Defamation (2009)

Defamation (2009)
Directed by Yoav Shamir Hebrew and English
Produced by SF – Film Production – Kopenhagen, Reveal Productions Inc.– Los Angeles, Cinephil – Tel Aviv, Knut.Ogris.Films – Wien
Distributed by Cinephil – Tel Aviv
91 minutes

Israeli filmmakers often subject their country to hypercritical scrutiny, baring every wrinkle, real or imagined. Such a no holds barred approach can serve a useful purpose by calling attention to injustice and misconduct, but in irresponsible hands it can also be abused. Many recent Israeli documentaries exhibit a troubling indifference to factual accuracy as they vie with each other to deliver the most damning rebuke of their country’s policies and intentions.

One explanation for this tendency is that Israeli filmmakers must contend with widespread sentiment in the independent film community that views Israel as a pariah state. Some filmmakers join Israel’s detractors, tapping into popular fascination with seeing Jews assail and malign other Jews. It is through this distorting prism that Yoav Shamir’s documentary, Defamation, should be understood.

The film purports to be an investigation of contemporary anti-Semitism by an Israeli who says he has never personally experienced anti-Semitism, yet he notices that three words – anti-Semitism, Holocaust and Nazis – “always seem to be in the air.” Puzzled by this contradiction, Shamir explains, “I decided I wanted to learn more about the subject.”

It does not take long for this seemingly valid facade to fall away. Through a series of vignettes, Shamir unveils his agenda. At first it is done with some cleverness, but eventually the film reverts to a blunter approach intent on persuading viewers that anti-Semitism no longer really exists and that Jews exploit remembrance of the Holocaust for self-serving and illegitimate purposes.

Shamir elicits the image of Jews as shysters. Playful Klezmer music introduces a scene in which Shamir’s grandmother affirms that “a Jew is a crook” and “they love money.” This serves as a launching point for a series of vignettes featuring the staff of the New York Anti-Defamation League (ADL) along with interviews of other recognizable Jewish figures from New York. They appear preoccupied with exaggerating trivial incidences, leaving the impression that it is essentially a business scheme. Shamir even managed to find an orthodox rabbi named Shia Hecht to willingly disparage ADL chief Abe Foxman, describing him as someone who exaggerates anti-Semitism because he “needs a job.”

Although the presentation is heavy handed, if the film was limited to raising questions about organizations that monitor anti-Semitism, it could be viewed as within the bounds of a provocative work.

However, these early scenes give way to a more strident political agenda. This is hinted at when he asserts that in two weeks of observing the ADL he could not find any anti-Semitism to film. It is an absurd formulation. Anti-Semitic acts are random and relatively uncommon events in America. One does not “find” them by interviewing ADL’s New York office staff and local publicity seeking figures. If Shamir’s intent really was to find and film anti-Semitism, instead of traipsing along with the ADL entourage to schmooze with Ukrainian officials, Shamir could have followed up on a spate of horrific religiously motivated murders that occurred in France in 2006. In one case, the murderer of Sebastian Sellam reportedly stated, “I have killed my Jew, now I can go to heaven.” In another recently resolved case, a community of people witnessed or participated in the extended torture and murder of a young Jewish man named Ilan Halimi. Shamir ignores these cases of real anti-Semitism.

Likewise, Shamir has to avert his gaze from the vast evidence of anti-Semitism in the Arab-Islamic world where Jews are cast in Nazi-like form and children are taught they’re honor-bound to destroy the Jewish state. All of this Shamir seems to have missed.

His quest to find anti-Semitism gives way to another purpose which is to espouse the view that Jews employ remembrance of the Holocaust to serve Israeli aggression. Through Shamir’s very selectively filtered lens, Holocaust education trips to Poland are portrayed as a tool to foster feelings of alienation and hatred among young Israelis towards others. Shamir implies that these educational trips harden the young participants to prepare them to commit acts of brutality against the Palestinians.

The interviews he conducts with the young Israelis reveal Shamir’s signature method which he earlier displayed in his film Checkpoint. Employing leading questions, he prods young individuals to make shocking impromptu remarks exposing their callousness towards non-Jews. A young girl upon just visiting Auschwitz tells him, “I want to kill the people who did this.” He prompts her further, “who would you like to kill?” She answers “all of them.” Then he tells her the Nazis are all dead, to which she responds, “they have heirs.” Shamir has made his point and, as narrator, he fills in the conclusion, “The Germans started it and we are perpetuating it… We perpetuate this death industry. We perpetuate death and that is why we can never be a normal people.”

It is a cheap trick, eliciting shocking statements and implying that this represents the norm. For those inclined to share Shamir’s view, it is sufficient. But if Shamir were truly interested in gauging the impact of these trips, he would try to fairly assess whether these remarks are representative of the feelings of most of the participants or simply extreme responses prompted by intensely disturbing images. Is it really so shocking that a young person, fresh from seeing the horrors of systematic mass-murder at Auschwitz, might express such sentiments? Is it possible, even likely, that after the initial shock subsides, these young people will put what they observed in perspective and derive a valuable lesson from it? Shamir offers no further information on this account.

These scenes provide a segue for introducing several notorious figures to present their extreme views. Shamir positions himself as more reasonable and neutral, but he essentially agrees with them.

Discredited former professor Norman Finkelstein and far-left activist Uri Avnery are each given ample opportunity to air their views that Jews manipulate anti-Semitism to enrich themselves and excuse Israeli crimes against the Palestinians. As Finkelstein works himself into a heated emotional state he makes increasingly incendiary statements. Shamir engages in a feigned dispute with him. But this is just for show. He never challenges Finkelstein’s wild charges and false allegations on their substance.

