Defamation Documentary on TV

Last Tuesday saw a broadcast in the UK of Defamation, a documentary by the Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir. The film is a diffuse exploration of perceptions of anti-Semitism among Jews in Israel and abroad, ranging from those who think that it’s an urgent and increasing danger, through to those who argue that the whole problem has been grossly exaggerated in order manipulate young Israelis and as a means to silence criticism of Israel.

Defamation shows that anti-Semitism certainly continues to exist – we meet young black adults on the streets of New York who readily exhort us to read The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and we are shown a  Chabad-Lubavitcher school bus that had been hit by a stone. In Poland, Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defemational League shows Shamir a local good-luck charm: a statuette of a stereotyped Jew clutching a bag of money (shades of Borat). One unexpected moment comes at the beginning of the film, when Shamir’s east European-born Israeli grandmother expresses the view that diaspora Jews are lazy and interested primarily in money, showing just how deeply such attitudes are engrained. In Moscow, Shamir visits the synagogue where eight people were stabbed by a neo-Nazi in 2006; the person he speaks to there is keen to assure him that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Russia – however, Shamir makes no independent investigation of his own, so there is no sense of the rising far-right context in modern Russia.

The film also follows a group of Israeli teenagers on a trip to Poland, and Shamir sees evidence of an exaggerated fear of hostility, instilled by the guides and a secret service protection officier. One teenager exchanges a few words with some elderly Polish men on a park bench, but her friend pulls her away, claiming – incorrectly – that the men were subjecting them to abuse. The teenagers spend their evenings couped up in their hotel, having been warned not to go out lest they are attacked by neo-Nazis. Shown old black-and-white footage of concentration camps, the teenagers are disconnected from what they see, and at the first site they visit in Poland some feel guilty for not being upset. At Auschwitz, there is a remarkable moment of bad taste as they pose for a group photo below the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, saying “Auschwitz” instead of “cheese”, but on viewing the exbihits many of them become traumatised. One of them expresses a new wish to kill “the heirs” of the Nazis. Shamir feels this emphasis on the past is holding Israel back.

The issue of Israel and anti-Semitism is examined mainly through reactions to the book The Israel Lobby, by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. The book is of course well-known, and Shamir is sympathetic to their complaints that they have been unfairly characterised as anti-Semitic for their thesis about the supposed power of the lobby. We see footage from a conference held by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in 2008 on the subject of anti-Semitism, which appeared to consist mainly of near-hysterical denunciations of the two authors. The British sociologist David Hirsh is shown causing controversy by asking delegates to acknowledge that anger over the “racism, violence and humiliation” caused by the occupation of Palestinian land also need to be considered, and in argument with an Israeli academic following his presentation he complains that Palestine had been described by other participants as the “anti-nation” (Hirsh has since complained that the footage makes the event appear to have been more right-wing than it actually was). Unfortunately, neither Shamir nor the conference delegates appear to have been interested in serious critiques of The Israel Lobby, such as Walter Russell Mead’s measured but negative review in Foreign Affairs,  or –  from the anti-Zionist left – Bill Weinberg’s deconstruction (see here). The case that criticism of Israel is unfairly characterised as anti-Semitism is also made by Norman Finkelstein, although his distasteful manner (mocking Foxman with a Nazi salute) tends to obscure any reasonable point he might have.

The sections of the film featuring Abraham Foxman are perhaps the most telling. Shamir shadows Foxman and an Anti-Defamation League delegation to Europe; in Rome they are fêted by the mayor and the US Ambassador to the Vatican as a prelude to meeting the Pope, and in Ukraine they meet a high-level delegation of government officials. We’re told that Ukraine is hoping to make closer links with the USA, and a meeting with Foxman is hoped to facilitate this. Troublingly, Foxman tells Shamir that

They do believe, to some extent, that we can make a difference in Washington, and we’re not going to convince them otherwise.

Foxman admits that this is “the other side” to anti-Semitism, but he shows no reservations about perpetuating beliefs that in other contexts he decries.

The parts of Defamation are greater than the whole; it seems to be several different documentaries spliced rather unevenly together, each of which deserved further treatment. What there is, though, is worth watching, and for the next few weeks can be seen in the UK here.