Like any good documentary, “Defamation” sets out to answer a question. Like the best documentaries, “Defamation” asks its question knowing that the answer won’t be an easy pill to swallow.
So what’s the question? It’s one Jews ask themselves constantly, whether they know it or not: What does anti-Semitism mean today?
At first, that seems like an easy inquiry to answer. Swastikas, hate speech, hate crimes, right? But, as “Defamation” creator, the Israeli Yoav Shamir, shows through his piece, anti-Semitism is no black and white issue. It’s highly subjective, constantly changing and, as is often the case, decreasing all the time.
So then the true question becomes: If anti-Semitism is shrinking since the Holocaust, why are Jews as a people so obsessed with spotting it, calling it out into the open and eradicating it?
If that thought has you concerned, even slightly put off, don’t fret. The goal of “Defamation” is to do just that; to truly examine anti-Semitism in the modern world to find out if how we feel and what we do about it match.
Filmed by Shamir all around the world, “Defamation” represents the filmmaker’s own quest to explore anti-Semitism. Shamir’s prior film, “Checkpoint,” was a critical documentary about Israel’s policies towards Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, he was castigated in many reviews, even called “the Israeli Mel Gibson.” His personal passion towards “Defamation,” then, is obvious, and contagious.
The structure of “Defamation” is masterful. Shamir spends extended time with Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as author and commentator Norman Finkelstein, in addition to a group of Israeli teens visiting concentration camps in Poland. The reason for these focuses is clear: In Shamir’s eyes, Foxman represents the Jew who calls the slightest indiscretion an act of anti-Semitism, and Finkelstein basically denounces the existence of anti-Semitism, with no sympathy for Israel. The students, then, are caught in the middle: will future generations of Jews quiver in fear of anti-Semites, will they brush the notion aside, or will they draw their own conclusions?
Shamir doesn’t hide his opinion, but it’s not thrown in our face. This is no Michael Moore film. By showing us how damaging hyper-sensitivity to anti-Semitism can be as well as how dangerous it is to ignore the problem all together, Shamir shines a light on the middle ground: sure, Jews can “never forget,” but they need to stop dwelling on the past and cowering in fear of future persecution. Fans of the ADL will take issue, and so will “Just get over it and move on”-type Jews.
In one especially poignant scene, two Israeli students are attempting conversation with an old Polish man. With English subtitles, viewers see that the man is confused, asking the students if they are speaking in Chinese. A minute later, the students tell Shamir that the man called them pigs and donkeys — they see anti-Semitism in mere misunderstanding. As young Jews, Shamir seems to suggest, they’ve been trained for hyper-sensitivity.
But the students are exposed as Finkelstein-like as well. While visiting a concentration camp, several students tell Shamir they simply don’t feel anything. They are immune to the emotional power of the Holocaust; they’re even bored.
The push and pull is made more dramatic when juxtaposed with the adult interviews — people who have long made up their mind.
“Defamation” is more than just a great documentary. It’s a conversation starter. Watching with a Jew and a non-Jew, I paused the film a half-dozen times because we couldn’t help but discuss what we were watching.
This film won’t garner Shamir any more Mel Gibson comparisons, but he’ll have more “great filmmaker” mentions than he knows what to do with.
Defamation is available on DVD in English and Hebrew with subtitles.
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. )