This week saw the screening in the UK of Yoav Shamir’s Defamation, which has been fingered as a ‘controversial’ documentary because it dares to suggest powerful Jewish institutions might trade on fear of, and guilt about, antisemitism in order to gain political influence.
This is not a revelation to any of us who can recognise that Jewish representative groups, from extreme pro-Israel to moderate pro-Jewish, have long attempted to trade on their most recognisable point of influence with easily-swayed politicians – antisemitism. It sells better than the good deeds Jews could do for the wider world. Anyone can be a good citizen, only Jews can be victims of antisemitism, so if Governments are to look after the Jewish people that well-funded institutions are (supposedly) serving, those institutions need to get cracking on the rich fear and sympathy vote.
That’s the heart of this film. The reaction has predictably been dragged into the dirt of polarised Israel-Palestine debate, because Shamir is Israeli, and so are some of the people in his film. One of the (very mild) heroes of the doc, David Hirsch, has played down his sympathetic portrayal, by bizarrely writing that it’s OK, he doesn’t just like Palestinians, he likes Israelis too. Phew – there was me thinking that his moderate opinions that Palestinians might need human rights inevitably meant he was also saying that all Israelis were scum. Thanks for the clarification.
That Hirsch, and the usual tedious parade of Comment is free respondents after his article on there, feel that this was primarily a film about Israel is a frustrating misunderstanding. Israel features in it, but it’s mainly a film about Jewish paranoia, and that’s harder to have a debate about. It’s more painful – it exposes the void at the core of modern Jewish identity. We’re defined by negative identity.
Shamir is previously been known for a straight verite style, for example in Checkpoint observing the interactions between people full of enmity without any intervention. In Defamation though, he’s our presenter, and it’s not a style he seems entirely comfortable with. He’s charismatic, sure, but he’s also not sure what he’s doing, and I love that. He’s genuinely confused about what people say to him and how he feels, and you would not get that from a ‘normal’ on-screen guide who wants to anchor us in their persuasive rhetoric. Shamir isn’t Nick Broomfield. He’s more Louis Theroux, but without any knowing devices to get people to say things they’ll regret. They just do it anyway, because he’s apparently really not sure what to say to them. So they talk themselves into a frenzy.
And who can blame Shamir for his confusion? He exposes the endless trudge that constitutes existence for those who base their lives on antisemitism. It’s a complex world of oral nuance that can break even the most schooled of people. Shamir bounces between speakers with agendas who swing between over-careful pronouncements and wild bizarre accusation. He’s visibly shocked at times – the doc gives new life to the old cliche of the voyage of discovery. Though he’s very occasionally putting it on for show, I think he really is bemused. He claims that he made the film in response to a life in Israel which was for him entirely shielded from antisemitism. And he thinks the concept is now an exclusively diasporic obsession, and it’s become the defining feature of modern Jewish identity.
So he asks key figures who are obsessed with either antisemitism or the lack of it what it means to them. What they say might appall and depress you – Abe Foxman from the ADL especially is a loose cannon of paranoia, albeit (probably) coming deep deep down from a place of genuine concern. But Shamir’s triumph is to make a doc that easily resets the agenda of intra-Jewish dichotomies of Zionist vs Not and Diaspora vs Israel, by showing us the verbal misunderstandings and misuse of words that run over all sides. No more so than when the group of Israeli young people are whipped up by their trip leaders and by each other into verbal confusion, ignorance and finally, shocking anger.
It’s a very clever film which doesn’t judge, but comes out of a complex agenda which is above all for speaking with honesty and not misusing words to stir up conflict. But before I progress much more, I want you to watch it, and you can do so (in the UK) for another 3 weeks or so here
Watched it? Good, you can have an opinions now. My opinion is that it’s a wake-up call to resolve the crisis in what makes us retain our identities as Jewish, however small or large that identity may be. We shouldn’t retain it because we deeply support or deeply oppose Israel, because we strongly fear or strongly reject antisemitism, because we think we’re universally loved or universally hated. There has to be more, there has to be something positive, or there is no point. The time has come to declare that it’s not just boring to keep circling the same arguments about Israel and the racist bogeymen, it’s denying an alternative space for taking pride in what’s positive about our thousands of years of traditions and how we can be positive and indeed radical forces for changing the world.
Shamir is not the only Jewish fiilmmaker to have said over recent years that he finds films about inward-looking Jewish society quite boring, because they inevitably reaffirm the status quo, even if they’re critical of it. There needs to be something new to give us hope for – Jamie Kastner attempted it with his Kike Like Me, although that was hindered by its aim of exploring how non-Jews view us, rather than how we view ourselves. Eyal Sivan has repeatedly tried to imagine a space beyond the screen where we meet collectively to live a Jewish life dedicated to peace and progress. His upcoming Jaffa, The Clockwork’s Orange is an attempt to learn through the mistakes of history to imagine a single state (in both senses of the word) of Jewish-non Jewish radical collaboration. But it’s still a negative approach to what makes Jewish identity, defining us by mistakes and a lack.
Shamir embodies this lack. He does very well, even if I’m sick of films about this lack. If this could be the last film about the lack, and put it to bed for a while, I’d be delighted.