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Country: United States, Israel, Denmark, Austria
Language: English, Hebrew
Starring: Abraham Foxman, Norman Finkelstein
Director: Yoav Shamir
Run time: 91 minutes
DVD distributor: First Run Features
Defamation is a magnificent film. It’s tough and fair and fearless, and a tour de force for Israeli film maker Yoav Shamir, who sets out to find out what the true nature of Anti-Semitism is in the world today. What he finds is that although certainly there is a certain amount of anti-Semitic sentiment in the States and elsewhere, it isn’t nearly as pervasive as many Jewish people believe. Or, more aptly, as pervasive as they would have the rest of us believe.
Shamir’s greatest strength in this documentary is that he appears to keep the camera on people a little longer than they might like. And so virtually everyone in the film is given enough rope with which to hang themselves. Shamir talks to African-Americans in an area with a long history of tension between black people and Jewish people. While at first the interviewees seem reasonable, after a while they do, indeed, spout some fairly surprising anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The same goes for Norman Finkelstein, the most outspoken critic of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. He is certainly a smart man, and his perspective is a well-reasoned one. He thinks that the ADL uses the spectre of the holocaust and the historic persecution of Jews to advance their own agenda, and he finds it to be dishonest and sad. I tend to agree. But given the opportunity to talk a little more, he begins to rant and rave and certainly appears to be more of a fanatic than he did at first.
The bulk of the discomfort in the movie though comes from the ADL itself and its leader, Abraham Foxman. As Shamir takes his camera through the ADL offices, trying to find a specific incident of anti-Semitism in America that he can document in full, the best they can come up with are a few instances where people were not allowed to take time off work during Jewish holidays.
There is also a questionable incident where rocks were thrown at a bus, but it’s unclear whether that was a hate crime. After all, it was perpetrated by ten-year-olds. Did they throw rocks at the bus because they knew Jewish students were on board, or were they just throwing rocks at a bus that happened to contain Jewish students.? No one seems to know, but the gut reaction is, as it so often is, that it must be anti-Semitism.
The most incredible scenes in the movie involve Israel. The belief among many American Jews is that anti-Zionism is merely anti-Semitism in disguise. That anyone who speaks ill of Israel, anyone who disagrees with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, is obviously an anti-Semite cloaking themselves in the guise of political discourse. This seems to be the number one mission of the ADL – making sure that criticism of Israel is seen as anti-Semitism.
Their statistics that say that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise seem to make sense only if we believe the claim that any criticism of Israel IS an anti-Semitic incident. People who try to steer the conversation another way, people who try to be pragmatic about the Palestine situation, are shouted down and viciously attacked as anti-Semites. It’s a pretty scary situation.
The film also deals with Israeli students who are visiting Poland to learn about the Holocaust, and about the horrible Jewish history at the concentration camps of the Nazis. I think that is a good thing – we can never, of course, forget the Holocaust. But while they are there, these students are constantly told, by adults who should probably know better, that anti-Semites are lurking around every corner and that their lives are in constant danger simply because they are Jewish. And what should have been a somber, harrowing learning experience ends up fueling hatred in the kids for other people. Hatred that may or may not be based on anything real.
I just finished reading Leon Uris’ excellent book Exodus, which details the long, arduous struggle of the Jewish people leading up to the creation of Israel. There is no question they have suffered for a very long time – the Russian pale, the Holocaust, and innumerable other affronts. But Shamir’s conclusion is that maybe it’s time to leave those painful memories in the past and deal with the present. Let’s not forget, he says. But let’s not use the horrors of the past as an excuse for the present. This even-handed film makes that point with a subtle humour, and is the best argument I have seen for moving forward with an open dialogue when it comes to Israel, Palestine, the Middle East and anti-Semitism the world over. A must-see.
Defamation comes out May 18th from First Run Features.