TFF Movie #5: Defamation
I just returned from seeing Yoav Shamir's documentary about the political use of anti-Semitism, Defamation. Shamir sets out at the beginning to explore anti-Semitism because it always gets major headlines in the Israeli newspapers, but he says he has never himself experienced it. Shamir goes looking for anti-Semitic incidents, and doesn't find much - though he does hear some odd comments from people, but most of the film is about how the Anti-Defamation League inflames people's fears of anti-Semitism without much justification. He interviews several rabbis who have very interesting and surprising things to say about the ADL and general anxieties about anti-Semitism. His conclusion at the end of the film is that it is not "good for the Jews" to be so obsessed with the Holocaust.
I'm glad that Shamir made the film and I think it was good, in fact important. Shamir is generally empathic with his subjects, which gives the film a feeling of balance, and is also probably why people open up to him. In one particularly interesting section of the film, three Black residents in Crown Heights start talking to him about the value of the book "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." The best part of the film concerns the tour of Poland's death camps by a group of Israeli high school students who are warned by their guides that dangerous anti-Semites may try to break into their hotel rooms at night. He interviews several of the teens, and in one powerful moment, a girl says that even before the visit to the camps (which 30,000 Israeli teens now make every year), she was raised knowing that she is "hated" and that believing that makes her feel angry and feel hatred herself. "What is this doing to US?" Shamir said he wants the audience to think about. For that reason it's very thought provoking; I'd say it's a film that Jewish people really need to see.
The person who has done the most serious work on the exploitation of the memory of the Holocaust is Norman Finkelstein, whose book The Holocaust Industry, is a brilliant expose of the manipulation of the Holocaust for political and financial gain. Shoav includes Finkelstein in the film, but it is a pity that he did not spend as much time with Finkelstein as he did with ADL members, and that he did not do much to actually interview him about his research, or even show some clips from previous talks that Finkelstein has given, since Abe Foxman gets quite a bit of screen time. Because of his criticisms of Israel's foreign policy, Finkelstein lost his job as a professor at DePaul University two years ago.
Like the fellow who keeps this blog, I thought that the film was unkind to Finkelstein. It's interesting that he and I both reached for that word; I made that comment in the Q&A earlier tonight. While Shamir compares Finkelstein to a prophet, his editing makes the scholar seem unhinged; he says things that outside of context don't make sense. However, in the closing section of his interview, despite Shamir's somewhat dismissive framing, I thought he got the better of the film-maker. After he jokes that Abe Foxman is "worse than Hitler" (it's true that Finkelstein is a provocateur and his polemical style is part of the problem that he's had in academia), he goes into detail about the way that every politician in Israel calls every opponent Hitler. "Remember Rabin, before he was shot?" he asks Shamir. We do get a window into the source of Finkelstein's own abrasiveness, however. He says "At my house, it was always the food is worse than Auschwitz!" Since Finkelstein is known to be the child of Holocaust survivors, people have often engaged in a bit ofarmchair psychology about his passion about the issue.
It's also puzzling to me that Shamir was more sympathetic to Walt and Mearsheimer, of whom both Finkelstein and Chomsky were critical for their inflation of Jewish power over American foreign policy in the pages of the London Review of Books when their work originally was published some years ago.
I wonder if Shamir, who commented negatively about Finkelstein as not that original and kind of "crazy," will ultimately come to understand him better. Having made this film, Shamir too will certainly be called a self-hating Jew, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust Denier. It's too bad that he couldn't acknowledge the contributions that Finkelstein has made to the study of the very subject that his film set out to explore.
Here's what the great historian, Raul Hilberg had to say when Finkelstein was denied tenure:
“ the substance of the matter is most important here, particularly because Finkelstein, when he published this book, was alone. It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth when no one else is out there to support him. And so, I think that given this acuity of vision and analytical power, demonstrating that the Swiss banks did not owe the money, that even though survivors were beneficiaries of the funds that were distributed, they came, when all is said and done, from places that were not obligated to pay that money. That takes a great amount of courage in and of itself. So I would say that his place in the whole history of writing history is assured, and that those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed, albeit, it so seems, at great cost.”
The cost to Finkelstein has been obvious. I hope that the cost to Shamir will not be as great. His style is gentle, so he may get through to more people.