Mark Elf of Jews sans frontières has been writing a lot about Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s documentary Defamation lately, attracting a fairly lively discussion. Mark has written mainly about a short segment filmed at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s annual conference on Antisemitism featuring the English sociology lecturer and infamous Zionist apologist, David Hirsh, who Shamir filmed addressing the conference and in an animated altercation with the noxious Prof. Dina Porath, Head of The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University. Hirsh came across as remarkably sensible in the excerpts that made the cut. But he has since taken exception to the editing, linking to the full text of his talk. And Shamir has responded. The point that Hirsh makes is that one of the reasons for contemporary antisemitism is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, an issue nobody else at the conference had mentioned.
Some websites have restricted access to Defamation so it can only be viewed in the UK for a few weeks, but I believe this link will work for anyone and will not expire.
Shamir is a young Israeli filmmaker who says that as an Israeli, he had never experienced antisemitism and wanted to find out what it was all about. He weaves two principal themes through his documentary: He follows the ADL’s thuggish Abe Foxman around as he tours the world bullying the mighty into taking his line on antisemitism. And he accompanies a group of Israeli high school students on a pilgrimage to Poland they and their classmates carry out annually. Inculcated from infancy with the idea that ‘everybody hates us’, more than 30,000 kids a year undergo special indoctrination to prepare them for the trip, where they will not be permitted to interact with locals at all, who they are instructed are dangerous to them, as evidenced by the secret service minders who accompany them at all times.
Before discussing the film, let me just make a few points about antisemitism. First of all, in my view, antisemitism is just a special case of racism. It essentialises Jews as a race and discriminates against Jews on that basis. There are historical reasons that it suited the ruling classes of mediaeval Europe to discriminate against Jews that I won’t go into now. Suffice it to say that hatred of Jews and other attitudes that support discrimination derive from the discrimination both historically and conceptually, not the other way around. Understood in this way, it is ironic that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) specifically excludes cases of actual discrimination in employment, housing, education, and the like from its Annual Audit of Anti-semitic Incidents.
ADL does not include cases of alleged employment discrimination in hiring, firing or promotion, unless the situation includes evidence of overt anti-Semitism...Such claims involve a different kind of anti-Semitic problem which, while hurtful to the complainant, are nevertheless distinct from overt expressions of anti-Jewish hostility.In other words, in their view, expression of racist attitudes, even ‘Events which create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to Jews, including neo-Nazi and white supremacist events, rallies, and speeches’, which may not be explicitly antisemitic, are on the whole of greater significance than actual racist actions, with the exception of assaults, which do count.
When it comes to the relation between antisemitism and Israel, I happen to agree that ‘Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’ is antisemitic. In fact, I think that’s the only point in the EU Monitoring Commission’s ‘Working definition’ of anti-Semitism, which I’ve demonstrated itself holds ‘Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel’, I do agree with. By the same token, when Former Israeli PM Tzipi Livni harps repeatedly on Israel as ‘a homeland for the Jewish people’ and when we read that youth and relief organisations are saying, ‘As the representative of the Jewish people, the State of Israel is leading the relief effort’, it’s no big surprise when the uninformed take them at their word and blame the Jews Israel purports to represent for what Israel does in our name. Nor does it help when nearly every Jewish organisation and individual Jew takes it for granted that Israel does represent them.
An important aspect of antisemitism is that it’s one of the few forms of racism that has its own special term. Although it was in fact the antisemite Wilhelm Marr who coined the term, it has turned out to be very convenient for the ADL, the Community Security Trust (CST), and the rest of the antisemitism industry to be able to purport to combat antisemitism without having to pretend to oppose racism more generally.
Another point that I thought was implicit in the film is that Israel has a special interest in exaggerating the extent of antisemitism. For one thing, it engenders a barricade mentality among Israelis, strongly evidenced in interviews with high school students and with Shamir’s own grandmother. The Israeli educational system quite cynically exploits the real sorrow and indignation the concentration camp visits elicit from the students to inculcate serious racist attitudes. One girl said she wanted to kill all the Nazis. When Shamir pointed out that those responsible for the Holocaust were all dead, she responded that they had progeny. It hadn’t really occurred to me that perhaps the preeminent targets for Hasbara are actually Israeli kids.
Perhaps more importantly, it mobilises Jews outside Israel – the so called ‘diaspora’ – to support Israel, right or wrong, as an ‘insurance policy’ against the inevitable coming wave of antisemitic violence. Shamir films a sad, but hilarious, discussion among some members of Foxman’s entourage where they determine that their love for their own country is like love for a husband, but their love for Israel is like the love for a child. In some cases, fear of antisemitism motivates foreign Jews to immigrate, as intended.
