According to its maker, Defamation (Hashmatsa) is an exploration of the meaning and reality of the term ‘anti-semitism’, prompted by the response of an American film critic who had applied that label to one of Yoav Shamir’s earlier works. The irony of an Israeli armed service veteran turned filmmaker being called anti-semitic was not lost on him, and yet he decided to investigate the label through interviews with prominent American and Israeli figures in the fight against anti-semitism, and, most poignantly, a collection of Israeli schoolchildren on a tour of concentration camps in Poland.
Starting with the children being counselled before heading to Poland, and finishing with the same children inconsolable when confronted with the furnaces of Auschwitz, one could easily imagine an entirely different film using these images, and yet Shamir questions the messages of the past and their relevance for the future. Is it right to fill these children’s minds with the message that there are anti-semites everywhere, and they aren’t safe anywhere but Israel? The proof of their reaction to this message is displayed on screen: when three elderly Polish men strike up a benign conversation with them, they rush off, labelling themselves abused when nothing of the sort has occurred.
One scene deserves special mention – a group of teenage girls note their guilt for not feeling worse when visiting Auschwitz, assuming they have something wrong with them if they can’t react in the way they imagined they might. The film appears to suggest their education is in fact manipulation, with one participant openly questioning the appropriateness of the tours.
Other significant interview subjects include Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a worldwide body whose purpose is to fight anti-semitism wherever it occurs and which is officed in the US. Foxman is never less than candid about the threats he sees all around Jews, and should be congratulated for allowing access to a filmmaker of such a different mind from his own. Shamir also explores the role in diplomacy that a body such as this can fulfill: ADL supporters seem happy to acknowledge the perception that the ADL represents US government interests when it does no such thing.
Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt all contribute to the counter-argument – that much of the perceived anti-semitism is a response to Israeli foreign policy and suppression of Palestinians. Their portraits are mixed, however, as Finkelstein loses some of his credibility when behaving erratically toward Shamir near the end of the film.
This incident suggests the honesty and skill of the filmmaker, as seemingly he has allowed the interview subjects to live or die by their own words, without excessive editorialising. Shamir takes a light tone, and a deliberately naive narrative style. The tone is one of the film’s strengths, with handwritten name labels over new interview subjects to introduce them, and upbeat music more suited to a party than a serious discussion. This never detracts from the serious topics at hand, but it suggests one of Shamir’s main theses: that debate about Israel’s policies should not necessarily be so charged with emotion.
It is only in its final moments that Shamir miscalculates, with a trite voiceover unnecessarily stating things that could best have been left unsaid. Witnessing the powerful reactions of the Israeli children to everything they have seen should have been enough. Nonetheless, Shamir has crafted a coherent argument for looking forward without forgetting the past, and his film adds further to a discussion that is probably worth having.Rating: