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NEW YORK, Apr 29 2009 (IPS) - “I have never experienced anti-Semitism myself, but it’s a phrase that always seems to be in the air,” begins Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s lively new documentary “Defamation”. “Three words seem to appear over and over again: Holocaust, Nazi, anti-Semitism.”
This phenomenon will be equally familiar to viewers in the U.S. Although by almost any measure the U.S is as friendly to Jews as any society in history, the media here is frequently filled with dire warnings about “ancient hatreds” ready to bubble over into genocide.
And although Israel’s hardline defenders in the U.S. concede that in theory criticism of the Jewish state is not synonymous with hatred of Jews, a number of recent controversies have revolved around accusations that various critics of Israel – political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, retired diplomat Charles Freeman, playwright Caryl Churchill – are in fact cunningly disguised anti-Semites.
In this environment, Shamir’s film – which opened last week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York – is a welcome breath of fresh air. While modest in style and lighthearted in tone, it packs a subversive punch.
Its implicit point is that anti-Semitism, at least in Israel and the U.S., is more smoke than fire. Conditioned to see Nazis in every shadow and behind every corner, Shamir seems to say, Jews in the U.S. and Israel often manufacture an anti-Semitism that they perversely want to find.
The film’s star, as it were, is Abraham Foxman, head of the venerable Anti-Defamation League (ADL), who is familiar to U.S. viewers for his frequent denunciations of various critics of Israel for anti-Semitism.
Foxman’s associates whisper behind his back that his views are extreme even by their standards, and an Orthodox Brooklyn rabbi flatly states that Foxman “has to create a problem because [he] needs a job”.
The film’s portrayal of the ADL tends to support the rabbi’s assessment. When pressed to detail recent anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., an ADL employee can only come up with a few examples of employees who had difficulty getting time off for Jewish holidays. Finally, she settles on the case of a police officer who was overhead privately making a mildly disparaging reference to Jews – and then apologised profusely.
Foxman plainly has trouble reconciling his own power and influence with his vision of Jews as downtrodden victims of anti-Semitism. While being chauffeured to a meeting with Ukrainian government officials, he explains that they value him because of their perceptions of Jewish influence – which are themselves a sign of anti-Semitism. But if they think we have this power, he asks, why not use it?
Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery, who has a memorable cameo, puts it more accurately: if anti-Semitism were truly a major force in the U.S., Foxman and the rest of the Israel lobby would not be able to operate the way they do.
As a counterpoint to Foxman, “Defamation” also gives a prominent role to Norman Finkelstein, the anti-Israel gadfly and author of books like “The Holocaust Industry”.
Finkelstein seems far more thoughtful and articulate than Foxman, and he gets in a few good shots at the “warmongers from Martha’s Vineyard” pushing Likudnik policies in Washington, the “pathological narcissism” underlying rich U.S. Jews’ sense of victimisation, and the misuse of the Holocaust for political purposes.
But he can also be his own worst enemy, as when he responds to attacks on his alleged anti-Semitism by offering a sarcastic Nazi salute to the camera.
In any case, if the somewhat unflattering portrayal of Finkelstein is intended to give the impression of balance, the comparison between him and Foxman is hard to sustain. Foxman is a man of influence, his approval sought after by the world’s power brokers, while Finkelstein is an outcast, having been denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago due to his political views.
If it is true that both sides have their extremists, as Shamir seems to suggest, it is also true that the right-wing and not the left-wing extremists are the ones running the show.
While Foxman and Finkelstein are the poles around which “Defamation” rotates, many of the most interesting moments come from its less well-known characters.
There are the African-American residents of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, discussing tensions with their Jewish neighbours and how the Jews control the world, and the Russian Jew claiming that his fellows use anti-Semitism to excuse their own failings.
There is Rabbi Bleich of Kiev, evidently a U.S. expatriate, noting that secular Jews are more preoccupied with anti-Semitism than religious Jews such as himself because it gives them a basis for their Jewish identity that is otherwise lacking.
Most amusingly, there is Shamir’s own Israeli grandmother, who delivers a rant about diaspora Jews that could have come directly from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.
All this is interspersed with scenes of a group of Israeli high school students on a class trip to visit Holocaust sites in Eastern Europe. Throughout, they are fed a steady diet of horror from the past and paranoia about the present.
Having been told that the locals are all rabidly anti-Semitic, the students are forbidden to interact with them. In one funny scene, a few of the girls run into three old Polish men, who try to strike up an innocent conversation in Polish. Unable to understand the old men, the girls assume that they are insulting the Jewish people, and run back to their classmates to share this new evidence of the omnipresence of anti-Semitism.
Other scenes are less funny. Watching the formerly happy-go-lucky students stumble out of the Auschwitz memorial in shock and rage, vowing revenge against the Nazis and their present-day “heirs”, it is hard not to see a connection to the desperate us-or-them mentality that spawned the recent Gaza onslaught.
Answering questions at the Tribeca Film Festival, Shamir reminded the audience that these students were now all on the verge of conscription into the military; they will make up the next generation of Israeli soldiers. On film, one of the students’ chaperones worries that obsessively focusing on the Holocaust as the basis for Israeli identity is undermining their ability to behave normally towards other nations.
Responding to criticism that he neglected the prevalence of anti-Semitism outside the U.S. and Israel, Shamir insisted that his film was not really about anti-Semites themselves. “This film is mostly about the effects of anti-Semitism on us, the victims or alleged victims,” he said.
With a light touch, his film effectively makes the case that paranoia about anti-Semitism in many ways has consequences as pernicious as anti-Semitism itself.
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