It’s worth noting that although the Nazis killed millions of non Jews, Israel has appropriated the Holocaust to denote the judeocide alone. Jews have been uniquely victimised. It is antisemitic to suggest that anything else in human history was as uniquely horrible as the Shoah. In fact, Foxman takes his Ukrainian interlocutor to task for intimating a similarity with the death of millions of Ukrainians. The underlying assumption is that antisemitism lurks in the heart and liver of every non Jew and that it’s just a matter of time before the next Holocaust. Shamir’s grandmother, who despises the canny, lazy, greedy non Israeli Jews, asks whether we’re just waiting for Hitler to come along.
Finally, a bit off topic, you often hear it said that Israel is antisemitic because ‘Arabs are Semites too’. There are two problems with this. First, Marr coined the term specifically to denote discrimination against and hatred of Jews and it has never meant anything else, whatever problems anyone may have with that.
More importantly, when they say, ‘Arabs are Semites too’, they effectively create a race of Semites, which would comprise Jews, Arabs, and the peoples who speak Semitic languages in the Horn of Africa. There are people who hate Jews because we’re Jews and there are people who hate Arabs because they’re Arabs. Perhaps there are even people who hate Amharic speakers because of that. There are certainly people who hate both Jews and Arabs but I doubt there’s anyone anywhere who hates Jews and Arabs because they are Semites, per se – speakers of Semitic languages and their descendants. Since race is not a meaningful biological category, we can only know that a race is a race because of the racism against its members. And since there is no racism against Semites, as such, there is no race of Semites and it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to try to appropriate the term antisemitism for a form of racism that doesn’t exist.
Returning to the point, I liked the film a lot. It didn’t evidence very high production values, but I assume that the amateurish interview from behind the handheld camera technique was deliberate.
There are revealing interviews with rabbis in Crown Heights and Kiev and members of Foxman’s delegation, as well as with the students. The Crown Heights rabbi points out that it is not the same thing for a mugger to target Jews thinking they are soft targets as to target Jews because they hate Jews. He also mentions that people like Foxman have a vested interest in exaggerating the threat and fomenting an atmosphere of panic because their jobs depend on it.
Shamir also interviews both Jews and Blacks in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights district and attends a conference in Israel on antisemitism. One of the Crown Heights Blacks strongly endorsed what he called ‘The elders of the protocols of Zion’ and his two mates agreed, although they clearly were not as familiar with it as the first guy was. Even though he was aware that The protocols was a hoax, to all appearances, they really believe that there’s a Jewish conspiracy to control the world, a transparently antisemitic attitude, also articulated by a cabdriver at the very beginning of the film. There may well be genuine cause for concern if such views are prevalent. The fear and resentment those interviewees displayed could easily turn nasty. But the question arises how they came by their opinions. One reason may be that they haven’t had much social contact with the Jews in their neighbourhood, who are principally, if not exclusively, the notoriously insular Hasidim.
In one of Defamation’s highlights, Foxman may offer some additional insight. In an in car interview, he confesses that his raison d’etre is actually to instil and cultivate the impression that Jews have great power and influence as a tool to bully his interlocutors to put on a song and dance about how they don’t believe Jews have inordinate power and influence.
To be honest, I didn’t think the interviews with Mearsheimer and Finkelstein contributed much. Mearsheimer makes the undeniable point that it’s nearly impossible to prove a negative – that, for example, he is not an antisemite, ‘which is one reason that this charge is so effective’. ‘My arguments are not in any way, shape, or form hostile to Jews or hostile to the state of Israel. And in fact Steve Walt and I go to great lengths to make the case that we think The Lobby’s policies are not in Israel’s interests or in America’s interests.’ In protesting that he is not hostile to Israel and his concern for Israel’s interests as evidence that he is not an antisemite, of course, he demonstrates pretty conclusively that, if you agree that bracketing Jews with the state of Israel is antisemitic, he is in fact an antisemite.
Finkelstein does not come out of the film looking very good, either. This could be an artefact of Shamir’s editing. He filmed the interview in at least four locations – on the boardwalk, presumably adjacent to his flat, in the loungeroom, in the kitchen, and in the stairwell. When asked about the traditional complaint that Israel is ‘singled out for criticism’, Finkelstein responds somewhat unconvincingly, ‘Listen, I open the radio. I hear nonstop about Sudan. I hear nonstop about Tibet. I hear nonstop about Darfur. I hear a lot.’ He does make the salient point, however, ‘The only place I hear excuses made for is Israel.’ But he goes on to undermine himself with the familiar claim, ‘We do have to remember that it’s the oldest occupation in the world. I mean forty years really is enough’. It never ceases to amaze me how intelligent and well informed people draw a line in the sand in June 1967, as if Zionist colonisation of Palestine didn’t go back a lot further than that. In a 27 January article on the Electronic Intifada, Columbia University academic Joseph Massad attributes the reduction of Palestine to just the West Bank and Gaza, which seems to me to lie at the heart of this misconception, to Oslo.
