Yoav Shamir has a new documentary out called “Defamation.” You can watch trailer above; the distributor sent me a screener today, so I’ll have more later. The gist looks to be that, as an Israeli, Shamir has never felt anti-Semitism and so he set out to find out what all the hubbub was about. His conclusion, after following Abe Foxman around and talking with folks about their experiences, was that modern-day Jew hatred is tragically overblown and that “putting so much emphasis on the past, horrific as it has been, is holding us back.”
Anti-Semitism is no doubt real. Today, in fact, I found this comment on a TMZ post about new topless photos of Miss California: “danm jews.” I guess at least one person blames Harvey Levin’s Jewishness for the witch hunt of Carrie Prejean. And, as I’ve written about ad infinitum, the financial crisis has sparked its own anti-Semitic orgy.
The film is great journalism for Shamir’s tenacity at insiniuating himself into the emotional life of events, and for his portraits: of Abraham Foxman, Charles Jacobs, John Mearsheimer, Uri Avnery, and Norman Finkelstein.
The Foxman portrait is the core of the film and at once devastating and sympathetic. We see him manipulating the Holocaust in a number of situations. The scenes of ADL staff coming up with anti-Semitic incidents in the US to keep the ball rolling are strictly farcical. There is even farcical music, as they tell you of threats that aren’t threats. Foxman is shown pressing Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko in a conference room over Holocaust remembrance/guilt. Later, in Rome, enroute to meet the Pope, Foxman tells Shamir that there’s a “very thin line” between the perceptions of Jewish power by anti-Semites and the actual power that Jews have in the world. “Jews are not as powerful… as our enemies think we are.” But we’re not going to try and convince them otherwise, he says. Yes: the man is going to meet the Pope. Of course Jews have power, and Foxman has no awareness of this.
The portrait becomes transcendent at Babi Yar. Foxman gathers the board of the ADL at the Ukrainian massacre site and all the old Jews are talking about how Israel must be maintained because it may be necessary for all Jews in the world to go there, and then Foxman says a Hebrew prayer and his voice trembles and he is in tears. The scene gave me tremendous sympathy for Foxman. He is locked in his childhood of suffering. It makes perfect sense that he has projected his childhood demons on to the world, but they are just demons. The same point is made with an old Israeli journalist who has blue numbers tattooed on his arm and writes about anti-Semitism night and day. Well he has a fine reason, Shamir is saying.
The real blows to Foxman come from a couple of rabbis. A Rabbi Hecht in Brooklyn says, “I’m nervous about his reports… Are they accurate? He has to create a problem because he needs a job.” A Rabbi Dov Bleich in Kiev, who is Orthodox, says that anti-Semitism is not a problem, and that if these people only had a religious practice they wouldn’t need the church of anti-Semitism.
The ADL released a short statement Friday in response to the film’s characterizations of the organization and anti-Semitism:
Two years ago Yoav Shamir approached the Anti-Defamation League for assistance on a documentary he was making on the subject of anti-Semitism. We provided him wide access to film ADL in action, in our offices, at our annual national meeting, on leadership missions in Italy, Ukraine and Poland, and in Israel. Our expectation was that his documentary would present a serious portrait of what Jews worldwide face today—anti-Semitism in both its age-old and new forms, and the actions taken to counter it.
After seeing “Defamation” we can only say the film fell far short of our expectation. Rather than document anti-Semites and their hatred of Jews and the Jewish State of Israel, the film belittles the issue and portrays the work of ADL and that of his own country as inconsequential. There was so much more Shamir could have and should have done.
“Defamation” is neither enlightening, nor edifying, nor compelling. It distorts the prevalence and impact of anti-Semitism and cheapens the Holocaust. It is Shamir’s perverse, personal, political perspective and a missed opportunity to document a serious and important issue.
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