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Focus on Issues: Teaching Tolerance on T.v.; Spate of Shows Have Purpose

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The Holocaust and anti-Semitism continue to be choice themes among television executives.

While these programs are produced primarily for entertainment, say television executives and observers, they also serve a greater purpose — teaching tolerance.

"Anti-Semitism and racism [are] still vibrant in 1997," and movies about the Holocaust are "about people triumphing over oppression," said Mark Zakarin, executive vice president of original programming at the Showtime cable channel.

Showtime has aired several movies on the Holocaust, the latest of which is "Rescuers: Stories of Courage," a trilogy of films about non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews.

Barbra Streisand is the executive producer of the films. The first installment of the trilogy will be broadcast this month, and the others will air sometime in 1998.

"Many viewers want to emulate the attitude, behavior and actions" of characters they see on television, said Jonathan Pearl, director of the Jewish Televimages Resource Center, an organization that seeks to increase the awareness about Jews on television.

"Seeing characters engaged in battle against hatred can only be positive," he added.

Holocaust stories, though difficult to tell, often have the grentest appeal to moviemakers.

Steve Bell, president of the Entertainment Division of Encore Entertainment, STARZ’s parent company, said the script for the TV-movie "A Call to Remember" blew "us all away and moved us to tears. That doesn’t happen frequently."

"A Call to Remember," which airs this month on STARZI, tells the story of two Holocaust survivors who lose their families to the Nazis and begin a new life and new family together.

Their lives are turned upside down when the wife learns that a son she thought had died in the Holocaust, some 20 years earlier, may be alive.

A powerful storyline is also what inspired officials at Showtime to remake Rod Sterling’s 1960 script "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" earlier this year.

It "is deeply moving," Zakarin said of the story, which is about a rabbi and his two children in the Warsaw Ghetto.

As conditions in the ghetto worsen, the rabbi struggles to retain both his faith and his grip on reality. When a revolt begins, a Nazi sergeant offers to take the rabbi’s daughter out of the ghetto. The only obstacle is her brother, who refuses to let her leave with a Nazi.

For its part, USA Networks believes that "Not in This Town," a made-for-cable movie based on a true story, would show people that one person can make a difference in battling hate.

"Not in This Town" is about Tammie Schnitzer, who leads a virtually solo battle to stop white supremacists from spreading hate in Billings, Mont. Bomb threats against a synagogue aren’t enough to motivate other residents to join Schnitzer’s fight.

But when a rock is thrown through the bedroom window of Schnitzer’s son on Chanukah, an outraged city realizes it must stand up and fight against the supremacists. Menorahs, for example, appear in windows across the town.

"We made this picture because hate is prevalent in our society today and it takes individuals to fight against it. Indeed, Tammie Schnitzer’s story is emblematic of one person’s resolve to eradicate hate from her community," said Rod Perth, president of USA Networks entertainment.

Executives at USA were hoping "Not in This Town" would lead to discussions on hate. Producers of the CBS series "Promised Land" had the same hopes after a recent episode on anti-Semitism.

"We’re the perfect show to try and explore this subject" because "we’re a family show," said Bill Schwartz, a producer of "Promised Land."

The series follows a family, who after being visited by angels, is given a mission to help the people they come in contact with.

In "Intolerance," written by Schwartz, the Green family comes to town just as teen-age vandals deface the local synagogue and attack the rabbi. The Greens learn that the only witness to the attack is a woman who escaped from the Nazis. With the Greens’ encouragement, the woman comes forward to tell the truth.

The "villain" in this episode is not a neo-Nazi because, Schwartz said, "I always wanted to do an anti-Semitism episode where you don’t hate the people at the end."

Rather, Schwartz wanted to show that "bigotry is taught father to son, mother to daughter," and that "something done as a joke can do real harm."

Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, believes television makes some topics easier to discuss.

She credits the late 1970s NBC miniseries "Holocaust" with creating dialogues on the topic.

The miniseries was rebroadcast on The History Channel in September. A panel discussion about the Holocaust followed each night’s episode.

According to Televimages’ Pearl, many survivors welcome the dramatized accounts of the Holocaust because it can reach people who have not heard of the the event or have heard about it only from Holocaust deniers.

"If a TV program with all its flaws and deficiencies comes along and unequivocally and dramatically and poignantly points to facts and horrors, many see that as an obviously positive thing," Pearl said.

"On cable every night you see a documentary about the Holocaust and World War II. It’s encouraging. A younger generation is exposed to what happened," STARZ’s Bell said.

"It is [our] mission to keep memories alive and tell people what happened," he added.

Lipstadt said the Holocaust is a hot topic because it raises the question: "Have we learned anything?"

PBS officials agreed.

A recent documentary on the trial of Adolf Eichmann seemed like a "timely program, with similar echoes in Rwanda and Bosnia," said Harry Forbes, director of programs press relations at PBS.

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