Defamation: perception and reality of anti-Semitism

Defamation, a documentary researched and presented by the Israeli journalist Yoav Shamir, was part of More4’s True Stories slot and was on Tuesday night. The idea that anti-Semitism was somewhat overhyped and used to muzzle criticism of Israel is not new, but what many people don’t know is how obsessed the media and state in Israel are with it. Shamir started by showing clippings from Israeli newspapers in which the words “anti-Semitism” and “Nazi” appear with some regularity.

He interviewed an elderly journalist at Yediot Aharonot, a major Israeli newspaper, who claimed that all the countries in Europe were anti-Semitic, including England, although some were noisier than others. This man was a Holocaust survivor, but what was much more frightening was the sight of Israeli schoolchildren, who were on an educational visit to Auschwitz, being protected with Secret Service agents (whose faces had to be obscured in the film) and being told there were anti-Semites and neo-Nazis everywhere in Poland. They couldn’t go out because there were anti-Semites who might attack them. They were told that three old men talking on a park bench were being anti-Semitic to them, when they were not.

After the scene with the old Israeli journalist, the programme then moved to New York, where the presenter tried to get the Anti-Defamation League to provide him with a case to feature in his film. They thought they might have one when a woman wrote in complaining of a policeman she overheard at a Jewish funeral talking about finishing “this Jewish sh**”, but in the end the woman accepted the policeman’s apology. They finally settled on an old case in which stones had been thrown at the window of a Jewish school bus. It turned out that the district - Crown Heights in Brooklyn - was one in which blacks and Haredi Jews lived together, but apart. A Jewish reporter claimed that Jews were weak and easy targets, and a black man would rob a Jew rather than another black person because they knew a Jew would be less able to fight back. The Blacks responded by saying that the Jews lived simply and had nothing to steal, that you would get less time for robbing a black man, and that Jews knew how to get every benefit the state offered. They also cited the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” a number of times.

A local rabbi alleged that anti-Semitism was used to cover incidents of random violence any time the victim happens to be Jewish, and predicted that Abe Foxman, the leader of the ADL, won’t be inviting him round his house, as if he was not too bothered by that. Later on in the programme, a Orthodox rabbi in Kiev (who spoke very good English) said that fighting anti-Semitism was a way for non-religious Jews to express their Jewish identity; religious Jews simply practise their religion and are less concerned about anti-Semitism than secular ones. Shamir also showed extensive interviews with Norman Finkelstein, who displayed obvious personal animosity for Foxman by saying that comparing him to Hitler was insulting to the latter (“at least Hitler didn’t do it for money”), but made the point that when Jews were the most successful and richest ethnic group in the USA, it was “just kind of shameful” to be talking about anti-Semitism, although he acknowledged that some people had a “queasy” feeling about Jews, which in his opinion had no real repercussions. Uri Avnery, an Israeli former parliamentarian and peace activist, said that anti-Semitism today was just an invention of the Israeli media, that Jews in America had never had it better, while other groups such as Blacks and Arabs did face prejudice, yet were “scared of their own shadows” and walking around with magnifying glasses trying to find anti-Semites.

So, the programme did demonstrate that some anti-Semitism did exist, with men openly citing the Protocols and calling the Jews “part of the mind control machine”, but there was also a lot of ADL politicking and rubbing in the tragedies of the past to enhance loyalty to Israel. Some of the young Israelis who went on the trip to Poland acknowledged that this preoccupation with past Jewish sufferings made Israelis indifferent to others’ sufferings, such as when they see Arab homes being destroyed on the news; towards the end, one of them reflected that the Israelis will not become a “normal people” because they talk too much about death and perpetuate death (before being moved on because he was sitting on a spot where twenty people were killed by the Nazis). An important aspect of this programme was that the Holocaust itself could still cause a huge emotional reaction even in young Israelis, which perhaps explains why anti-Semitism is such a ready explanation for any violent incident with a Jewish victim elsewhere. Some viewers, of course, will simply be sickened by seeing Israel, of all countries, cultivating a victim mentality in their youth when they themselves are likely to become perpetrators of persecution and violence. However, the programme did a good job of showing the diversity of Jewish opinion on the subject, even among those who are pro-Israel or at least not entirely anti-Israel.

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