Is ‘Defamation’ defamatory?

With Yoav Shamir, director of the movie ‘Defamation’
(second right) with Syd Kaye, Richard Freedman
(director, Holocaust Centre) and Mark Brajtman.

“This is why I have called them the seventh million,” writes Tom Segev in his book The Seventh Million. His work explores how the Holocaust has impacted on Israeli history and society on every level, and how Israel is “still grappling to come to terms with the memory of the six million Jews exterminated by Hitler”.

An Israeli, Yoav Shamir, has also looked at this profound link, but in a differing way. The result of his explorations is the film Defamation, which questions the prevalence of antisemitism today, and the power of the Holocaust in Israeli and Diaspora discourses.

Defamation was shown at the ‘Encounters’ Film Festival in Cape town last month. Encounters brought out Shamir to take part in a discussion at the showing of the film, and the Media committee of the SAJBOD and WPZC invited him to talk about his movie with community members.

Defamation is presented as the journey of a young man who has grown up in Israel without experiencing antisemitism, on a quest to discover what it is and how it affects people, writes one review. In contrast to the notion of a ‘seventh million’ as discussed above, Shamir presents a disjuncture between the possible ‘inheritance’ of the past and the present Jewish state.

Yet this internal Israeli view is sharply contrasted with Jews in Diaspora communities. Defamation portrays a “deep divide between Jews who see antisemitism everywhere and Jews who find it nowhere”, the review reads.

Shamir portrays this contrast in two evocatively powerful ‘characters’ — Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which aims to fight antisemitism , and Norman Finkelstein, author of the book ‘The Holocaust Industry’, which accuses Jews and Israel of manipulating the Holocaust as history. Both have parents who are Holocaust survivors, yet each takes up an extreme position on antisemitism and has dedicated his work to it. Shamir presents both men in a critical and questioning light.For the community then, there was much to debate with Shamir. Many had seen the film at Encounters, where the discussion had also been controversial and somewhat explosive. Questions about the film included some potent arguments, one being: “The film begins to propose that antisemitism is a conspiracy of the Jews and not against them.”

A community member questioned how Israelis and Diaspora Jews could learn about the Holocaust if Shamir is critical of Poland trips to the Nazi death camps. Shamir’s answers included the points that many Jews look at antisemitism as “a kind of almost mystical phenomenon and that has not changed.

“For me, that is a bad understanding of history. It’s a negative way to look at and interpret the world … if Israeli and Jewish people see this as a colossal, demonic thing that happened only to us, that makes other suffering seem irrelevant, which is the wrong lesson.”

Shamir certainly presented some provocative ideas and stirred heated debate. His Israeli perspective of antisemitism brought out sharp contrasts between Israel and Diaspora communities such as ours.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Shamir’s narrative, his film raises pertinent questions about individual and collective contemporary Jewish identity.


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