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TELEVISION REVIEW

Film keys on falsehoods that drive anti-Semites

In "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century," a man in France looks at a Jewish cemetery headstone desecrated by a swastika . (GIL MICHEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

There are two ways, it seems, to combat an idea like anti-Semitism. There's the "Borat" approach, in which you expose it, mock it, and try to slaughter it with irony: Create a silly Jew-hating character who's played by a religious Jew -- and actually speaks in Hebrew.

Then there's the straightforward approach: Shine a bright spotlight on the phenomenon and demonstrate, without a doubt, that it exists. In other words, do it as journalism.

That's the strategy of "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century," a documentary, airing tonight at 10 on Channel 2, and it serves as a fitting counterpoint to the multiplex phenomenon. Mostly, it proves that Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat, the faux Kazakh reporter who believes Jews can turn themselves into cockroaches, isn't the absurd caricature we'd like him to be.

Out in the world, as filmmaker Andrew Goldberg shows, there are still people who believe in an almost mystical set of falsehoods. A young woman in Cairo says there were no Jews in the World Trade Center on 9/11; she knows this for a fact since she was in America at the time.

A young boy, perhaps 3 years old, is asked what he thinks of Jews. "They are apes and pigs," he says.

"Who said they are so?" says an off-camera female voice.

"Our God."

These are punch lines in the film, brief moments of chilling proof. Mostly, Goldberg presents a historical overview, and makes the convincing case that the ideas that now pervade the Middle East -- and are fueled by resentments from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- actually had their roots in Europe.

Goldberg tries to fit a lot of facts into an hour, and the film, narrated by Judy Woodruff, explains the roots of European anti-Semitism in only a cursory way. We're told that the New Testament lays the foundation -- "No other religion," one expert says, "accuses another of killing its god" -- but we don't hear much about the social realities that may have helped hatred to fester and spread.

The narrative slows down when it reaches the Protocols of the Elders of Zion , the Russian forgery that spread through Europe in the 20th century (and was later propagated in the United States by Henry Ford). Repudiated in the Western world, the book -- which purports to uncover a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world -- has burrowed into modern Arab culture.

And, as historians attest, its theories have merged with the bitter conflict over land. When Israel defeated a host of Arab armies in 1967, Woodruff says, the idea of a vast conspiracy "gave an explanation for the otherwise unfathomable."

Apparently, it still does. In its most disturbing segments, the film shows clips from a pair of TV series, widely aired in the Arabic-speaking world, that portray Jews as Satanic caricatures. In one, they kill a Christian boy and use his blood to make matzo. Goldberg interviews producers and TV executives who claim they're doing nothing wrong; they're merely explaining history.

But even false history, turned into film, can carry the weight of truth. We'd like to think that "Borat" is a powerful way to combat hateful ideas. "Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century" reminds us that the power of fiction can be used to spread hatred, as well.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

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