Except for a very brief moment at the start of Defamation, a smart, mordant, and incisive documentary which examines the tendency of forces within contemporary Judaism to exploit the Holocaust for political ends, we never see the man behind the camera, Israeli Jew Yoav Shamir. One imagines, however, that this fellow had his poker face honed to perfection, because he was able to pull off a terrifically effective undercover job.
Clearly no fan of the Anti-Defamation League and like organizations, Shamir during the making of this movie managed to sell himself as a sympathizer, and somehow won the confidence of Abraham Foxman and other high-level figures within the ADL, who in turn seemed totally unaware that they were ultimately going to receive a cinematic drubbing at his hands. Indeed, one even almost sympathizes with Foxman and Co. for opening themselves up to the soft-spoken filmmaker from Tel Aviv with such touching, open-hearted naiveté; they must have figured that Shamir’s Jewish background and professed interest in exploring “anti-Semitism” must have meant that he could be trusted not to break from the party line.
That is, one is tempted to sympathize, until one is reminded of Abe’s ardent obnoxiousness and brazen chutzpah in brandishing the “anti-Semite” slur like a sharpened, poisoned machete, and holding it over the heads of others to threaten and bully them into submission. In a particularly galling moment, we witness a meeting between Foxman and a government delegation in Ukraine, who want to know how to get along better with Jews in the Western world. During this meeting (which Shamir, incredibly, was allowed to film), Foxman high-handedly lectures the delegation that people of their country have no right to use the word “holocaust” to describe the killing of up to five million of its people by Stalin by deliberate starvation in the 1930s. “You need to be sensitive… be careful that it (the Ukrainian famine/mass murder) not be played as ‘your genocide,’ because that would be counter-productive,” the ADL-leader intones, like a principal sternly admonishing naughty pupils. And of course, the members of the delegation solemnly nod and snivelingly agree, knowing that their interests are served by pleasing the likes of Foxman and his ilk, however outrageously out of line their demands might be. None of them thinks to ask why the murder of millions of Jews matters more than that of millions of Ukraine nationals. One hopes the reasonable question at least crosses their minds.
Following the meeting, Shamir asks Foxman why, if anti-Semitism is so potent a force in the world today, people care so much about pleasing the ADL and its sister organizations. Dishonest Abe then shows his flair at sophistry: it’s anti-Semitic in itself, he maintains, to even think that the Jews are so powerful as to be feared, so the fact that people like this pitiful delegation of yes-men are so eager to do his bidding just shows how anti-Semitic the world has become! Once more, Shamir dryly acknowledges this “logic,” letting its absurdity speak for itself.
Shamir also speaks candidly to Harvey and Suzanne Prince, an elderly Jewish couple who are members of the Los Angeles division of the ADL and close confidants of Foxman. Shamir asks Mrs. Prince if she thinks it’s useful to bring up transgressions from long ago — say, the commission of early twentieth-century pogroms by Eastern Europeans, or the lurid atrocities of Krystallnacht by Germans in Nazi Germany, in order to create guilt in one’s potential enemies, and thus obtain a tactical advantage over them. She enthusiastically agrees with the proposition, calling such a strategy “the American Jewish way,” and adding, “Absolutely — we need to play on that guilt.”
A moment later, her husband notes acerbically that she certainly never seems to forget anything he ever did wrong in the past, and things grow a bit tense between the long-married couple. Clearly, according to Mr. Prince, a self-described “moderate,” there ought to be limits to the practice of guilt-mongering for profit, though it is unclear where those limits lie and if the travails of a “whipped” Jewish husband might also hold analogously true for gentile nations henpecked by the ADL: if, that is, there is a point where it’s just not decent to bring up the past to induce guilt and subservience in one’s interlocutors. Must the descendants of a nation that allowed anti-Jewish outrages long ago be scolded forever into the future, like an embittered, vengeful fishwife who never forgives or forgets her husband’s transgressions, and who could never conceive that she might not be a picnic to live with either?
There are many more eye-opening moments spent among the ADL-ers, including a deliciously uncomfortable moment where Shamir asks to hear about the so-called rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, and the tabulator of these statistics is hard put to find any allegation that doesn’t sound absurdly trivial. Then there are the interviews Shamir conducts with others: a generally amiable group of young Black men in Brooklyn who complain that the police actually favor Jews over African-Americans, as well as the humorously droll statements of various Jews across the world, including Shamir’s own outspoken grandmother (“Jews love money. Jews are crooks!”) and famously combative, tenure-denied and currently unemployed college professor Norman Finklestein, each of whom contemptuously mocks those engaged in Jewish ethnic hustling in unsparing language that makes the careful, restrained verbiage of Israel Lobby author (and non-Jew) Walter Mearsheimer seem relatively tame by comparison.
But the most powerful segment of the film involves a group of Israeli teenagers who are flown to Auschwitz on a field trip. The kids are familiar adolescent characters: rowdy, rambunctious, immature, emotional, prone to gossip and mischief, at times sweetly wide-eyed in their innocence. They are both annoying and likable simultaneously, as teenagers can be. In any case, this group is in no mood to have their consciousness raised during their exciting trip together: much to the consternation of their adult chaperones, they just want to have fun. Over the course of the trip, however, these kids are repeatedly bludgeoned with the message: You are Jews and the world hates you; you must in turn hate and fear the world if you hope to survive! Their faces are pushed into the gruesome tales of the events that took place in the notorious camp, and at night their handlers tell them stories of how the present-day country of Poland is still rife with neo-Nazi violence. A harmless comment to some members of the group uttered by an old Polish man is interpreted as viciously anti-Semitic; Shamir tries to correct their misconception, but to no avail; they have been instructed how to perceive reality, and won’t be dissuaded.
The kids, being hedonistic at heart, do manage to put up some resistance to the relentless stream of emotionally compelling propaganda being pumped into their ears, but they can only hold out for so long. Near the end of the trip, a lovely young Jewess breaks down and tells Shamir that it has finally happened: she has learned to “hate” her enemies; the implication is clear that she has come to view the Palestinians and Arabs as cut from the same cloth as the Nazis. This scene has a viscerally searing quality, similar in feel to Orwell’s account of his hero Winston Smith succumbing to the horrific manipulations of the Ministry of Love and learning to embrace the pernicious ruling ideology of Oceania. The corruption of innocence portrayed here is simply breathtaking, and heartbreaking to behold.
And this is what truly sets Defamation apart from the average documentary: its delicate sense of poignancy. Shamir’s argument seems to be that indulging in paranoid delusion about the coming of a new Holocaust simply isn’t a good way for Jews, or anyone, to live. Hating those one takes to be one’s enemies and constantly fearing the worst from them may in fact be a self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing out the worst in everyone, oneself and one’s enemies alike. If Jews want to thrive and inspire good will from others, Shamir appears to be saying, they should eschew such a spurious mindset, and not dwell so much on bad things that were done to them in the past.
One wonders if Defamation will have any tangible influence on any of its target audience. But even if his work doesn’t significantly affect Jewish-Palestinian, or Jewish-Gentile relations, Yoav Shamir deserves praise for his courage in crafting such a provocative and fearlessly taboo-shattering, yet highly compassionate document on this most sensitive of contemporary topics.