Yoav Shamir’s film, Defamation, first came out in 2009 but one can only wonder what the documentary would look like today.
It’s been really hard watching much of anything over the last week. All I can do is really keep watching the news, refresh for updates, and think about my family and friends living in Israel. While there are flare-ups every few years, this time is different. Hamas just invaded Israel and murdered over a thousand Jews in the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust. The Holocaust! We are not even 80 years removed from the worst genocide to take place against the Jewish people. It’s no surprise that the film’s subject, antisemitism is very personal. We are experiencing some of its worst numbers in decades. It’s in that vein that I decided to check out Defamation, not knowing exactly what to expect.
More than 30,000 high school students travel to Poland and visit Auschwitz. Yoav Shamir joined them at the start of a trip, beginning with a visit to Yad Vashem. For my non-Jewish readers, Yad Vashem is the Israeli Holocaust Museum. In an on-camera interview, one of the students, Notav, said:
“Everybody knows that the Jews are hated. We are raised that way, with hatred and antisemitism, I can’t remember a single moment, when there was no antisemitism.”
When the film was released, there were around 1500 incidents per year in the US. The ADL receives numerous reports, including employees not being allowed to take time off for Jewish holidays. However, most of them weren’t enough to interview people. Shamir subsequently visited the offices of Assemblyman Dov Hikind. Hikind discusses something he received from a constituent.
Shamir goes back and forth with the various interview subjects because he goes from the ADL back to the flight to Poland. Some of the students immediately experienced antisemitism when talking to the locals–particularly, three old men on a bench. All of the students must go to their hotel rooms after dinner.
Shamir finds out about the stoning of a Lubavicher school bus carrying children. He decides that the incident is important to film. The driver wasn’t worried about himself but was worried for the children, ages 10-12. Meanwhile, Shamir then dives into the history of antisemitism in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In making a documentary such as this, discussing the Crown Heights riots and relations between Jews and Blacks–especially in Crown Heights–feels inevitable. One of the Black people interviewed mentions reading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a known antisemitic book. It is not unfair to say that Shamir gets into an argument with them after they bring the book up.
Shamir joins then-ADL director Abraham Foxman on the ADL Mission in Rome. Foxman meets with a number of ambassadors, heads of state, etc. Shamir wants to know why he is able to hold such meetings. The director follows Foxman to his meeting with current Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was then the minister in charge of Antisemitic Affairs. The ADL informs Israel of antisemitism around the world. Of course, there are things that cannot be on camera. Next up is a trip to Ukraine, where the government wants to distance itself from Russia. Foxman has mixed feelings because of Ukraine’s past antisemitism.
While in Ukraine, Shamir hears about a stabbing at a Russian synagogue and decides to visit. Shamir didn’t understand why the religious Jews weren’t so worried about the antisemitism. He visits with Rabbi Bleich in Ukraine to get the low-down. According to the rabbi, it’s an issue of Jewish identity. Jews are a spectrum and range from secular to Charedi. And yet, none of us are immune to antisemitism. The ADL Mission visits the site of the Babi Yar Massacre. One person on the trip comments the worst thing is that it could happen again today. This is the importance of Israel for many Jews–it’s an “insurance policy” for when conditions in our own countries get worse.
At this time, Shamir takes us back to the high schoolers as they visit a concentration camp, Majdanek. It was located near Lublin in Poland. Majdanek is one of the larger concentration camps with 227 structures, seven gas chambers, and two wooden gallows.
And then we get into the subject of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Shamir interviews some of the harshest critics, some of which are Jewish. Terms that come up include “self-hating Jew” and “Holocaust denier.” In particular, one interviewee is the son of Holocaust survivors and Shamir immediately cuts to Foxman. He goes back towards the end and it gets very confrontational. Foxman says “people use Israel as an excuse to rationalize and legitimize…if you can camouflage it, if you can find a platform of a news event, of a political discourse, then you use it. We find every time there is conflict in the Middle East between Israel and somebody else, the level of antisemitism spikes. Why? Because the antisemites come out of the woodwork and now they can express themselves in their antisemitism in what they consider a legitimate licensed way.”
Antisemites use Israel as a way to express their antisemitism. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer wrote a book about Israel, which was not well received by mainstream Jews. They were invited to visit Israel by Gush Shalom–an ADL spokesman attended the event. Let’s get one thing straight right now: it is one thing to be critical of Israeli government policies. It is another thing to outright call for Israel’s destruction and wipe it off the map. That’s something we’re seeing right now on college campuses and other major cities where people are protesting. Some of them are using slogans and not even denying that they don’t want Jews in Israel. That is outright antisemitism. It’s no secret that for many Jews, antisemitism and anti-Zionism are one and the same.
Much like the high school students, the IDF also sent troops to visit Auschwitz in Poland. They joined up with the ADL Mission, marching side by side. The IDF trip is only very recent when you compare it to the high school visits. Anyone visiting Auschwitz understands the history. It is one of the biggest cemeteries in the world.
Defamation’s editing works against it. Shamir keeps going back and forth between subjects. It would be nice if he could have presented it in different segments that have their individual focus. By the time you think Shamir has moved on, he’s right back to the same people we just watched.
When it comes to the subject of anti-Zionism as antisemitism, this is one way where the film could really do a better job. Again, things are much different now than they were in 2009. I haven’t forgotten being called the K word nearly 20 years ago in college. Things got considerably worse for European Jews in the years following the release of Defamation. They have been making aliyah in high numbers because they don’t feel safe in Europe–Shamir doesn’t really explore this aspect of anti-Zionism/antisemitism. In this way, the film could be so much better. It doesn’t even bother exploring horseshoe theory–the idea that the far-left and far-right are united in their hatred of Jews. This is where Antisemitism is a better film on the subject. Again, we are less than 80 years removed from the Holocaust.
There are interview subjects in the film that were critical of the final cut–director Yoav Shamir wrote an op-ed in response to David Hirsch. The ADL also denounced the film as “neither enlightening, nor edifying, nor compelling. It distorts the prevalence and impact of antisemitism and cheapens the Holocaust.”
In the time since Defamation premiered in 2009, antisemitism has only increased but this isn’t a must-watch documentary in the same way that other films approach the subject. I might have viewed this film differently in 2009 but it takes a Michael Moore-esque approach that does not hold up today. I wish I could recommend it today but I can’t.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Yoav Shamir