...By transforming the PLO, which represented all Palestinians in the Diaspora and in Israel and the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem, into the Palestinian Authority (PA) which could only hope to represent Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, constituting one third of the Palestinian people, the Oslo agreements engineered a major demographic reduction of the Palestinian people...(I strongly recommend, by the way, making a point of clicking the link to ‘How surrendering Palestinian rights became the language of "peace"’ and reading it in full. Massad really gets some of the stuff I’ve been trying to hammer for years.)
The insidious part of this process is how the PA, conscious of this transformation, continues to speak of the "Palestinian people," which had been reduced through the Oslo accords to those West Bank and Gaza Palestinians it now claims to represent.
But beyond that, it always strikes me as a bit rich for an American to claim the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as ‘the oldest occupation in the world’, as if they weren’t even aware of the US occupation of such colonies as Puerto Rico, Guam, and ‘American’ Samoa, which goes back to the end of the Nineteenth Century. When I point this out, a lot of people object that those aren’t exactly like the Israeli occupation, sometimes indicating particular differences. And they’re right. But once you redefine occupation to mean only an occupation exactly like the occupation of the West Bank, assertions that it’s the oldest become utterly vacuous.
At another point, Finkelstein tells Shamir, ‘It’s the best thing that will ever happen to Israel if they get rid of these American Jews who are warmongers from Martha’s Vineyard...it’s been a disaster for Israel...it’s a curse.’ So it turns out that at least one of the things that concerns him, like Mearsheimer, is Israel’s interests. Beyond that, he seems to be suggesting that Israel would be fine if it weren’t for these American Jews, as if warmongers like Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky, whose work he is intimately familiar with and who he mentions in another part of the interview, needed any prodding.
Shamir attended a meeting with Foxman, Joel Levi, ‘NY Regional Director’, and Bob Wolfson, ‘ADL Regional Director’, about, Foxman says, ‘...what looks like a spike in um antisemitic and racist...um...activities or manifestations. Now New York seems to be at the centre, or at least getting the attention. How do you see it?’ Levi responds, ‘There is a wave. There’s no question about it.’ And Wolfson speculates that it may ‘be attached to the time of the year’ or ‘maybe attached to the Presidential election’, placing the filming prior to November 2008.
It transpires that the ADL headlined the 1 June 2009 press release for its own Annual Audit of Anti-semitic Incidents for 2008, ‘Anti-Semitic Incidents Decline for Fourth Straight Year in U.S., According to Annual ADL Audit’. In 2008, the ADL recorded ‘1,352 incidents of vandalism, harassment and physical assaults against Jewish individuals, property and community institutions in 2008, representing a 7 percent decline from the 1,460 incidents reported in 2007’ and a 26% decline from the 2004 peak ‘when the League reported 1,821 incidents’. Of those 1,352 incidents, 37 were actual assaults, a category not reported in previous years. Of course it wouldn’t be the first time that a prominent American Jewish organisation has contradicted its own findings.
It was interesting to learn that in the fortnight prior to Shamir’s visit to the ADL’s main office in Manhattan they had collected a grand total of five reports of antisemitic incidents: someone who thought they had detected antisemitic remarks on a website and another who believed they had perceived ‘antisemitic undertones’ in a newspaper article, as well as a teacher, another employee, and a nursing student who ‘had issues’ taking leave for Jewish holidays. Another report was a letter from a woman to her congressperson alleging that she was utterly crushed to overhear a cop on duty guarding a big funeral telling someone on the phone that he wouldn’t be free until ‘after this Jewish shit’.
What I got from Defamation is that a lot of Jews, including Israeli Jews, exhibit a hysterical paranoia about antisemitism completely at odds with the actual danger. According to the ADL Audit, the chance of an American Jew being the victim of an antisemitic assault are about 1 in 160,000. Nevertheless, the latest American Jewish Committee Survey shows that 99% of American Jews thought antisemitism was a problem, 56% a ‘Very Serious problem’, and 45% said it was getting worse. Unfortunately, this seems to be a common enough kind of phenomenon. Hundreds of millions are more worried about a terrorist attack than about driving down the shops even though they are thousands of times more likely to be killed or injured in a traffic accident than in a terrorist incident.
Shamir also makes it clear that there are organisations, ranging from the ADL to the State of Israel, that have a vested interest in provoking and exacerbating antisemitic attitudes, exaggerating antisemitic incidents, and aggravating the hysteria about them.
Unfortunately, he ends the film on the lame note, ‘Maybe it’s about time to live in the present and look to the future’.
Notwithstanding the useful insights and revealing admissions Defamation presents, ultimately, whatever Shamir’s intentions, it ends up as part of Israel’s rebranding exercise. Shamir shows that at least some Israelis are talented and caring people. He goes out of his way to challenge the received wisdom – the very foundation of Zionsim. And the whole project was sponsored by the Israeli Council for Cinema, among others. Clearly, Israel must be a true democracy that ‘shares our values’ even to tolerate, much less support, a film like Defamation.