Abraham Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League

Defamation

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 June

 

Anne Frank’s Diary published, 1947

On this day in 1947, a book originally called Het Achterhuis. Dagboekbrieven 14 Juni 1942 – 1 Augustus 1944 (The Annex: Diary Notes 14 June 1942 – 1 August 1944) was published by Contact publishing in Amsterdam. The annex being the place where the 13-year-old Jew Anne Frank and her family, along with another Jewish family called the Pels, hid in order to avoid arrest by the Nazis. The annex was in the upper, hidden rooms of Anne’s father’s business premises and the family hid there from 6 July 1942 until their discovery and arrest in early August 1944. Written as a series of letters to friends, the diary ranges wide, covering Anne’s thoughts about humanity (optimistic), her feelings about her family (claustrophobic), even, in the later unexpurgated version, Anne’s feelings about sex and love, these sections causing the book to be banned in some parts of the world where honesty is not prized as highly as chastity. Anne started writing the journal as a personal diary, but redrafted it from April 1944 onwards, clearly with the intention of having it published some day. It was published, and became a literary sensation, though Anne had perished of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early March 1945, only weeks before the camp was liberated.

 

 

 

Defamation (2009, dir: Yoav Shamir)

Are the Jews overdoing the Holocaust? That’s an uncomfortable question to ask, in the light of what’s happened to them, and of the continuing eruptions of anti-Semitism in the world. Yoav Shamir’s revelatory documentary asks the question though. And thank god Yoav is a Jew, because otherwise the question could barely be asked. Setting out to dig a little, wondering why his generation of Israeli kids were taught barely anything about the Holocaust (he’s 29 when the film is being made) whereas young Israelis of today get plenty of it, Shamir’s first interesting observation is that, in schools at least, anti-Semitism has become part of the “chosen people” narrative (ie “they don’t like us because we’re chosen”). If this is true, it’s worrying, but the eyes open wider as Shamir accompanies an Israeli school trip to Poland, the kids flanked by secret service minders, the teachers feeding them with stories (“stay in your rooms, there are neo-Nazis on the streets”) that stoke the fire.
He then moves his focus more internationally, to the Anti-Defamation League. Headquartered in New York and with an annual budget running into millions of dollars, it’s an organisation whose remit is to work against anti-Semitism. Shamir buries himself almost Sacha Baron Cohen style inside the ADL, and then observes its work from the inside, noting that as with any organisation with a healthy bank balance, there are good people there for the right reasons, a lot of freeloaders, a few wrong’uns, and a number of what you might call the well intentioned but bewildered. In which camp does Shamir put the ADL’s boss, the sleek Abraham Foxman? Foxman is clearly a brilliant negotiator, a fiery and principled advocate but is he also guilty of feeding the myth of anti-Semitism in order to justify his paycheck? And Shamir’s digging seems to reveal not an organisation tireless in its endeavours to make the world a more peaceful place, but one ready to blow the tiniest spark of perceived anti-Semitism into a brush fire. Behold: the quango is fruitful and multiplies.
Meanwhile, on a wider, more contextual scale, Shamir talks to wise rabbis whose long view of history gives them a level headed attitude – anti-Semitism means nothing to practising Jews, opines one, it’s the secular Jews who are obsessed by it, possibly because they use it as some kind of cultural surrogate for faith.
Shamir isn’t the greatest interviewer – his tendency to ask closed questions is infuriating – but his access is astonishing. And his attitude is refreshing in all the debates about modern day Jewry (to use a word that seems to have slid from use). He points out that people of his generation understand entirely the distinction between being an Israeli, a Jew, a Semite and a Zionist, that the four are not the same, no matter how much the angry brigade who wheel out the ad hominem “self-hating Jew” argument against anti-Zionists insist the overlaps are more significant than the spaces between.
If, like Shamir, you want to live in a slightly more robust world where every tiny suggestion of a racial slur isn’t seen as the beginning of the slide towards the concentration camps, you’ll welcome this film. It’s also a revelatory look inside Israeli society, where the Jew/Israeli/Semite/Zionist debate is clearly more alive than those of us who live outside are given to believe, and a fascinating insight into the tendency for lobbies to self-perpetuate. I doubt it made Shamir many friends in high places.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A fascinating documentary
  • Shamir’s brilliant access
  • It’s not trying to catch anyone out, asks honest questions
  • Talks to those who are anti the Israeli lobby too

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Defamation – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Defamation”

  1. As a Jew born and raised in Israel, filmmaker Yoav Shamir claims never to have experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. So off he goes to find some. And what he does find often surprises him – and us. Indeed, his remarkably provocative and nuanced film "Defamation" becomes more of an examination of the internecine warfare occurring amongst Jews themselves than of gentiles' attitudes towards Jews.

