David Hirsh’s response to the film ‘Defamation’

This piece, By David Hirsh, is cross posted with Comment Is Free.

The Bolsheviks used to aim to hit an enemy hard at its strongest point in the belief that a telling blow there would bring down the whole edifice. By contrast, Yoav Shamir, the Israeli director of the film Defamation, shown on More4 this week, chooses mainly easy targets. He presents some interesting material but he does so in a way that does not make the most of it.

The first easy target, queasily enough, is the film-maker’s own grandmother who lives in Jerusalem. She says that Jews don’t come to live in Israel because they are too busy swindling the non-Jews among whom they live. When I saw the film at the London Jewish Film Festival the audience laughed at Shamir’s silly grandmother. If I was a film-maker I wouldn’t use my grandmother in this way.

The next easy target of the film is the Anti-Defamation League. I thought the ADL’s autocratic but also slightly charismatic leader Abe Foxman didn’t come across too badly, but his staff allow themselves to be portrayed as entirely incapable of explaining how contemporary antisemitism works and one of his rich donors is encouraged to make a fool of herself for the entertainment of the audience. Foxman and his entourage are shown being hosted as though they were heads of state in Rome and Ukraine. Foxman says that one reason why the ADL is treated with such deference on these trips is that its hosts are under the impression that the ADL is part of some hugely powerful global network. Which of course it isn’t. The film itself though is tempted to trade on this old myth.

Shamir finds further easy targets in the street in Brooklyn. He talks to black people who live alongside ultra-orthodox Jewish communities there and he shows them rolling around in the stories of antisemitic conspiracy. He finds old Stalinist Jews to say there is no antisemitism in Russia and he finds orthodox rabbis to say antisemitism is exaggerated by secular Jews so that they can continue to feel Jewish.

The next easy target that Shamir chooses to portray as ridiculous is a group of Israeli 15-year-olds and their teachers on a trip to the sites of the Holocaust in Poland.  Difficult and complex questions are being grappled with by serious people but Defamation does not really engage in a sophisticated way. How should Israelis educate their children about the Holocaust?  What is the relationship between the Nazi project to wipe the world clean of Jews and the fact that half the world’s Jews now live in three cities along the coastal strip of the eastern Mediterranean? How should Jews and Israelis educate their children to be aware of the ways in which their own family, communal and national histories are connected to the genocide, without creating an unbearable feeling of being universally hated? How does the Holocaust relate to Israeli notions of national identity? All big and important questions.

I was talking to an Israeli teacher recently who runs some of these trips. I suggested to her that it would be interesting to bring Israeli children together with Polish ones to discuss issues relating to the past and the present. I was disappointed that she did not seem interested and could not see the potential value for the children of such encounters. It seems that the content and structure of these “rites of passage trips” is not set mainly at the level of individual teachers or schools but tends to be rather more politically scripted from above. Shamir succeeds in suggesting that these trips are troubling, and that they should be run more thoughtfully. I think it is right that Israeli teenagers should be educated about the Holocaust and I think it is entirely understandable that the stories they learn about these huge events should feed into their own personal and national identities. Indeed, this is true not only for Israeli and Jewish children.  Holocaust education always has to do two things. It has to bring out the universal lessons of the Holocaust, that racism can lead to genocide and that it must never be allowed to happen again, anywhere. But Holocaust education must also tell what happened specifically to the Jews, and it must teach specific lessons about antisemitism. Perhaps in Israel the first is too often neglected while in Europe it is the second which is sometimes forgotten.

Another of the film’s easy targets is Norman Finkelstein, the bitter and defeated American anti-Zionist. Shamir gives Finkelstein enough rope to hang himself and Finkelstein meekly obliges in a rather sad and pathetic way, culminating in his performance of a Nazi salute for the camera.

Shamir makes me into the hero of the film. Normally I would enjoy being the hero but in this case he constructs my heroic status by misrepresenting what I do and what I say.

I am shown making criticisms of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians as though this was something controversial. I am shown arguing that contemporary antisemitism is in part a mystification of the real conflict, transformed by racist language and grotesque narratives. I actually said more that day than the one-sided soundbite that Shamir wanted to hear.

There were some hard rightwingers at the conference who hated what I said and who heckled me. There were some anti-racists who liked what I said and congratulated me. Like in any other movement against racism, there are significant political differences in the global struggle against antisemitism. Dina Porat, who is shown angrily arguing with me is not all that scary! I gave a presentation at her own centre at Tel Aviv University the following day and we had a serious scholarly discussion.

Three of the key figures at the Global Forum are genuine liberals and antiracists: John Mann, the British Labour MP, Gert Weisskirchen, the veteran German Social Democrat and Irwin Cotler, the Canadian human rights lawyer and politician. The overwhelming majority of the Israelis at the conference were two-staters, people who have been committed for decades to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Shamir preferred to present the story as a group of dishonest rightwing defenders of Israel being confronted by one heroic British sociologist. Very nice, but not a true picture.

Since that conference Israel has lurched to the right, as has the ministry of foreign affairs, which is currently headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a man who garnered votes in the general election by rhetorically threatening the position of Arab citizens of Israel. I suspect somebody in the ministry saw Defamation, because although I was invited to the conference this year, I was not asked to speak. Here is my report of this year’s event.

What worries me is that many who see the film will come away with the impression that contemporary antisemitism is basically invented by “Zionists” in order to de-legitimise criticism of Israel. If that is what his film encourages people to think, or if it allows people to come away with that impression, then it is a worrying film, even if it does raise some interesting issues.

Who was the film for? Why was an Israeli film-maker making a film in English? It wasn’t for Israelis. It wasn’t an Israeli journey of self-discovery, it was a performance for an international non-Israeli audience which lapped it up, at the Berlin film festival, the London film festival etc. As a film about contemporary antisemitism it fails to get to the heart of any issues. As a polemic, it fails to hit any of its enemies’ strong positions.

The truth is it doesn’t require much courage at all to stand up and oppose Israeli human rights abuses. People do it all the time. Israelis do it all the time. It is the illusion of the moment, pushed by films such as Defamation, pushed by the self-promotion of the anti-Zionists that there are fearsome prices to be paid for supporting Palestinian liberation. Personally, I find it much more frightening to stand up for a democratic and genuinely liberational kind of criticism against the current British orthodoxy of casting Israel, and the Jews who support it, as uniquely and especially threatening.

This piece, By David Hirsh, is cross posted with Comment Is Free.