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Q & A

ZVI DOR-NER: The Roots of Hate

April 18, 1993|ROBERT KOEHLER

Producer Zvi Dor-Ner's historical trilogy "The Longest Hatred" is an ambitious attempt to explore the root causes and legacy of anti-Semitism, from its origins in ancient Christianity, to its expression in racist and nationalist movements and, finally, the strife between Israel and the Arab world. Filmed over three years on several continents and funded by WGBH and Thames Television, the project was so personal to Dor-Ner, that, as he explains to writer Robert Koehler from London, he felt almost too close to the issue, and worried if he would be able to give it a fair hearing. It presented a new challenge for Dor-Ner, an Israeli TV veteran who was born in Israel. His first production for American public television was "Arabs and Israelis" in 1974; he went on to produce the business series "Enterprise," "War and Peace in the the Nuclear Age" and, most recently, the seven-part series "Columbus and the Age of Discovery."

How it is possible to sum up anti-Semitism in less than three hours?

It's difficult, but the purpose of the series is to try to look at the sources of anti-Semitism, not to catalogue every anti-Semitic event. We wanted to get at the essence of the problem, which is the recognition of the Other. But thinking back on it now, identifying anti-Semitism as a totally unique case almost smacks of placing the Jew as the Other again! Yet with the Holocaust, it did reach dimensions that are unique.

The first section, which explores how anti-Semitism developed among Christians, notes that the apostle Paul blamed the Jews for the killing of Jesus. Is this where it all began?

I found the explanation of Paul extremely enlightening. You can't take the New Testament as absolute truth, but as a document written in a political context, with two Jewish sects--the new Christians, with Paul as their spokesman, and the traditional Jews--clashing with each other under Roman occupation. Out of fear, neither could blame the real killers, the Romans, for what was done, so one competing sect blamed the other. This was a vicious religious conflict between brothers, the worst kind.

But the spread of anti-Semitism wouldn't have happened had the Jews not been expelled by the Romans from the Middle East, and became the Other in Europe, which was being Christianized. So, here are the people who killed Jesus, right here in your backyard, and they look different, and they behave differently.

European Catholicism, especially, sometimes does not come off looking well in the program.

You think so? That wasn't our intention. Judaism is by definition imperfect, since it has a human history, as does Catholicism. We tried--though I'm not sure we always succeeded--in showing aspects of history, from Biblical times to the present strife in the Middle East, but not to attach blame to any one group. I don't hold St. Paul as responsible for Hitler. I'm not in a position to ask people why they are not heroes. I mean, half of my family was killed by Poles, and half was saved by Poles. Some were terrible, some were good. But if this film can be understood only by Jews, it will be diminished. If it is to do any good, it should be understood by non-Jews, and it won't be understood if it offends them.

Today, isn't anti-Semitism less a religious problem than one involving nationalism and racism?

Yes, and it's more difficult, since in the past, though it was terrible, all a Jew had to do to escape prejudice was convert. But when anti-Semitism transformed into a racial problem in the 19th Century, there was no way for a Jew to escape his DNA. That's what made Nazism so horrible.

The common element we found while filming in Poland, Austria and Russia is nationalism, with Jews perceived as not being of the nation. So, when a Pole is seen by definition as a Catholic, how can a Jew be a Pole? Jews can then be considered inadequately patriotic, and blamed for the country's problems. Russian anti-Semitism is extensive, and it's mixed in with fears of Slavs blending in with Asians. But in the big northern cities, the ones who stand out are Jews, the ones irrationally accused of bringing communism to the country.

Can Jews and Arabs find common ground, with anti-Semitic sentiments spreading in the Middle East?

Jews and Palestinians understand very well that they have a conflict over very little real estate. The anti-Semitic stuff becomes ammunition in the conflict. I don't think Arabs are anti-Semitic. Besides, the similarities between Palestinians and Jews are substantial: We share traditions of the Diaspora, of education, of loving the same place. But if this conflict continues, with imagery on both sides that is demonizing, it will be very destructive--and morally and practically stupid.

"The Longest Hatred" airs 9 p.m. Wednesday on KCET .

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