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Intent on shaking up the ultimate 'sacred cow' for Jews, Israeli director Yoav Shamir embarks on a provocative - and at times irreverent - quest to answer the question, "What is anti-Semitism today?" Does it remain a dangerous and immediate threat? Or is it a scare tactic used by right-wing Zionists to discredit their critics? Speaking with an array of people from across the political spectrum (including the head of the Anti-Defamation League and its fiercest critic, author Norman Finkelstein) and traveling to places like Auschwitz (alongside Israeli school kids) and Brooklyn (to explore reports of violence against Jews), Shamir discovers the realities of anti-Semitism today. His findings are shocking, enlightening and - surprisingly - often wryly funny. Written by
a provocative, controversial look at anti-Semitism
As a Jew born and raised in Israel, filmmaker Yoav Shamir claims never to have experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. So off he goes to find some. And what he does find often surprises him and us. Indeed, his remarkably provocative and nuanced film "Defamation" becomes more of an examination of the internecine warfare occurring amongst Jews themselves than of gentiles' attitudes towards Jews.
For instance, Shamir accompanies a group of Israeli youth on a trip to Poland, the goal of which is to help open the eyes of the youngsters to the realities of the Holocaust. Yet, the kids have been so primed by their leaders to fear the worst from the local citizenry that they wind up seeing anti-Semitic attitudes where none may actually exist. And it is a testament to Shamir's commitment to the truth and his integrity as a documentarian that he allows such potentially controversial and meme-undermining scenes to remain in his film. In a similar fashion, when he interviews a rabbi in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn a neighborhood notorious for its long-running tension between Jews and AfricanAmericans the religious leader, much to Shamir's amazement, actually accuses the heads of the Anti-Defamation League of having professional motives for ascribing anti-Semitism to incidents and crimes where that may not in fact be a primary factor or a factor at all.
If nothing else, Shamir provides a balanced view on his subject though if anything he tends to give a somewhat more sympathetic hearing to the people in the Jewish community who take on organizations like the ADL for their more conservative views on anti-Semitism and the State of Israel. For instance, Shamir interviews Norman Finklestein, a highly controversial Jewish professor at the DePaul University in Chicago, who argues that a certain part of the Jewish establishment makes "cynical use of the Holocaust," and that whenever any policy or action performed by Israel is legitimately criticized, the underlying cause somehow always gets attributed to anti-Semitism a condition he refers to as "pathological narcissism." For giving voice to this viewpoint, Finklestein has been labeled a "self-hating Jew," a "Holocaust-denier" (even though he lost his parents in concentration camps), and a "madman." He eventually lost his position at the university due to pressure from the Jewish lobby he claims and was denied entrance into Israel on the grounds of being a potential "security hazard.' Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the ADL who gets interviewed extensively for the film, responds by saying that actual anti-Semites use criticism of Israel as an excuse to legitimately articulate their hatred of Jews to give that hatred a patina of social respectability as it were.
Shamir lays out the conflict between the Jewish left and the Jewish right in the United States the former calling for peace between Israel and the Palestinians and accusing the right of favoring Israel's interests over those of the United States, and the latter working to keep Israeli issues front and center in the national dialogue.
And back and forth it goes.
Of course, this is not to in any way suggest that anti-Semitism doesn't exist in the world today or that Shamir never finds any evidence of it in his searching. For instance, he investigates a case of rocks being thrown at a Brooklyn school bus filled with Jewish children and another instance of a knife-wielding man stabbing people in a Moscow synagogue. Yet, interestingly, even many of the Jewish people involved with that latter incident pooh-pooh the idea that anti-Semitism was the cause and even go so far as to castigate Jews in general for using anti-Semitism as a convenient scapegoat for their own failures or misfortunes in life.
Although he doesn't seem to have started out with that intention, Shamir has produced an amazingly provocative and controversial work, one that is guaranteed to get tempers flaring and people talking on both sides of the issue. And it's a much-needed eye-opener for anyone regardless of viewpoint.
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