Defamation [subtitled in part]


Defamation is an Israeli documentary about anti-Semitism, or more specifically about charges of anti-Semitism and whether they tend to be accurate or used as political ploys. It has a modest amount of playfulness or wry humor to it, so it’s not dry and dull, but on the whole it treats a very serious subject seriously.

Filmmaker Yoav Shamir travels around Israel, Europe, and the United States, observing and interviewing both public figures and ordinary folks, trying to get some sense of how prevalent anti-Semitism is today.

The evidence is mixed, though by the end he seems to lean toward the view that the amount of anti-Semitism, and the threat it poses to Jews and Israel, is overblown.

A number of his encounters are quite striking, on all sides of the issue.

A cab driver is not familiar with the term “anti-Semitism” and when it’s explained to him it puzzles him. Jews run the world, so what sense does it make to talk about how they’re oppressed or unjustly criticized? It certainly doesn’t seem to him that anyone is disadvantaging them.

African Americans interviewed in Crown Heights scoff at the notion that Jews are victims of any kind of prejudice. To the contrary, Jews, being white, have advantages over the local blacks, such as in how they are perceived by law enforcement and other authority figures. And oh by the way, one points out, The Protocol of the Elders of Zion shows how ruthless and powerful they are.

Maybe the most eye-opening such scenes, though, are those of Israeli young people, both in Israel and on a field trip to Auschwitz in Poland. The message is hammered home over and over and over again in Israeli schools that Jews are a despised minority, that the world is against them, that anti-Semites are always alert to any sign of weakness in Jews, that as soon as Israel lets its guard down in the slightest there will be another Holocaust. They are warned that in traveling to Poland they will be in hostile territory, that they must stay together, stay in the areas guarded by the accompanying Israeli security people, and avoid being in any way vulnerable to the locals.

As a result, the young people are frightened and paranoid. They admit to hatred and a desire for revenge, sometimes as something to be proud of and sometimes as something they are ambivalent about or inclined to fight against internally.

In one scene when an Israeli group visits Auschwitz, a couple of older Poles on a park bench attempt some friendly small talk with some Israeli girls walking past them. The girls respond with the scared, alert expressions of deer reacting to a suspicious noise, and the parties are unable to understand each other due to language issues. Another Israeli hurries over and hustles the girls away, chastising them for interacting with the locals, informing them that they were being insulted and threatened.

Later the girls are interviewed, and they recount their terrifying face-to-face encounter with anti-Semitism, telling Shamir what terrible things the Jew-hating Poles said to them. Of course Shamir has the whole thing on video and knows that what they’re telling him is untrue, even if they themselves believe it. He tells them what they’re recounting never happened. They look at him doubtfully, and seemingly settle into the compromise position that even if it didn’t happen exactly as they’re remembering it, it sure was a scary incident.

The two figures who get the most time on camera in Defamation are Abe Foxman and Norman Finkelstein.

Foxman is the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, an American group that publicizes and combats alleged incidents of anti-Semitism. He and his organization represent the view that anti-Semitism is very real and an ongoing threat to Jews, that the Israeli political Right is correct in its foreign policy and military policy, and that the duty of American Jews is to fully support that type of Israeli “strength.”

Finkelstein is an American academic who contends that there is very, very little anti-Semitism today compared to the hatred and oppression directed at other groups, and that accusations of anti-Semitism are all too often cynical political attempts to discredit any criticism of aggressive Israeli policies against the Palestinians or anyone else.

Though I suspect Finkelstein’s position is closer to that of Shamir, I wouldn’t say the film is edited to make him more sympathetic than Foxman. If anything Finkelstein seems more angry, arguably even a little unstable.

He is also shown giving a “Heil Hitler” salute as a way of mocking his opponents. (Not surprisingly, he has been attacked in the most vicious and hateful terms for what he has written, accused of being so much of a self-hating Jew as to be in effect a Nazi.) Shamir calls him on this, asking him if—regardless of his position on the alleged misuse of allegations of anti-Semitism for political purposes—he understands how insensitive he is being with such a gesture, what pain it will cause some people who see it.

He is completely dismissive of this. He tells Shamir that as Shamir well knows, Hitler and Nazi references are ubiquitous among Jews, that it’s an utterly mundane way Jews put each other down, including within families and groups of friends—“Stop being such a Nazi!,” “They had better food than this at Auschwitz!,” etc.—and that for Shamir to suggest otherwise to non-Jews watching the film is disingenuous.

I don’t know if Finkelstein is a “self-hating Jew,” but he certainly seems to have a lot of hostility toward certain Jews. Then again, it may be an understandable hatred given what he has been subjected to by those who oppose his views.

To some extent Shamir’s inquiry boils down to whether criticizing or opposing Israel constitutes, or at least generally is motivated by, anti-Semitism. (Or more specifically whether criticizing or opposing the Israeli Right represented by such figures as Netanyahu constitutes, or at least generally is motivated by, anti-Semitism.)

As I say, young Israelis are being force fed the idea that it most definitely is anti-Semitic to criticize Israeli, defend Palestinians, etc. “Never Again!” is interpreted to mean that every generation of Jews must be taught that the Holocaust is the kind of thing that happens when Jews make the mistake of trusting non-Jews and fail to arm themselves to the teeth and “get them before they get us.”

It’s scary to see that. And when you think about how mirror-image messages are pushed every bit as hard on young people in many Arab and Muslim societies, it makes it hard to have hope that the Middle East will ever escape its constant wars and terrorism.

It’s not that I cannot see any justification in the hardcore position of the Israeli Right and its American Jewish supporters. Regardless of whether it’s motivated by anti-Semitism, there are certainly many countries and groups strongly hostile to Israel, some of whom favor the dissolution of Israel, even if not necessarily accompanied by genocide of its Jewish inhabitants. That’s not just lies or Jews’ imagination.

It’s understandable that they would want to lessen any chance that such folks get their way, and that it would appear to them that they are a lot less likely to get their way if they are dead, massively outgunned by Israel, kept under firm control, or whatever.

But the problem is countries always think that kind of thing, often with at least as much justification as present day Israel. It always feels like “why take any chances?,” like you always could and should do just a little more to beef up your military and keep your enemies and potential enemies under your thumb. But even if pre-emptive war, torture, propaganda, suppression of dissent, and all the rest really do marginally increase security (and that’s arguable, by the way), that doesn’t automatically justify them.

One can agree that the Soviet Union was less likely to be successfully invaded—as it had been multiple times, most recently in a war that spilled more Soviet blood than the Holocaust did Jewish blood—if it were surrounded by puppet states, and yet still contend that it did not have the right to force millions of people in Eastern European and other nations to live under Soviet-allied slave states. One can agree that almost any country with significant enemies is less likely to be attacked by those enemies if it has nuclear weapons, and yet not favor the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I think a lot of what Israel does—some of which may increase its security and some of which likely doesn’t—is horrible and unjust, and I think it’s absolutely true that accusations of anti-Semitism are routinely used disingenuously to discredit anyone who states such an opinion.

That’s reprehensible. It doesn’t make Israel uniquely evil—you can point to plenty that other countries do that is as bad or worse—but to me Israel long ago forfeited any plausible claim to being different in a good way, to occupying some sort of moral high ground.

Defamation gives you plenty to think about, and it does it in an entertaining way. While I think you can infer that Shamir at least leans in a “liberal” direction, his film is not heavy handed about it. I’ll give this one a thumbs up.

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