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Coming to some kind of screen near you soon is Yoav Shamir’s documentary Defamation. Yoav is an Israeli filmmaker, who persuaded the Anti-Defamation League to give him unique access to their operation. But it blew up in their faces when it turned out he didn’t think anti-semitism really existed – or at least not the ADL brand of the Jew-hater monster under the bed sort.

The ADL are very cross – Yoav makes them look silly to a small extent, and very scary to a large extent. Abe Foxman would need to be invented by Family Guy if he didn’t already exist. Claiming to play on anti-Semitic stereotypes to get what he wants, he admits to having become unnecessarily powerful. And that by doing so he’s probably damaging the reputation of, and indeed endangering, all Jews in the world. But it’s necessary because it’s better to have the US and the UN defend you against the hatred you’re provoking, than to try and not provoke it in the first place. Because probably along the way your enemies will all be killed trying to kill you.
This is madness. Defamation isn’t claiming the ADL are responsible for the world’s anti-Semitism, and nor am I. But it’s definitely not making it any better, let’s leave it there – I don’t want them to sue me as well as everyone else.

So I’ll make some a more general point, which is better anyway because you should see the film and not have me explain it to you. A little more context first – when not with the ADL, Yoav accompanies a group of Israeli teenagers to Poland. Here’s the really awful part – they’re so indoctrinated with fear of non-Jews they view all Poles (and I mean all Poles) as waiting for an opportunity to kill them. Their visit to Auschwitz is ammunition to make them fear even more, and even to slip in a side order of Arab-hate too. They’re obviously accompanied by an IDF soldier too, just in case they weren’t clear that this is a clip to reassert the need to defend themselves from their enemies.

Sound like your youth group/shul trip to Auschwitz? It probably does, because this is the context of Jewish anti-Semitism education across the world. Remember the past because “they” will try it again, so we need to be prepared. “They” is everyone who criticizes Israel or somebody Jewish, “they” is everyone who recognizes oppression for other ethnic or national groups, or individuals. The message of this film is not a wry one about the “Holocaust Industry”, it’s one about victimhood. We as Jews don’t have a monopoly on suffering, and it’s undignified – and actually insulting – to act as if we do.

This is the narrative of conservative Jewish accounts of the modern world – a race between Jews and other groups for who is suffering more, a race which Jews must always win. We live in affluent times which our predecessors could only have dreamt of. Isn’t it time to give up this need to be the worst off, before we’ve cried wolf so many times the world turns its back?

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1 thought on “Defamation”

  1. Your point about the Aushwitz trips rings especially true for me after I visited the “Rediscoveing Traces of memory: the Jewish heritage of Polish Galicia” exhibition currently showing at that miserable and paranoid place they call the “London Jewish Cultural Centre”. The exhibition which, uncharacteristically for the centre, is absolutely free (apparently it was all paid for by other instituutions) is a very poignant set of photos from the present that show elements of the Jewish past in Poland – and to some extent the renewal of jewish life.

    There is one image that really jars with the rest of the exhibit, which shows a group of Young Jews walking out of the Auschwitz gates carrying a sefer torah and others behind them carrying an Israeli flag – as if frumkayt and Zionism truly represent the victims – many of whom were secular and many of whom were non/anti-Zionist. The commentary with the picture explains that these young people go straight to Israel from Auschwitz, as part of this programme to celebrate Israeli independence day, which it adds “is unquestionably powerful and life-changing for these young people”.

    Those who regularly accuse others of abusing the memory of the Holocaust ought to look in the mirror occasionally

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