More of a penetrating look at the social uses of stereotypical, self-hating Jewishness than a structured examination of anti-Semitism, Defamation fails in its paltry attempts to consolidate its central issue’s multiple frayed edges, but it offers an unprecedentedly raw portrait of the self-destructing political discussion surrounding Jewish discrimination. Shamir plunges headfirst into his topic as an ostensible tabula rasa to be informed, claiming a lack of hands-on experience with anti-Semitism due to his community’s ethnic homogeneity but an ardent sense of duty to root out the role that the awareness of, and the defense against, discrimination plays in modern Jewish identity.
Shamir’s propensity for scatterbrained journalism muddles the film’s first half to the point of irritation; seemingly entranced by the possibility that a search for urban anti-Semitism might prove fruitless, he attempts to investigate a handful of the petty grievances reported to the American arm of the Anti-Defamation League on a weekly basis. The “melting pot” West seems a counter-intuitive place to begin the hunt for prejudice, however, particularly since the foolhardy suspicions of neo-Nazi activity that sound laughable from little old Brooklyn ladies are fiercely palpable from the mouths of those on the West Bank. But Shamir is less concerned with unequivocally genuine (and fully reciprocated) anti-Semitism than he is with the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish fear. As such, we see a handful of broken windows that may or may not have been the result of hate crimes, but the film dances nervously around the Israeli occupation of Palestine—and Shamir doesn’t even get around to definitively defining anti-Semitism until the film’s third act, when the focus has shifted from issues of racial identity to the tricky polemical institution of Zionism (particularly as asseverated by the ADL).
It’s here that Shamir captures his most profound material, a series of tetchy interviews with highly influential Jewish thinkers who become increasingly exacerbated with the director’s faux-innocent curiosity and unwillingness to absorb their point of view wholesale. ADL director Abraham Foxman, who has since denounced Defamation as a fraud, comes off the most dangerously egocentric, bellowing with fury about the seemingly benign slurs in everyday culture that will assuredly pave the gilded path to a new Auschwitz—though his nemesis, the borderline Holocaust denier Norman Finkelstein, raises equally perplexed eyebrows with his peculiar clinging to dusty “rich Hollywood Jew” stereotypes.
But while Shamir gets these icons’ goats (and trenchantly reveals the difficulty of defining one’s self as a perpetually oppressed minority when the only language for understanding one’s subalternhood is puffy, political discourse), his conclusion is painfully bromidic enough to render the preceding complexity pointless. The film ends not on the Gaza Strip but in Majdanek, patiently following Jewish tweens tearfully touring the gas chambers in which their predecessors expired. As he interviews the Israeli adolescents, they bravely announce that their greatest trial in life will be to surmount the heritage of the Holocaust and learn to empathize with the seemingly insignificant pain of others (especially, one little girl memorably notes, that of Arabs). Shamir seems satisfied with this quasi-epiphany as he tells us all to move on from past aggression, but he neglects a universe of troubled blood brought to a boil after WWII. By ultimately advocating a purely forward-looking perspective, Defamation forgets the inheritance of gnarled events that lead not only to Auschwitz but to the West Bank too—and moving on from that is easier said than done.