Defamation, a question of questions

[Complete video after the jump]

Yoav Shamir’s controversial film Defamation raises a critical question: How much of what is decried by Israel and its supporters as antisemitism is really criticism of the policies of the Israeli government?

While the film has been praised by many American Jews, the Anti-Defamation League [ADL] of B’nai B’rith has condemned it, declaring:

“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.

Shamir wields his camera like a razor, slicing through the verbiage on the surface to reveal a disturbing portrait of a dominant current in contemporary Zionism which portrays the world as teeming with virulent antisemitism, with the only Israel offering a safe haven for those still left in the Diaspora.

For esnl, the most disturbing scenes are those of a trip to Auschwitz now taken by 30,000 Israeli and American high school seniors.

Accompanied by an Israeli security agent and a professional tour guide, the youths are taken on a Kafkaesque junket designed to create a paranoiac’s

view of the world as filled with bloodthirsty villains out to kill and maim.

As George Robinson notes in his review of the film for The Jewish Week in New York:

The film’s most disturbing moments come on the Poland trip. Two Israeli teens try to converse with a trio of elderly Poles; they speak no Polish, the men speak no Hebrew, but the girls, dead certain of what they have heard decide that they have been insulted and defamed. When Shamir tries to explain what actually was said (and the film’s subtitles provide an accurate translation of what is nothing more than the amused incomprehension of senior citizens for teenagers), the girls don’t want to hear it and their handlers, who include an Israeli Secret Service officer, hustle them away from him.

The organizers of the trip refuse to allow any contact with locals, and the entire exercise is shot through with a disturbing subtext that non-Jews are all potential Nazis and that anti-Semitism is some kind of genetic condition, ahistorical and incurable.

That is not, as Shamir quietly says at the end of the film, a point of view calculated to produce anything like peace in the world.

What disturbed ensl even more were comments by two girls in response to a question from Shamir. Asked if they felt anything when they saw televised images of the destruction of Palestinian homes, one of the girls declared, ”No. . .because of what was done to us.”

Thus, a trip which under other circumstances might have produced greater empathy and compassion for people dispossessed of their ancestral homes and farms is instead transformed into cultish indoctrination into the most militant forms of nationalism.

No mention was made of other Holocaust victims, including the so-called gypsies [the Sinti and Roma peoples] who were also targeted for elimination, along with the mentally ill, the malformed, and the outspoken. A great human tragedy was reframed as an ethnically exclusive “get out of jail free” card and a war that cost 60 million lives was reduced to a pogrom.

Yes, the murder of European Jewry was a great human tragedy, an evil in the clearest and most explicit sense of the word. But it’s not an excuse for racism and further massive human rights violations, as most of the rest of the world now recognizes.

“Defamation”, Yoav Shamir [91:17]

As Shamir makes clear, there is antisemitism in the world, but its exploitation for national political purposes is another issue altogether. The ADL is incensed because Shamir shows the organization as a way for non-religious Jews to affirm their Jewishness, and his interviews with executives, including Abe Foxman, are devastating.

As the Hollywood Reporter’s Ray Bennett noted in his review of the film:

The most affecting scenes. . .involve the class of Israeli teenagers visiting Auschwitz. They speak beforehand of how they are taught that anti-Semitism flourishes everywhere in the world and that by traveling beyond their nation’s borders they are constantly at risk.

Shamir uses his camera as an unblinking but compassionate observer as the youngsters make the emotional journey from giggling innocence and guarded fear into the camp’s horror where the crushing images leave them distraught and weeping, and then angry.

Their plight causes the director to offer the thought that perhaps it’s time to stop dwelling on the past, as horrific as it has been. Maybe, he says, it’s time to live in the present and look to the future.

A San Francisco Chronicle interview with Shamir by Jonathan Curiel highlighted the film’s origins:

Shamir was inspired to make “Defamation” after a Jewish film critic suggested that Shamir was an anti-Semite. The reviewer complained that Shamir’s documentary “Checkpoint,” which details Israeli checkpoints in the Palestinian territories, was too critical of Israel. Shamir, the reviewer said, was the equivalent of actor Mel Gibson, who’d recently gone into an anti-Jewish tirade. Shamir said he’d never been called an anti-Semite before. Nor had he experienced anti-Semitism. Nor did he know anyone else in Israel who had. So he set out to see how the term is used by Jews in the United States and Israel.

As someone who’s also been declared a Mel Gibson equivalent, esnl can sympathize.

For more on the film see here, here, here, here, and here.

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