Three years after retiring from Northeastern University in 1989, my father, Bernard Stotsky, donated a large sum to die school to establish a seat for Jewish studies with an emphasis on remembering the Holocaust. A combat veteran of World War II, he was haunted by what had occurred in the war years and felt local universities were not dealing with it effectively.
His generous bequest has taken on a new and disturbing significance as a result of the decision this year by the school, privately disclosed to me, to invite Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir to speak and show his controversial film, "Defamation," at its annual Holocaust Awareness Week in March. In making this selection, event sponsors have chosen to expose Northeastern students to a film conveying the message that Jews exploit remembrance of the Holocaust for self-serving and illegitimate purposes.
Shamir introduces his film by explaining that living in Israel he has never personally experienced antiSemitism, but noticed that three words - anti-Semitism, Holocaust and Nazis - "always seem to be in the air." So he tells us, "I decided I wanted to learn more about the subject." The way he chose to do this raises the question as to whether his innocentsounding quest was merely a pretext by which he could present his own controversial views.
The initial scenes are unsettling, but within the bounds of provocative documentaries. In the first vignette, the filmmaker's grandmother asserts that "a Jew is a crook" and "they love money." These words provide a segue to several scenes that portray the Anti-Defamation League and its national director, Abe Foxman, as preoccupied with trivial incidents and prone to exaggerate anti-Semitism. The film also exposes a troubling side to educational visits by Israelis to deadi camps in Poland, in which some participants express feelings of alienation and hatred toward others.
If the film's purpose were limited to challenging the ADL and questioning the wisdom of sending youngsters on educational tours to death camps, it might be regarded as simply another investigative documentary. Still, the suitability of these themes for inclusion in a solemn Holocaust commemoration event would be debatable.
But the later sections of the film bring a more extreme and distorted message. Shamir gives a platform to fringe figures who display pathological animosity toward the Jewish community. Norman Finkelstein, author of "The Holocaust Industry," expounds at length on his belief that: "The Nazi Holocaust has become the main ideological weapon for launching wars of aggression." He indignantiy asserts that the suffering of the Jews is used as a "pretext or excuse to humiliate, degrade and torture the Palestinians."
Finkelstein describes the suffering of the Jews as "a club that is used to crush the skulls of the Palestinians."
Some might argue that by allowing Finkelstein to rant, Shamir has exposed him as unhinged and his slanders don't need answering. But the director not only offers no refutation of the false accusations; at one point he compares Finkelstein with the "Biblical prophets of doom always being pelted with stones for saying things nobody wanted to hear."
Shamir is deferential to Israeli farleft activist Uri Avnery and to John Mearsheimer, co-author of the notorious Israel Lobby." Avnery asserts that "anti-Semitism is a myth" and that "anti-Arabs, anti-Muslims and anti-blacks" are common, but for "anti-Semites you need a magnifying glass." Shamir could have refuted Avnery's falsehood by citing FBI statistics for the past decade showing anti-Semitic incidents outnumbering anti-Muslim and anti-Arab incidents by nine to one in America.
Not surprisingly, such incendiary and unanswered falsehoods have helped attract a particular following; the film has received enthusiastic praise on several neo-Nazi Web sites that feature an article by a prolific Jew-hater urging "every person on the planet" to see "Defamation" because it "explores and ridicules the current notion of anti Semitism and the lobbies that are engaged in disseminating such a fear. ..."
Shamir's declared unawareness of existing anti-Semitism is hard to believe. Has he no familiarity with the hate-filled harangues and poisonous accusations leveled against Jews that are disseminated in Palestinian and other Arab/Muslim media, mosques, schools and political discourse? How would he label frequently aired statements in the Arab media that Jews are the offspring of apes and pigs?
One wonders what motivation he attaches to the nuclear threat that Israel faces from Iran, a country that has no border dispute with Israel, but whose leader sponsored a Holocaust denial conference? Even Cuban leader Fidel Castro has noticed the Iranian president's slanders against Jews.
Shamir also ignores a few recent anti-Semitic murders by unhinged radical Islamists, like the killing of French Jew Sebastian Selam in 2006. After his arrest, the perpetrator reportedly said, "I have killed my Jew, now I can go to heaven."
Shamir's distortions bring us back to the decision by the committee at Northeastern University to invite him. What responsibility do committee members have to donors who contributed funds for respectful remembrance of the Holocaust and to the students they are educating? There is no indication that the committee discussed how to handle the film's distorted images and incendiary statements. Can such a committee be relied upon to make sound decisions - having displayed such poor judgment in this instance? Should Northeastern President Joseph Aoun simply abandon Holocaust Awareness Week to avoid risking a travesty?
Or will the university reverse the decision to invite Yoav Shamir?
This column first appeared in the Jewish Advocate on December 24, 2010.