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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Bible Videos: Anti-Semitic or Just Plain Insensitive? : Television: The animated New Testament children's series contains ugly depictions of Jews, as does an 'infomercial' targeted at Christians.

August 30, 1991|HOWARD ROSENBERG

The host, a genial woman with a friendly smile, says: "Sit down, grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready for a preview party."

Some party.

What follows is a half-hour paid commercial for "Animated Stories From the New Testament," a set of 12 videos depicting the Bible with the kind of ugly, anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews that have been used to debase and ridicule them through the ages. Christian children are the target audience.

The program-length commercial has been running on several stations nationally, including KCOP Channel 13 in Los Angeles, where, following criticism of its content, it may not appear again, a station official said. The videos are also for sale in shopping malls.

With former Disney animator Richard Rich as director-producer, the production quality is first-rate. So on one level, these videos are likable. But not on another.

No slight to Jews is intended, insists Stephen W. Griffin, chief operating officer for Family Entertainment Network, the Dallas-based creator of the animated Bible stories. Griffin said he's "shocked" by criticism of the videos.

It's shocking that he's shocked.

Griffin said the videos are faithful to the King James Version of the Bible. "In every story, like in any Disney animation, there are good guys and bad guys," he said. "We didn't mean anything slanderous to our Jewish friends."

Still, animated excerpts being showcased depict Jews who reject Christianity--many identifiable by their traditional prayer shawls--as sinister and furtive, with whiny voices and noses that are long or bulbous.

Jewish converts to Christianity are portrayed as noble, soft-spoken and gentle. No big honkers, either.

Besides the broader Bible theme, the message seems to be that God grants nose jobs to Jews who become Christians.

"I'm horrified," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, where seven of the videos (supplied by Family Entertainment Network at the center's request) have been screened by the staff.

A companion coloring book contains stereotypical images plucked from the videos. "This is a first-class education on stereotyping," Hier charged. "It preserves anti-Semitism for the next generation. If that is the way we're going to teach the Bible into the 21st Century, we haven't learned much from the previous centuries."

The host of the TV presentation proudly asks: "Have you ever seen anything like this before?" Hier is sure he has. "If we took out the words and would have shown the visuals to a German living in Nazi Germany," Hier said, "he would have thought the author of these characters was Julius Streicher."

Streicher was the leading propagandist in Hitler's campaign against the Jews. And indeed, some of the big-nosed Jewish figures in the Bible videos are reminiscent of the anti-Semitic cartoons that filled Der Stuermer, Streicher's poisonous journal that had semi-official standing in Nazi Germany.

The hero of the videos is, naturally, Jesus, which seems to account for the fact that, although Jewish himself, he is spared the stereotypical traits given Jews who reject Christianity. "If you want to say Jews have certain physical characteristics, and at the same time you want to say Jesus was a Jew, you have to give him those same characteristics," Hier said.

Not in this scenario. Said Griffin about the traditional physical appearance of Jesus in his videos: "I don't think we've altered the standard Christian perspective of how Jesus has been portrayed." Only the standard rational perspective of Jews.

A sales brochure for the Bible stories boasts of an "executive advisory board" whose 14 members include ministers and religious media figures ranging from Father Michael Manning of Riverside, who hosts his own TV program on KSCI Channel 18, to the Rev. Donald E. Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., who uses his American Family Assn. to campaign against what he defines as smut in the arts.

Wildmon, who is quoted as calling the videos a "wholesome alternative," did not return calls to his office. Manning, who in the brochure endorses the videos as "fresh, exciting and biblically honest," confirmed by phone that he is "positive about the series from a Christian context."

Manning said he had seen all the tapes. Did none of the visuals of Jews strike him as negatively stereotypical? "Now that you mention it, yes," he replied. "I'm not sure that's the real intent, though. One of the difficulties is that the New Testament itself speaks of a time when there was a great deal of tension between Jewish Christians and the synagogue. But what you are saying is highlighting something that is making me very nervous."

Another board member willing to talk about the videos was Art Linkletter, whom the brochure quotes as calling them a "wonderful contribution."

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