Monday, March 21, 2011


I just watched a documentary on Netflix called Defamation. It was made by Yoav Shamir, an Israeli filmmaker who walks around candidly interviewing figures like Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby, and Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom, to name a few. The only word to describe that film would be tense, whether it was between bitter rivals (Foxman and Finkelstein, oh my goodness), or a couple having a discreet, but intense debate just inches from the camera. The source of this tension was an argument that was easy to boil down: Is anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism the same thing? The Anti-Defamation League says yes. Anti-Zionists like Finkelstein, Mearsheimer and Avnery say no, there is nothing anti-Jewish about criticizing Israel.

This distinction is important when regarding the work of an organization like the ADL, says Uri Avnery, the founder of Gush Shalom: "The ADL isn't fighting anti-Semitism, they're fighting criticism of Israel." One rabbi from Brooklyn also told Yoav that he distrusted information coming from people who make a career out of blood or hatred. That if finding hatred is their job, they must provoke the very thing they're fighting. "And now I'm on the ADL blacklist, and Abe Foxman won't come to my house for dinner, but what can you do...." That didn't sound like a light confession....

The most intense part of the film was when Yoav accompanied a class of Israeli high schoolers on a trip to Poland to see the concentration camps. They were protected by a secret service agent who told them that Poland was full of anti-Semites and they shouldn't leave the hotel at night because it was a hostile place for Jews. Hearing these kids talk so non-chalantly about how hated they are was just heartbreaking. It made me so angry at the adults who were instilling all that fear. And it's terrifying to think they're about to join the army with that mindset.

But I understand why the obsession with anti-Semitism is so strong. If it can't be used to explain acts of violence against Israel, then the justification for Israel would slowly get chipped away. The teacher on the school trip confessed to Yoav after the students visited Auschwitz that Israel would never have a normal people if it continued to live so close to the dead, and that was Yoav's ending theme, that it was counterproductive to keep young generations stuck in the past, that now was the time to look forward.

So that was Defamation. Yoav's earlier work is called Checkpoint, where he just videotaped Israeli checkpoints and compiled his footage into an 80-minute documentary. I could only watch a few minutes, but it's worth seeing...