Director Yoav Shamir on Courting Controversy on Camera
The Forward Newspaper
By Nathan Burstein
Published April 14, 2009
Controversy isn’t new terrain for Yoav Shamir. And controversy is the likely response to “Defamation,” his new documentary focused on anti-Zionism, antisemitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict, among other lightning rods. The Anti-Defamation League and its director, Abraham Foxman, figure prominently in the film, as do “Holocaust Industry” author Norman Finkelstein and a group of Israeli teens taking a school trip to the Nazi death camps.
The 38-year-old Shamir, who appears briefly on camera and narrates the film, ricochets among his native Tel Aviv, the United States and Eastern Europe...
First screened last February at the Berlin International Film Festival, “Defamation” arrives in New York in late April at the Tribeca Film Festival, and will open Tel Aviv’s DocAviv documentary festival in early May. “Defamation” joins such earlier Shamir films as “Checkpoint” (2003), about Israeli soldiers’ interactions with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and “Flipping Out” (2008), about Israeli solders’ drug-fueled misadventures in India following their army service. “5 Days” (2005), the documentary that inspired the antisemitism accusation, generated anger of a different sort — with organizers of Scotland’s Edinburgh International Film Festival warning Shamir not to attend a 2006 screening for fear of violence by anti-Israel protesters. (He attended without incident, under added security.)
Shamir recently spoke with writer Nathan Burstein, a frequent contributor to the Forward, about “Defamation.”
Nathan Burstein: Some people might be surprised by your assertion that you never seriously considered the term “antisemite” until it was used against you.
Yoav Shamir: What I’m getting at is that I never felt antisemitism. I was never a victim of antisemitism, and I would think that probably 99% of Israelis, if you asked them, would tell you the same thing. … If a Palestinian upsets me, I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that I’m Jewish, that I hold the Jewish religion. It’s because either I took his land, or, if it’s an Arab-Israeli, it’s some kind of conflict which happens when you have two communities coming from different backgrounds and values living in the same place...The film doesn’t paint a very flattering portrait of the organization or of Foxman. Have they seen the film yet?
They haven’t seen the film yet — they’ll see it now at the Tribeca Film Festival. [Regarding how they come across], that is your interpretation. Some people will see it differently...
You argue quite reasonably that anti-Zionism is not always antisemitism and that criticism of Israel can be legitimate. Do you see times when anti-Zionism does cross over into antisemitism?
There are many, many gray areas. Obviously there are going to be people who will have antisemitic tendencies, and they will express them by being anti-Zionist. They are part of the story. But the film is not really about that; it’s mostly about what we as Israelis and Jews make of this experience. How do we view ourselves, how we want to define ourselves...
You take a fairly negative view of March of the Living programs and trips by Israeli high school students and soldiers to visit the Nazi death camps. What do you think would be a more appropriate way for Israelis and other Jews to learn about the Holocaust?
[A]s I see it, in many ways, Israelis and Jews look at antisemitism as something different from racism — as a kind of almost mystical phenomenon that goes along with us for 2,000 years and that almost [has not changed]. For me, that is a bad understanding of history. It’s a negative way to look at and interpret the world. Obviously, the Holocaust is something that should be learned, and the Arab world is the biggest example of how stupid it is to be ignorant about such an important event in human history. But how you use this and how you navigate your life from now on is a different issue. If Israel and Jewish people see this as a colossal, demonic thing that happened only to us, that makes any other suffering seem irrelevant, [which] is the wrong lesson...
The film’s trailer is below.