I saw a great movie last night, the documentary Defamation, by Yoav Shamir, an Israeli filmmaker. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and it is about the consecration of anti-Semitism as the central mode of Jewish identity and the raison-d'etre of Jewish nationalism–it sustains Israel. The group of Israeli kids traveling to Majdanek carries the Israeli flag into the ruined gas chambers, and they all wear sweatshirts with the star of David and the word Israel on the back. The point of the film, stated by one of the sour concentration-camp tour-guides near the end, is that this is a miserable basis for Jewish existence, a cult of death and fear and mistrust.
The Israeli kids are so indoctrinated they think that the Poles are
out to kill them now, and they don't go out of their hotel room.
The film is great journalism for Shamir's tenacity at insiniuating himself into the emotional life of events, and for his portraits: of Abraham Foxman, Charles Jacobs, John Mearsheimer, Uri Avnery, and Norman Finkelstein.
The Foxman portrait is the core of the film and at once devastating and sympathetic. We see him manipulating the Holocaust in a number of situations. The scenes of ADL staff coming up with anti-Semitic incidents in the US to keep the ball rolling are strictly farcical. There is even farcical music, as they tell you of threats that aren’t threats. Foxman is shown pressing Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko in a conference room over Holocaust remembrance/guilt. Later, in Rome, enroute to meet the Pope, Foxman tells Shamir that there's a "very thin line" between the perceptions of Jewish power by anti-Semites and the actual power that Jews have in the world. "Jews are not as powerful… as our enemies think we are." But we're not going to try and convince them otherwise, he says. Yes: the man is going to meet the Pope. Of course Jews have power, and Foxman has no awareness of this.
The portrait becomes transcendent at Babi Yar. Foxman gathers the board of the ADL at the Ukrainian massacre site and all the old Jews are talking about how Israel must be maintained because it may be necessary for all Jews in the world to go there, and then Foxman says a Hebrew prayer and his voice trembles and he is in tears. The scene gave me tremendous sympathy for Foxman. He is locked in his childhood of suffering. It makes perfect sense that he has projected his childhood demons on to the world, but they are just demons. The same point is made with an old Israeli journalist who has blue numbers tattooed on his arm and writes about anti-Semitism night and day. Well he has a fine reason, Shamir is saying.
The real blows to Foxman come from a couple of rabbis. A Rabbi Hecht in Brooklyn says, "I'm nervous about his reports… Are they accurate? He has to create a problem because he needs a job." A Rabbi Dov Bleich in Kiev, who is Orthodox, says that anti-Semitism is not a problem, and that if these people only had a religious practice they wouldn’t need the church of anti-Semitism.
Shamir follows Foxman devoting an entire three-day conference in Israel to discussing Walt and Mearsheimer’s book. Charles Jacobs, then of the David Project, is there and comes off as a crazy man. He says, we always thought that antisemites were skinheads saying Kike, little did we know they would turn out to be softspoken college professors. David Hirsch, a sociologist from England, gets up to say, bravely, that not one word has been said about the occupation and the humiliation of the Palestinians, and this is the true context for much of the criticism of Israel. There is dead silence, and then people attack him. When Shamir says to Jacobs that this is sensible, Jacobs goes off on him. He says you are like the beaten wife who goes to the police station and blames herself and never blames the husband. You have accepted the world’s evil view of you, this is the problem with the left. Islamists think you are evil and you have accepted it.
It is too bad more journalism was not done of Jacobs when he was leading the assault on Columbia professors. He is so wildeyed and removed from reality he demolishes his own case.
Really it is terrible that so little journalism has been done about any of these people. How much journalism have we seen of John Mearsheimer and Norman Finkelstein. There are two scenes of Finkelstein, the first at DePaul before he has been cracked in the jaws of the Israel lobby, the second when he is tan and on the Boardwalk in Brooklyn and in his humble apartment. Now Finkelstein is as possessed by the Holocaust as Foxman—and the film is unkind to Finkelstein at the end, as a way of seeking to preserve its surface balance, making him out to be mad after he compares Foxman to Hitler–but Finkelstein is eloquent and fierce when talking about the Israelis' use of suffering to justify the affliction of the Palestinians. The suffering is a package deal; it is "suffering wrapped in a club." The suffering is cited as Palestinians are humiliated, degraded and tortured.
Earlier in the film, an Israeli girl on the Holocaust tour makes Finkelstein's point. She says that when she sees the Jewish suffering at Auschwitz she doesn’t think that the Arabs have really suffered at all. Avraham Burg has also made this point: that Israelis too quickly forgave the Germans, for the money, and put the hatred on to the Arabs.
Back to Finkelstein. Shamir compares Finkelstein to the biblical prophets. He looks like a
prophet, with his long face and large forehead and level blue eyes. He says that the Holocaust is used to prevent any criticism of Israel. He opens the radio (a quaint old expression) and “I hear nonstop about Sudan, I hear nonstop about Tibet, I hear nonstop about Darfur. The only place I hear excuses made for is Israel.”
As for Mearsheimer, he comes off as puckish, which he can be, and wise. It is a very affectionate portrait, Mearsheimer in his booklined Chicago office merely raising an eyebrow when Shamir asks him if he doesn't have anti-Semitism deep inside him. "I'm not anti-Semitic, and I never had any doubt that I'm not anti-Semitic… My arguments are not in any way hostile to the Jews or the state of Israel." He isn't going to talk about how many of his friends are Jewish because that–a puckish smile–will only hurt his point.
The news in the film involves Mearsheimer. I blogged about that earlier today, Teddy Katz's statement that Mearsheimer and Walt are blessings to Israel. Finkelstein echoes the point about the lobby. Holocaust education is not intended to enlighten; it is being used by “war mongers from Martha’s Vineyard, and war mongers from the Hamptons, and war-mongers from Beverly Hills and… Miami.” It’s a disaster for Israel, he says. A curse.
Many people speak of the occupation in the film. It goes unseen. In the Q-and-A that followed the premiere last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, Yoav Shamir also spoke hintingly of it, that as Jews we started out being walled and now we have put a wall about us in Israel. A delicate reference to the wall.
He never showed it, he did show Auschwitz. The Palestinians are off stage. He can’t show the occupation, can't show the wall. He wants to open as a feature in the U.S. and to be on television. Good luck to him. And oh how wise not to show us the occupation. It is enough for now that Americans heard from Finkelstein and Mearsheimer.
(P.S. The film is working. A Jewish woman in the audience said, "We have the situation in Israel that has lasted all these years– and we need a shift." Jewish identity is changing.)