    For instance, Shamir accompanies a group of Israeli youth on a trip to Poland, the goal of which is to help open the eyes of the youngsters to the realities of the Holocaust. Yet, the kids have been so primed by their leaders to fear the worst from the local citizenry that they wind up seeing anti-Semitic attitudes where none may actually exist. And it is a testament to Shamir's commitment to the truth and his integrity as a documentarian that he allows such potentially controversial and meme-undermining scenes to remain in his film. In a similar fashion, when he interviews a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn – a neighborhood notorious for its long-running tension between Jews and African–Americans – the religious leader, much to Shamir's amazement, actually accuses the heads of the Anti-Defamation League of having professional motives for ascribing anti-Semitism to incidents and crimes where that may not in fact be a primary factor – or a factor at all.

    If nothing else, Shamir provides a balanced view on his subject – though if anything he tends to give a somewhat more sympathetic hearing to the people in the Jewish community who take on organizations like the ADL for their more conservative views on anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. For instance, Shamir interviews Norman Finklestein, a highly controversial Jewish professor at the DePaul University in Chicago, who argues that a certain part of the Jewish establishment makes "cynical use of the Holocaust," and that whenever any policy or action performed by Israel is legitimately criticized, the underlying cause somehow always gets attributed to anti-Semitism – a condition he refers to as "pathological narcissism." For giving voice to this viewpoint, Finklestein has been labeled a "self-hating Jew," a "Holocaust-denier" (even though he lost his parents in concentration camps), and a "madman." He eventually lost his position at the university – due to pressure from the Jewish lobby he claims – and was denied entrance into Israel on the grounds of being a potential "security hazard.' Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL who gets interviewed extensively for the film, responds by saying that actual anti-Semites use criticism of Israel as an excuse to legitimately articulate their hatred of Jews – to give that hatred a patina of social respectability as it were.

    Shamir lays out the conflict between the Jewish left and the Jewish right in the United States – the former calling for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and accusing the right of favoring Israel's interests over those of the United States, and the latter working to keep Israeli issues front and center in the national dialogue.

    And back and forth it goes.

    Of course, this is not to in any way suggest that anti-Semitism doesn't exist in the world today or that Shamir never finds any evidence of it in his searching. For instance, he investigates a case of rocks being thrown at a Brooklyn school bus filled with Jewish children and another instance of a knife-wielding man stabbing people in a Moscow synagogue. Yet, interestingly, even many of the Jewish people involved with that latter incident pooh-pooh the idea that anti-Semitism was the cause and even go so far as to castigate Jews in general for using anti-Semitism as a convenient scapegoat for their own failures or misfortunes in life.

    Although he doesn't seem to have started out with that intention, Shamir has produced an amazingly provocative and controversial work, one that is guaranteed to get tempers flaring and people talking on both sides of the issue. And it's a much-needed eye-opener for anyone regardless of viewpoint.

  2. The persuasive power of most documentaries lies in their one-sidedness. This is not like most documentaries.

    The filmmaker has a point of view, but he does not jam it down your throat. He humanizes the people he disagrees with, while exposing the flaws of those he does agree with. He presents the issue of perceived anti-semitism in all it's complexity but still draws the viewer to a real conclusion.

    I thought the narration was a bit distracting because the filmer has a strong Israeli accent. Also, it was difficult to understand a few of the exchanges between he and his interviewees.

    Still, it was fine work.

  3. This film really hits the mark with regards to anti-semitism. For all intents and purposes, it does not exist. Racism against Jews is nothing compared to racism against blacks, Latinos or Arabs.

    The Anti-Defamation League really show their true selves in this video and do not even seem to notice. Complaints sent to them seem to be largely about Jewish folks not getting days off for holidays. That is not anti-Semitism. That is a work policy.

    Interestingly, Norman Finkelstein is shown raw here, too. Finkelstein is a great scholar and critic of the Jewish lobby. Here is shown making statements that do not present him in a favorable light. While his underlying point is correct, he comes off like a ranting lunatic, which hardly helps his cause.

  4. Thought this movie did a good job a laying out some basic issues surrounding questions of anti-Semitism, support and criticism of Israel, and the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.

    The movie benefited from the personal reflections of the director on the movie's subject, but on the other hand I often felt the movie relied too much on colorful depictions of individuals and groups and too little on a more "objective" and data-based examination of the question of whether and how much actual (and not just imagined) anti-Semitism results in harm to people around the world.

    A longer, more carefully researched film could probably have matched the depictions offered in this film with data about and the testimony of people who have been the brunt of truly injurious anti-Semitic prejudice.

    That said, I do feel the attitudes and beliefs illustrated by the individuals and groups depicted in this film are–as the film suggests–probably very often more at the root of concern about anti-Semitism than any real incidence of the latter.

    But, still, that's a very sweeping generalization and would need to be "documented"–something this documentary doesn't seem to do a great deal of.

    However, this was a very interesting and colorful film about a number of issues central to Jewish identity (especially the identity of "secular" Jews), and could be very valuable in sparking sharper thought and discussion about those issues. And also in encouraging more research on the actual extent, or lack thereof, of anti-Semitism around the world.

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