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.

20 Responses to “David Hirsh’s response to the film ‘Defamation’”

  1. Fabian from Israel Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but it was discussed by my teacher at the Melton Centre of Jewish Education at the Hebrew University the other day as part of our two sessions on Holocaust and Jewish Education. Some general things from the lesson are important to mark though. One is that the goals and objectives that the Israeli government for the trips to Poland are very noble and make justice to the complexity of the issue, but that the Israeli gov is not responsible for the actual execution of those trips. Most are privately organized. Save for the March of the Living, most educational trips to Poland if not all, have nothing to do with the Israeli gov, except that the directors need to pass a training given in Yad Vashem (if I am not mistaken). What actually goes on during those trips is not the Israeli government responsibility.
    Second, that there is an ongoing debate regarding the lessons the students get from that experience, what do they do, how fair it is that 2/3 of each class do not participate for lack of funds.
    Third, the trips to Poland are not composed only of Israeli students but many – maybe even the majority- are Jewish kids from around the world.
    Best,
    Fabian

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Fabian, both my daughters went on the “March of the Living” (in different years). They went as part of Maccabi GB, but the tours were led by leaders from Habonim. Given the feed-back afterwards (at the time, I was a Vice-Chair of Maccabi GB), an awful lot was learned, and not just by the non-Israeli young people. If this was a typical experience of all or most such tours, then those commenting on them to their detriment have it wrong.

      Of course, I only know about the one such tour, but experience over the years via Maccabi World Union suggests that most of them are extremely well organised and don’t offer a single, let alone a simple, world-view.

  2. Ed Kaplan Says:

    David — I found this to be a very clear, well-written, and even-keeled (non-emotional) article that, while critiquing both the “that” and “why” of the film in question, also reflects basic points that you have been writing about for several years now. I don’t know whether you linked to any of your earlier writing in The Guardian version of the above, but certainly linking the final sentence to your paper “Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections” would guide at least some readers to the deeper arguments that underlie your conclusion.

    Congrats on a nice piece, Ed K.

  3. zkharya Says:

    Thanks for this, David.

  4. James Mendelsohn Says:

    Great piece David, thanks

  5. Tweets that mention David Hirsh’s response to the film ‘Defamation’ « Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Engage, Mr. Gerson. Mr. Gerson said: [Reader] David Hirsh’s response to the film ‘Defamation’ http://twurl.nl/e33su3 [...]

  6. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    Great piece David

  7. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    http://thecst.org.uk/blog/?p=1077

    CST blog on the film …

  8. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    There are more “easy targets” in the film too: Uri Avneri and Walt and Mearsheimer.

    Of course Yoav Shamir did not come to London and film at an anti-Israel meeting where a Jew was told that Hitler did not finish the job.

    Because that is not such an easy target.

  9. An Illusion Of The Moment. « ModernityBlog Says:

    [...] An Illusion Of The Moment. David Hirsh is sharp as ever: [...]

  10. Susan Says:

    I agree with everything said here already. I’m just not sure how strongly Israel has lurched to the right. Kadimah got the most votes. They just were not capable of forming a coalition, and then Livni refused to join a Likud led government

  11. haolamantishemi Says:

    “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.”

    I think you’re right on this point, there appears at least from my perspective to be a problem with a certain reluctance to really get to grips with the roots of antisemitism in this context. It’s probably not that antisemitism isn’t discussed, it’s that it isn’t contextualised especially well as a form of historical institutional racism. The trend to discuss the Holocaust from an educational perspective which generalises ideas about racism and genocide, is understandable from the point of inclusivity but ultimately misses the point.

  12. Absolute Observer Says:

    Excellent piece and a great speech overall to the conference………

    “When Jews are involved in conflicts there is a danger that the ways people think about those conflicts get mystified in the language of antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is not a reasonable response to the actual situation; it is a response to a narrative of the actual situation which has become mystified by antisemitism. ”

    Yes!

  13. Absolute Observer Says:

    David Hirsh and the CST have offered a reasoned critique of “Defamation”.

    And then Hoffman reduces the whole tone of the conversation to nasty snidey little comments like this,

    “I have a suggestion for your prize: an air ticket Tel Aviv/Mumbai/Paris (you won’t need a return to Tel Aviv).”

    “The brave freedom fighters who sought out and murdered Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg in Mumbai 13 months ago would love to meet you. They adore Jews – especially Israeli Jews. And the killers of Ilan Halimi in Paris would also like to meet you in person to award you a prize.”

    “Yours in contempt”

    As people have noted, the film is problematic, and some of your comments are valid; but what is the point of these other comments? Why bother with ad hominem attacks? with the association of Shamir with murders and kidnappers? with calls for him being exiled from his own country, Israel (the irony of this is no doubt wasted on you).

    No matter how much it tries to mask itself, cheap rhetoric remains precisely that, cheap rhetoric.

    You must feel very proud of yourself!.

    If I was Shamir, I’d laugh my self silly at your playground antics.

    Have you never heard the maxim, “if you have nothing sensible to say, then don’t say it.”

    This is a serious business Hoffman, isn’t it time you grew up.
    .

  14. See David speak (free of Charge!) Says:

    free only for the next 22 days!

    http://www.channel4.com/programmes/defamation/4od#3022029

  15. Jonathan Hoffman Says:

    AO

    David has his style and I have mine.
    There’s room for both.
    I’m not getting into a long debate with you I just don’t have the time (or the will).

  16. New Israel Fund needs international solidarity; non-Israeli Jews need theirs « Greens Engage Says:

    [...] support from Israeli progressives, as Yoav Shamir illustrated by example in his recent film Defamation, which set out to prove that antisemitism was not a genuine problem but a political excuse. It [...]

  17. The Discover Bosnia program » » The VibeThe Vibe Says:

    [...] Such activities can impede understanding of what went on there. Another problem is how the site related to the genocidal campaign in other places.  Whether the trips give students a broad or a keyhole view of the country being visited is another quandary. One example is the March of the Living. Israel has had its high school students visit Poland since 1988 but those trips have been criticised for being parochial and failing to engage with the local population. [...]

  18. The Discover Bosnia program | The Vibe Says:

    [...] Such activities can impede understanding of what went on there. Another problem is how the site related to the genocidal campaign in other places.  Whether the trips give students a broad or a keyhole view of the country being visited is another quandary. One example is the March of the Living. Israel has had its high school students visit Poland since 1988 but those trips have been criticised for being parochial and failing to engage with the local population. [...]


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