Docs and Defamation


So, did I mention there’s a major international film festival happening here?

IDFA is awesome, and aside from the film I came to Amsterdam to write about, there are several films of Israeli and Jewish interest screening here. Which is no surprise, since festivals like this love Mideast films. 

Yesterday, I saw "Defamation," an excellent film that also opened this week in the U.S. Filmmaker Yoav Shamir explains at the start that, as an Israeli, he has never experienced anti-Semitism. So he set out to figure out what this demonic force is all about. 

He starts in a logical enough spot: the offices of Abraham Foxman at the Anti-Defamation League. I’ve written about the ADL for years, and Abe is no stranger, but when Shamir starts filming at the group’s New York headquarters, you see a side of the ADL few get to see. Shamir wanted examples of anti-Semitism cases he could film and follow; the league presented mostly instances of people unable to take time off for Jewish holidays, or overhearing someone using an anti-Jewish slur (or what appears to be one). Shamir’s point is rather obvious: the ADL spends an inordinate sum of money to sniff around for things that might not be worth getting so worked up about. 

Shamir also follows the story of a group of Israeli teens on a death camp tour of Poland where they are taught to see the world as an invariably hostile place. He explores the "new anti-Semitism" line, conducting an interview with Norman Finkelstein — also the subject of a film showing at IDFA — in his New York apartment that should be required viewing for anyone who sees him as a courageous truth-teller victimized by the pro-Israel establishment. 

It’s quite a good film, and entertaining, encouraging us to consider the costs of the Jewish fixation with fighting anti-Semitism. To his credit, he doesn’t deny that anti-Semitism exists, though he arguably downplays it. Yes, there are places where Jews are still vulnerable to violence because of who they are, but those places are far from the ADL’s Manhattan headquarters. 

For some, fighting anti-Semitism is a secular religion, their means of expressing Jewish identity, and the ADL caters to that while seeking out evidence of the very pernicious activity that justifies its own existence. 

But what rubbed me wrong was when Shamir falls into the "silencing" trap with his discussion of Finkelstein, Walt and Mearsheimer, and the whole Israel lobby thing. At a conference in Israel about the new anti-Semitism, no one mentions Israel’s occupation of the West Bank except for one British guy, and he gets a lecture from some fellow participants about how awful he is. Shamir then has a eureka moment — the ADL and the lobby are silencing Israel’s critics. 

Whoa. Where’d that come from?

I asked Shamir about this in the Q&A, and then again when I went up to him to snap his picture. The people he mentions are tenured professors, authors of books and articles, and invited to speak around the world. Even Finkelstein, who failed in his tenure bid at DePaul, gives hundreds of lectures each year.

Shamir replied that by "silenced" he really meant that these men are considered radicals who aren’t given the time of day by the establishment, which prefers not to hear them. Hence, they are "silenced." Seems to me like a pretty casual usage of the word

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