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Jewish Journal

Israeli Documentary Challenges Jewish Responses to Anti-Semitism

by Akiva Gottlieb, Contributing Writer

November 17, 2009 | 11:31 pm

Israeli high school students at Auschwitz as seen in “Defamation.” Photo courtesy First Run Features.

Israeli high school students at Auschwitz as seen in “Defamation.” Photo courtesy First Run Features.

Yoav Shamir’s provocative new documentary, “Defamation” (“Ha Shmatsa”), suggests that today’s anti-Semitism, however pernicious, reflects little more than petty ignorance. The Israeli filmmaker’s central inquiry is whether the contemporary Jewish response to anti-Semitism is disproportionate in its force, and, if so, whether that response is detrimental to Jewish interests. That the two-part question is asked so forthrightly is enough to make “Defamation,” which First Run Features will open in Los Angeles Nov. 20, the most important Jewish movie of the year.

Shamir began the project in response to criticism of his earlier documentary, “Checkpoint,” a study of the impact of Israeli military checkpoints on Palestinian lives. A Jewish-American journalist referred to Shamir as “the Israeli Mel Gibson,” implying that his censure of Israeli policy made him an anti-Semite. Recognizing that as an Israeli he had never directly experienced anti-Semitism, the naive but inquisitive filmmaker set off on a globetrotting mission to understand the term and its many uses. Almost immediately, he was led to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who granted Shamir unprecedented access to the ADL offices and allowed him to tag along on leadership missions to Europe. Foxman would soon regret the gesture. In a statement issued earlier this summer, after the film won the Special Jury Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival, the ADL denounced “Defamation” as “neither enlightening, nor edifying, nor compelling. It distorts the prevalence and impact of anti-Semitism and cheapens the Holocaust.”

Director Yoav Shamir. Photo courtesy First Run Features

“I think I was very fair with the ADL,” Shamir said, speaking to The Jewish Journal by phone from his home in Tel Aviv. “And they were fair with me, about giving me access and letting me do my own thing. I respect them for that. They truly believe that what they do is the greatest thing for Israel and for the Jewish people in general. I disagree with them.”

While filming at the ADL’s New York offices, Shamir discovered that the ADL’s everyday work mainly consists of tracking down minor grievances. “Every time [a teacher] doesn’t get to take leave on one of the Jewish holidays, $40,000 gets spent,” Shamir said. There’s a “big gap between the amount of money and time and energy and focus that’s put toward this fight, compared to the real problem.”

Indeed, according to a recent ADL survey conducted after the film’s completion, anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have reached a historic low.

A former soldier who spent time in the occupied territories, Shamir strongly disagrees with what he sees as the ADL’s unwarranted meddling in Israeli policy. In one scene, an American ADL delegate refers to Israel as the Jewish people’s “insurance policy,” implying that Israel’s strength is a way to ensure the continued existence of Jews in the Diaspora. “[Israelis] are paying a very dear price for being an insurance policy for these people,” Shamir said. “Once a whole country is driven by fear and by irrational decision-making ... this is a very dangerous game to play. That’s something that American Jews should think about. Their support for AIPAC or the ADL has a tremendous influence on us, and as long as they keep interfering in our internal policies, they are driving us to a place where they themselves probably wouldn’t like to be.”

The question, upon the release of “Defamation,” is whether American Jews will be at all receptive to the film’s point of view.

Philip Weiss, an investigative journalist who runs the Mondoweiss Web site, called it “a great film” that emphasizes how “Jewish identity is changing.” What struck him most was the film’s portrait of Foxman, which Weiss found both “devastating and sympathetic.” It “gave me tremendous sympathy for Foxman,” he writes. “He is locked in his childhood of suffering. It makes perfect sense that he has projected his childhood demons onto the world, but they are just demons.”

One of the most provocative scenes in the film concerns Shamir’s interview with Norman G. Finkelstein, the controversial scholar and author of “The Holocaust Industry” (Verso, 2001), which argues that the Holocaust has been exploited for use as an ideological weapon by Israel. The film positions Finkelstein as Foxman’s intellectual antagonist; both men are sons of Holocaust survivors, but they have taken their personal missions to opposite extremes. In the film, Finkelstein offers a reasoned critique of the ADL’s project, but then seriously undercuts his argument by making a Nazi salute to the camera and referring to Foxman as “worse than Hitler.” Reached by e-mail, Finkelstein wrote, “I did not see the film and don’t intend to. I am told it depicts me as a lunatic.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who has not yet seen “Defamation,” told The Journal, “There’s a great danger when you legitimize them. A person like Finkelstein ... self-hating Jews. It might make for a more interesting film. I understand. People say, ‘That’s interesting — I want to see what this guy has to say.’ But we legitimize him.”

One glaring absence in Shamir’s film is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose vitriolic anti-Israel rhetoric and nuclear ambitions have made him the anti-Semite watchers’ ultimate concern. Shamir said he made a deliberate decision to keep Iran, as well as the entire Arab world, out of “Defamation.” “The interesting thing about this whole debate is that everyone in this film — except [“The Israel Lobby” authors] [Stephen] Walt and [John] Mearsheimer — are actually Jewish,” Shamir said. “It’s very much an internal Jewish debate. And most of the time, we are upset about being the center of attention ... asking ‘Why are people always picking on Israel?’ We are always the ones most affecting it. And we are the ones paying the price for it.”

Indeed, Shamir is less interested in arguments about how serious the threat of anti-Semitism is than in another, more philosophical line of inquiry. It’s the issue he explores in the film, alongside Israeli high school students visiting Auschwitz on a March of the Living trip. It’s also a question he hopes “Defamation” will pose to American audiences willing to give it a chance: “How do we choose to deal with our identity?”

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