In Search of Anti-Semitism

Yoav Shamir’s 2009 documentary Defamation is the one must-see film at this years’ San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. This is not to say that it is the most artistically successful of the current festival lineup. Nor is the reason behind … Read More

By / August 4, 2009

Yoav Shamir’s 2009 documentary Defamation is the one must-see film at this years’ San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. This is not to say that it is the most artistically successful of the current festival lineup. Nor is the reason behind this endorsement Defamation‘s fast-growing reputation, alongside Simone Bitton’s controversial documentary about the late Rachel Corrie, the logically-titled Rachel. Defamation‘s notoriety stems from the fact that the documentary takes as its subject matter Jewish preoccupation with anti-Semitism. Defamation is contentious, malicious even, to some, because it’s director refuses to accept at face value the belief that Jews are always victims of racism, and sets out to find out who makes such claims today, and why.

The question of anti-Semitism, Shamir notes, has always seemed rather remote, almost irrelevant, personally. As an Israeli, he has never experienced anti-Semitism first hand. In interviews, the filmmaker points at comments made by an American Jewish critic who, in response to Shamir’s first documentary Checkpoint (2003), accused him of being both anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic, citing these attacks as the impetus for Defamation. However, in the film itself, the motivating factor seems to be Shamir’s bafflement by the preoccupation of the Israeli press and politicians alike with anti-Semitism, an obsession that Shamir readily links, rightly or wrongly, with the obsession of American Jews with the subject. Shamir goes on a "personal" road trip to figure it all out. The emphasis here is on the personal, because Shamir explores his own attitude towards it, as much as he focuses on other persons’ engagement with the prejudice.


The outcome of Shamir’s investigation is complex, defying any easy ideological categorizations. Indeed, the director, who is responsible for the cinematography and has also provided the English narration (albeit with a clearly Israeli accent), does not conceal his political convictions. Shamir does not hesitate to comment directly on what his subjects say, and does so not only in the form of asides to the audience, but as direct challenges to their views and opinions. Shamir repeatedly gives up any pretense towards objectivity, and becomes an active participant in the debate created by his seemingly naïve questions. At the same time, Shamir avoids a summary judgment of his interviewees—a common pitfall of political filmmaking—a judgment that would have alienated his audience. On the contrary, he ultimately seems empathetic to those he interviews, irrespective of their opinions.

Shamir’s journey is, in fact, several separate journeys. The film begins with a visit to the editorial staff of Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s biggest daily. There, Noah Klieger, the journalist in charge of covering global anti-Semitism, and a Holocaust survivor himself, assures the director that every country—including western liberal democracies such as the US, Germany, France, the UK—is anti-Semitic to the core. Later in the movie, Shamir finds out from one of Klieger’s apprentices that whereas a rise in anti-Semitism is considered newsworthy, this is not the case for a decline; hence the paper throws into relief news items that would reinforce one’s impression that the former is the case, and suppresses items that would contravene it. Be that as it may, Shamir finds out that in its coverage of anti-Semitism, the paper relies not on its own reporters, but on data provided by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Next, Shamir travels to the New York offices of the ADL, where Abe Foxman has granted him unprecedented access to its operation, and even allowed him to join himself and members of the League in a tour of Europe and Israel. Shamir looks for an anti-Semitic incident that he could follow and explore in full as a centerpiece for his film. Notwithstanding the officers’ alarm in the face of what they portray as a significant increase in anti-Jewish incidents, they are unable to provide Shamir with a single incident to explore. Because, as the Israeli director quickly finds out, the vast majority of incidents registered come down to overhearing racial slurs, or complaints about being denied days off on Jewish holidays.

Finally, Shamir discovers a noteworthy incident, in which African-Americans have stoned a Jewish school bus. A local Jewish journalist assures him that Jews in the neighborhood do suffer from the anti-Semitism of their African-American neighbors. A street interview with three African-American residents who readily quote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion appears to confirm this. But to Shamir’s great surprise, he also encounters Rabi Hecht, one of Abe Foxman’s critics. Hecht warns of viewing every incident in which Jews and African-Americans are involved as racially motivated and moves to harshly denounce the work of the ADL as counter-productive. One shouldn’t trust, he says, someone who makes a living out of anti-Semitism to provide an impartial account of the phenomenon.

Indeed, as though in agreement with Hecht, Shamir becomes ill at ease when members of Foxman’s coterie tell him that they became active in the organization  as a way to consolidate their own Jewish identity. The director finds even more troubling their affirmation that they look at Israel as their insurance policy, in case Jews become unwelcome in the US. Are they acting in Israel’s best interests, Shamir asks, or in their own? Yet, as he follows Abe Foxman in his meetings with politicians and heads of states around the world, it becomes clear that notwithstanding their difference of opinions, Yoav Shamir cannot stop himself from believing in Foxman’s sincerity, and admiring his inexhaustible energy in pursuing what he believes to be best for world Jewry.
Shamir’s Foxman seems quite sympathetic in comparison with the filmmaker’s troubled  portrait of one of Foxman’s nemeses, Norman Finkelstein. Shamir travels to Minnesota and interviews him both prior to and following his dismissal from DePaul University. One would have assumed that Finkelstein’s claims that the State of Israel and its American stand ins, such as the ADL, make cynical use of the Holocaust to justify their immoral politics vis-à-vis Palestinians would meet with approval. Yet, notwithstanding the merits of Finkelstein’s claims (Shamir does not assess their merit) he emerges as a troubled figure, obsessed and haunted in ways upon which, at least in the film, he refuses to acknowledge. As Finkelstein takes leave of Shamir, he states "Heil Hitler." The director is baffled. Wouldn’t such a provocation undermine Finkelstein’s credibility? Finkelstein insists it is his absolute right to do so, particularly given the immorality of those he criticizes.

Yet, the most troubling journey Shamir takes in this film is not to the US, but to Auschwitz, with a group of Israeli high school students. 30,000 students take this trip each yearm. Shamir follows their preparations for the trip, and their tours of the camp. Two things become manifest through Shamir’s interviews with the students, and as his camera captures their interaction with their teachers and guides. First, the trip is not designed to yield a historical understanding of the Holocaust but, rather, to elicit an emotional reaction that would reinforce the students’ identification with the State of Israel. Such an emotional reaction is deemed the basis for their realizing that Israel is the only place where a Jew can live free of the fear of persecution. Second, in order to elicit such a reaction, the students are repeatedly forewarned that the local Poles are still anti-Semites. They are thus forbidden to interact with the locals, irrespective of circumstances.

The fear instilled in the young students reaches its climax in a very brief, yet disturbing scene. Three elderly Polish men address two Israeli female students. Whereas the students speak Hebrew and some English, the men only speak Polish. They proceed to ask the students where are they from, and whether they are indeed Israelis. Not understanding Polish, the two students infer that the men are speaking ill of Israel, and say that the two are bitches. The girls quickly step away. Later, they repeatedly recount the story of their encounter with this example of local anti-Semitism.

The reaction of the students, Shamir suggests, is not simply the product of adolescent silliness. Notwithstanding the best intentions of their trip’s organizers and the worthiness of their educational purposes, the incident is a welcome one. Logically, none of the accompanying adults bothers to dispel the students’ misperceptions. What, then, is the outcome of our obsession with the Holocaust, Shamir ultimately asks. Even if we do not accept Uri Avnery’s assertion in Defamation that anti-Semitism does not exist, this does not exempt us from questioning how it effects  our view of the world, and, most importantly, the way we raise our children. For this reason, we should endeavor to emulate Yoav Shamir’s example, by asking these very same questions.


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