is a meeting with a man named Russell Walker, an affable gentleman encountered campaigning for the North Carolina House of Representatives from Hoke County.
But just as we’re beginning to wonder what such a genial individual is doing in this film Walker begins to espouse savagely bigoted views, insisting that “god is a racist” who favors white people and that Jews were an especially evil force.
This leads to an examination by prominent figures of the conspiracy theory root causes of antisemitism, summed up by George Will, who notes that when the question “who did this to us” comes up, “Jews are always a candidate.”
This reason connects to the film’s second segment, set in Hungary and focusing on the way Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have similarly scapegoated Jewish financier George Soros, accusing him of being a puppet master attempting to force Hungary to accept Muslim immigrants.
Shots of the vast scope of anti-Soros material (often with anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on it) are daunting, as is the sight of Orban himself orchestrating photos with compliant rabbis (“It looks like ‘Fiddler on the Roof,” someone says) whenever charges of anti-Semitism surface.
“If he stopped people from thinking and got them into blaming,” explains Bill Clinton, “he would have a base that didn’t care what else he did.”
“Viral’s” next segment, dealing with the accusations that Britain’s Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn has embraced a hostility to Israel that has morphed into anti-Semitism, is the weakest of the group.
The film regains its footing with the final segment on France and Islamic Radicalism, as it talks movingly to survivors of anti-Semitic massacres and the brother of one of the perpetrators.
Though it is too glib at moments, “Viral” scores points with examples that underscore the seriousness of the situations it depicts. Old as it is, anti-Semitism has never gone away and shows no signs of doing so any time soon.
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts March 13, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Town Center, Encino