Victimization can be empowering. The persecuted may have no rights, but no responsibilities either. In a sense they are liberated. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had this in mind when he said of life following France’s capitulation in World War II: “We were never more free than under the German occupation.” But if there is power in victimization, like all power it can be abused. This theme is provocatively explored in Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir’s 2009 documentary, Defamation.
Shamir sets out to verify alarming reports of rising anti-Semitism. He begins by accompanying a group of Israeli teens on a trip to Poland to visit concentration camps where many of their ancestors perished. The tour is important and well-meaning, but a strange indoctrination tarnishes it.
The students are repeatedly told to be mindful of the locals, who are presented as little different from Poles who abetted the Nazi extermination of Jews. Indeed, the teens are herded from site to site in nervous anticipation. They are kept indoors at night, ostensibly for their own safety. An armed guard keeps constant vigil. Predictably, several Israeli teens misinterpret the playful overtures of some elderly Polish men as proof of the pervasive hate.
The documentary powerfully demonstrates the impact of blurring distinctions between past and present attitudes about Jews. Failing to recognize such differences produces a sense of besiegement. It creates fear. It also minimizes the hate experienced by Jews during the Holocaust—a perverse outcome for an educational excursion to the extermination camps.
What one of the students’ chaperons calls a pervasive “culture of death” has far reaching consequences. A thoughtful Israeli teen remarks that the drumbeat leads to desensitization: “Our threshold [for violence] is too high. When we see an Arab home demolished by the army on the news, we say that it’s not too bad. We faced worse. They packed us into trains and forced Jews to kill Jews…I say, ‘So what?’” Such is the dangerous mindset of the righteous victim.
Shamir next goes to New York to meet with officials from the Anti-Defamation League, which is dedicated to fighting all types of discrimination. The filmmaker wants to find out more about the ADL’s widely published report that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the US. But his interlocutors struggle to provide clear-cut cases of such hate; the examples they cite include employers denying requests for leave on Jewish holidays.
More problematic are comments made by the ADL’s head, Abraham Foxman. Foxman reflects on the stereotype of Jewish power, which, he says, is overestimated by Jews and non-Jews alike: “But [foreign officials and leaders] do believe to some extent that [the ADL] can make a difference in Washington, and we’re not going to convince them otherwise…So how do you fight this sinister, conspiratorial view of Jews without using it?”
Is the ADL exploiting and thereby perpetuating a hateful stereotype of Jews, as Foxman wonders, or just shrewdly putting it in the service of a worthy cause? It is hard to say. The same sort of troubling questions arise with respect to historical wrongs. A plainspoken ADL board member admits, “We need to play on that guilt,” referencing past mistreatment of Jews.
But do Jews really need to?
The answer may well be yes for some secular Jews. Rabbi Bleich, a religious leader in Kiev interviewed in the film, has an inkling why. According to him, concern about anti-Semitism “is not part of being Jewish for an orthodox Jew,” as “there’s no mitzvah in the Torah when you practice Judaism for fighting anti-Semitism.” The same logic does not hold for some less observant Jews. “Very often [for Jews] that are not practicing, that’s where they find their thing.”
The rabbi’s claim is supported by the ADL board member, who tells Shamir that the organization “helps to reinforce our Jewish identity because we’re not orthodox and we don’t have a religious Jewish life. The ADL provides a forum to be Jewish.” Has it come to this? Has being Jewish for many secular Jews become principally about fighting anti-Jewish hate?
Defamation implies that it has, though it does not suggest that anti-Semitism is a myth. The film does ferret out bigotry. It also exposes noted Jewish contrarian Norman Finklestein, who has criticized what he calls the “Holocaust industry,” as being shockingly insensitive. Such equanimity is little comfort for some.
In a press release, the ADL criticized Defamation as “neither enlightening, nor edifying, nor compelling.” It also claimed the documentary “cheapens the Holocaust.” But after watching Shamir’s film, the viewer may well wonder who is really cheapening Jewish persecution.