I was able to catch Defamation (2009) at the Roxie and was mightily impressed. Israeli director Yoav Shamir’s controversial documentary on anti-Semitism has been denounced as anti-Semitic in some circles but I thought it critical but not anti-Semitic. Shamir’s conclusions are that there are Jewish organizations with a vested interest in perpetuating anti-Semitism or maybe more accurately the myth of modern day anti-Semitism. It’s obvious that this has the potential for controversy. To his credit, Shamir tackles this issue and others (such as linking anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism) with a perceptive eye and fair dose of humor.
The two entities that are most criticized in the film are the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Israeli government. Rather than direct criticism, Shamir lets their own words and actions sway the audience. That Shamir was able to capture so many revealing moments on camera is amazing it its own right.
Some of the highlights for me:
A Jewish activist or reporter (he seemed to be both) contended that in Brooklyn, Jewish people were seen as “soft targets.” I liked the way he co-opted terrorist lexicon for his purposes. He said that if a robber sees a Jewish man and a black man walking the streets, he is more likely to target the Jewish man because he doesn’t know if the black man is carrying a weapon. The irony of racially stereotyping black men seems lost upon the man. Shamir takes to the streets to question black men about this assumption. He has the most remarkable interview with a group of black people. First, they contend that a black robber would target the black man in this hypothetical because if a Jewish man was robbed by a black man, it would be prosecuted as a hate crime. Then after some Jewish stereotyping by a black woman, the man invokes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In my mind, mentioning that book automatically prefaces the statement as satire or hyperbole. It’s like saying, with a straight face, that you won a million dollars in the Nigerian lottery and that you took some pills to enlarge your penis. It’s ridiculous by definition. However, Shamir found a man walking the streets of Brooklyn that was willing to share his beliefs in the "tenets" espoused in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
An ADL representative states that their annual budget is on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars and they have offices all over the world. Later, the ADL claims that there were ~1500 cases of documented anti-Semitism in the US "last year." I thought 1500 was extremely small. Shamir wants to investigate one of the cases for the film. As he goes over the specifics, all except one are cases of Jewish employees not being allowed to take time off for Jewish holidays. On the scale of anti-Semitism, this seems to me to be a rather mild form. I was expecting vandalization of synagogues or crosses burned in people's yards. I have to wonder how many of these cases were actually anti-Semitism vs. not being able to schedule a day off for an employee.
The "money shot" came at the expense of Abe Foxman, the influential National Director of the ADL. Shamir follows Foxman as he travels to meet senior officials of a foreign government (Lithuania, I believe). The ADL is not a government entity of either the US or Israel. Shamir asks Foxman why foreign governments want to meet with him or ADL. Foxman explains (almost apologetically) that there is a perception that the ADL has access to influential lawmakers in Washington, DC. He goes on to say that he has to walk a fine line between perpetuating the myth and maintaining the myth. I think he says something like "We [ADL] are not as powerful as non-Jews think we are and we are more powerful than Jews think we are." As I heard this, I thought this is just the flip side of the International Jewish Conspiracy Theory that there is a secret cabal of Jews that control the money supply and whose ultimate goal is world domination.
For a film dealing with such a sensitive subject, Shamir deftly uses comedy throughout. There is an entertaining side story about Israeli teenagers going to visit the Auschwitz Concentration Camp on a government sponsored program.
He also gets some candid and irreverent moments with Professor Norman Finkelstein, a controversial scholar who has criticized the Israeli government on the Palestinian issue and exploiting the Holocaust for political gains.
The film was very skillfully made - mixing humor and serious discussion on a topic that makes most people uncomfortable. Only an Israeli Jew could make this film because anyone attempting it would be tarred and feathered.
My closing thought on the film is that I wonder how Jewish self-identity will change when the last Holocaust victim passes. A person that has survived the camps will have a different perspective and be treated differently than someone who hasn't. Can someone who wasn't born at the time Auschwitz was in operation, for example, invoke the Holocaust with the same tenor or draw the same response?
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