Is Anti-Semitism Good for the Jews?

11/18/2009 4:00 AM |

Directed by Yoav Shamir

Is contemporary anti-Semitism largely a Jewish invention? A number of the subjects in Defamation, Yoav Shamir’s instructive documentary, would say so. While its opening scene, in which a man tells the camera that “Jews control the world,” establishes anti-Semitism as a legitimate ongoing presence, the film is more concerned with the uses Jewish leaders make of this perceived threat. Beginning as an Abraham Foxman-sanctioned look into the workings of the Anti-Defamation League, the world’s leading watchdog for anti-Jewish sentiment, the film soon veers into more subversive territory. A heated discussion of Afro-Semitic relations in Crown Heights with a group of black subjects aside, Shamir remains a largely neutral presence behind the camera, but in his choice of subjects and arrangement of material, he leaves little doubt about where he stands.

Soon Foxman—the militantly pro-Israel head of the ADL—gives way as the film’s representative figure to his opposite number, Holocaust Industry author Norman Finkelstein. In rhetoric as fiery as Foxman’s, this child of survivors explains how Israel and pro-Israel Americans play up anti-Semitism, repeatedly invoking the legacy of the Shoah in order to deflect criticism of Israel’s Palestinian policy. Apparently it’s working, since when Shamir follows a group of Israeli schoolchildren on a visit to Auschwitz, the kids easily make the Nazi-Palestinian connection and several seem primed for vengeance. Still, it speaks to Shamir’s considerable achievement that, while he privileges those subjects who still care to differentiate between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Foxman nonetheless emerges as a forceful and vaguely sympathetic figure, even as he repeatedly damns himself with his misplaced rhetoric.

Opens November 20