Instead he compares Finkelstein to one of the “biblical prophets of doom always being pelted with stones for saying things nobody wanted to hear.” This characterization of an individual who publicly expressed his solidarity with Hezbollah is telling. Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of the group Finkelstein admires, famously stated in 2002, “If they [Jews] all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide.” Yet it is the Israelis that Finkelstein equates to the Nazis. He tells Shamir,

The Nazi Holocaust has become the main ideological weapon for launching wars of aggression. It’s the suffering [of the Jews] that is used as another pretext or excuse to humiliate, degrade and torture the Palestinians. That’s the problem, the suffering comes as a package. Here is the suffering, now blow up your house. Here is the suffering, now we take your land… It’s a package deal with Israel and its supporters. Its not just suffering, its suffering which is then wrapped in a club and the club is used to crush the skulls of the Palestinians.

Finkelstein’s charges are false; the Israelis do not cite the Holocaust or anti-Semitism to justify security measures and military operations against Palestinian groups like Hamas or Fatah. Their explanations always make clear that they are responding to immediate concerns involving escalations of terrorist activity against Israel.

Shamir gives a pass to Uri Avnery, of the Israeli protest group, Gush Shalom, who confidently establishes that “The phenomenon of anti-Semitism exists only in the media and in the minds of the Jewish world. In America hardly any anti-Semitism exists, it is a myth…” Avnery asserts that anti-Arabs, anti-Muslims and anti-Blacks are all plentiful in America, but “anti-Semites, you need a magnifying glass to find them.” While America is a uniquely tolerant country and acts of anti-Semitism are uncommon, Avnery reveals his ignorance of America. FBI statistics gathered over the last ten years document that hate crimes against Jews outnumber those against Muslims by nine to one. Hate crimes specifically targeting Arabs are so rare that the FBI does not even bother to separately report them.

Unsurprisingly, professor John Mearsheimer, author of the controversial book The Israel Lobby, receives deferential treatment from Shamir when he is questioned about allegations he is anti-Semitic. Mearsheimer and his co-author Stephen Walt have consistently made a point that they are not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, but in a private audience at the Palestine Center in Washington last year, Mearsheimer lowered his guard.

He explained to the audience there are “three broad categories of Jews”, the “righteous Jews”, the “new Afrikaaners”and the “ambivalent middle.” The “righteous Jews” named by Mearsheimer included only a tiny fringe of openly anti-Israel activists. The major mainstream Jewish organizations, and by association, most American Jews who support them, are relegated to the category of “new Afrikaaners.” In light of his tendency to categorize Jews – and find most to be bad – it is not surprising that Mearsheimer tells Shamir that he was “struck by how little evidence we have come across of anti-Semitism” in his trip across Europe. He added, “That is not to say we don’t run into lots of people who are critical of Israeli policy and shake their heads at what Israeli is doing.” The “new Afrikaaners” apparently are not popular in Europe.

Defamation is a hit piece on the Jewish community and on supporters of Israel. It is no wonder that it has been enthusiastically endorsed on various neo-Nazi internet web sites. The film does raise many troubling questions, though not the ones Shamir intended. One question is how Shamir was able to so easily dupe influential Jewish figures to appear in his film. None of them appears to have bothered to check into his existing film record. They would have discovered his manipulative interview technique if they had looked at his prior film, Checkpoint.

A second question relates to the funding of the film. The organizations providing support for the film are mostly European, and in particular, three are Austrian. Considering Austria’s troubled history with anti-Semitism, one would think that well-meaning Austrian film organizations would have vetted the filmmaker and his agenda better. The other possibility is that the result is precisely what they intended.

The central question arising out of this film concerns the evident disaffection of many in Israel’s film-making community towards their own country and their heritage. Shamir’s film, like others from Israel in recent years, fails to grapple with the hard issues, resorting instead to cheap propagandistic attention-grabbing displays. With all the accusations thrown out by Finkelstein and others and the mocking of Jewish organizations that monitor anti-Semitism, Shamir fails to seriously delve into the real issues confronting Israel and the Jewish community at large.

Israeli decision-makers have a responsibility to protect Israelis from attack, both physical and rhetorical. At the same time, this requires balance so as not to overstep and impose unnecessarily harsh measures on Palestinians. Similarly, Jewish organizations that monitor and combat anti-Semitism serve as watchdogs for the Jewish community and have the difficult task of striking a balance in their responses to incidents that may — or may not — be motivated by antagonism towards Jews. These are topics that deserve serious, thoughtful treatment, not propagandistic portrayals.

Shamir proposes that contemporary anti-Semitism is a myth and it is time to move on from the Holocaust. Yet there is abundant evidence that anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are still important topics. The Holocaust-denying President of the Iranian regime who has threatened to eradicate the State of Israel is ample evidence of that.

Shamir, the narrator, concludes, “It occurred to me after seeing the almost incomprehensible horrors my people have suffered, other people’s suffering might seem less significant. When we see an Arab home being demolished we say that its not too bad, we have seen worse. I say so what.”

This seemingly humane contemplation contains within it a lie. In truth, Israelis do undertake considerable soul searching about the actions taken by their state. Home demolitions and military operations are subject to public debate and frequent reassessment. Commissions are appointed to investigate possible wrongdoing in the wake of nearly every significant military operation. How different this is from its neighbors and foes, many of whom reject any accommodation and openly celebrate in the streets after acts of savagery against Jews. Yet Shamir would like to convince us that it is the Jewish people’s  obsession with the Holocaust, that “prevents us from ever becoming normal people.”

The title “Defamation” is a play on words. For Shamir, it refers not to the hatred directed at Jews, but rather it is what the Jews are guilty of doing to the rest of the world. This irresponsible reversal of truth defames the Jewish people, twisting their warranted concern with anti-Semitism and remembrance of the Holocaust into something evil.

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