Silverdocs - "Defamation" - June 19, 2009
June 19, 2009
Defamation is Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s feature documentary that made its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. I met Yoav at the Documentary Press Meet & Greet there, and was very intrigued by the premise of his film and had also read Pamela Cohn’s great review of it on Hammer to Nail, but I didn’t get a chance to see Defamation until this past Friday when I attended Silverdocs in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Defamation takes a controversial stance and often humorous look in a sort of Michael Moore fashion on how anti-Semitism is defined in the modern world, centering on the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization with a budget of $70 million a year. Shamir's point in the film is to find out how the ADL actually flights anti-Semitism. He gets unprecedented access to the ADL’s leader Abraham Foxman, who at first seems skeptical of Shamir, but continues to allow him to document him as he goes around the world to meet with foreign dignitaries about eliminating anti-Semitism. The underlying purpose of the ADL, to combat anti-Semitism, is a worthy mission, however, Shamir discovers through interviews with other people on the subject of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and by following Israeli students on a field trip to Holocaust sites in Poland, that perhaps more harm is being done than good with their underlying messages of guilt for past actions. At one point in the film, Rabbi Hecht says in the film about Foxman, "He has to create a problem, because he needs a job." But the most outspoken person Shamir meets is Dr. Norman Finkelstein, who has often been described as a "self-hating Jew." The film does raise a lot of interesting questions, and I'm not quite sure which side of the fence I'm on after watching the film, but it has surely opened my eyes. The film sparked debate even among the members of the audience in attendance at the Q&A. Below are some highlights of that discussion.
Moderator Question: I was really struck by some of the performances in the film, such as by the students or Abraham Foxman. Can you talk about performances in documentaries?
Shamir: I don't think they were performing, but certainly as a filmmaker, it makes my life easier on people that have a very strong ideology of conviction to what they do...A lot of the time the key is access...interviews and attitudes. When people are very engaged in what they are doing, they have a strong belief.
Audience Question: I want to tie your film to an incident that happened in San Francisco not too long ago...what I observed in front of the Israeli consulate that genocide was practiced on Palestinians in Gaza. The local Jewry turned out in force. Are they anti-Semitic? They were protesting something political they didn't agree with, but in the newspapers the next day, the phrase anti-Semitic was used over and over again. It seems to me, this is a way to curtail debate by the State of Israel and by the corporate media, people who profit from war...What is your opinion as a filmmaker having seen both sides of this?
Shamir: Certainly I would wouldn't describe what happened in Gaza as a genocide. It's a very unfortunate and stupid war where a lot of people died, but genocide is a totally different thing. Just to make fair, at least the way I distinct these things. It's a very complicated subject with many grays. Anti-Semitism in Israel and in the Jewish world is very influenced by the past. That's what the film is trying to speak about, these issues to be debated... I wanted to make a film that would make people think about the role that anti-Semitism takes in our lives as Israelis and Jews. Is it constructive? Is it eventually damaging us?
Audience Question: I wonder why you chose to make such a light-hearted film about such a serious subject. It seems to me you're suggesting that anti-Semitism isn't really a problem. It's easy to feel that way in America, although just a few days ago, a lunatic burst into the Holocaust Museum and shot dead a security guard because he hates Jews and Blacks. Just a little reminder that it does exist. But this does not replace where it exists at the greatest level. You should have gone to Spain. You should have read the Pew opinion poles, which show that anti-Semitism is rising in Europe. 46% of Spaniards have an unfavorable attitude toward Jews. It doesn't help that they also don't like Muslims. And the other place you might have gone to is Lebanon and talk to Hezbollah and their attitude toward Jews. Why did you not investigate the anti-Semitism, which is inherent in these founding documents of Hamas and Hezbollah, and might have you also gone onto the Internet and found Norman Finkelstein expressing his solidarity with the Jew-hating Hezbollah?
Shamir: It's kind of interesting to have these two remarks. One coming from the Right and one from the Left. (The man who asked the question interrupts and says, "There's nothing Right Wing about it, sir. I'm actually a supporter of Obama.") I didn't mean to offend you. The question of anti-Semitism in our world is a serious question. I think what is happening in many cases is a lot of the Arab media and the uneducated Arab press. I taught in Palestine. I follow on what's going on there and they don't know almost anything about the Holocaust, because no one is teaching them about it. It's not only the Palestinians, it's also the Arab Israelis....Until three years ago, Yad Vashem, the biggest museum for the Holocaust, they had translations for 12 languages, but Arabic. After a strong battle with a lawyer from Nazareth, they decided to have it translated to Arabic...For me the Holocaust is not only for Jewish people, it's a human lesson for everybody...I've been researching this film for a long time. I was looking all over the world. I'm not saying anti-Semitism is not an issue. Even my parents call me every time they read about an incident. There are crazy anti-Semites and crazy racists, homophobes. All these people exist. They should be fought honestly, but to what extent? What is the level of the treatment of the problem that is causing more problems than the problem itself? I think we have to consider these things.
Audience Question: Did you edit out all the extreme fringe groups?...When I looked up slavery on the Internet and was really researching something else, I got this huge list of topics that the Jews brought all the slaves, that the Jews are the cause of it all...Do you feel it's not a problem any more in America?
Shamir: There's all sorts of radical skinheads and crazy groups. It's a 90-minute film about anti-Semitism...I'm not saying that (it's not a problem anymore in America.)...The biggest insult a Jewish person can have is for someone to tell him, 'you're not being hated' or 'you are hated less than you think you are.'...Why do we have to go an look for it and dig?...What kind of purpose does it serve really? I live in Israel...It's a personal journey. I'm not representing all Jewish people in the world and I'm not representing all the Israeli people in the world. I live in one of the most racist societies in the Western world for sure right now. Israel is seriously a very racist place. We have a lot of tolerance to racism toward Arabs. Nobody gets excited if you see graffiti, 'Death to the Arabs.'...At the (football) championships, there was an Arab minister (of sports). None of the winning team shook his hand. They just passed him by like he didn't exist....For my Arab-Israeli friends who try to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv, it's an impossible mission. They cannot find an apartment. We are living in such a racist society and we are so sensitive to other forms of racism. This turns us blind to what's happening in our country. To me, this is a bigger problem than what maybe some Jewish people are facing in the world today, and I just want people to think about it. (Shamir gets a round of applause from the audience).
Audience Question: I'm curious about Abraham Foxman's reaction to your film. Have you heard from him?
Shamir: (Joking) He has seen the film in Israel and he loved the film and wants to join the solidarity movement with the Palestinians and donate all the money from the ADL to them. (Laughter from the audience)...(Shamir gets serious)...He saw the film with his wife and they didn't like it very much. His wife thinks I need to go to therapy....There was a press release on their (the ADL's) website against the film. To be honest, I have to say I have respect for the organization for being so open to me and for letting me film. I don't think there is anything conspiratorial about what they are doing. I think they're doing it out of real concern for Israel. They're passionate about the way they feel is the right way, which I disagree with obviously...Does the end result help Israel or make our situation worse?