Posts Tagged ‘March of the Living’

Defamation And Debate

June 21, 2010

Filmmaker Yoav Shamir

I was up late last night watching Yoav Shamir’s film’s Defamation which deals, among other things, the real or not real (depending on whom you ask) link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Then only a few short hours later, I awoke to read in The San Jose Mercury News that protesters blocked an Israeli ship from unloading this past weekend at the Port of Oakland. One protester was quoted as saying, “My grandmother”s Jewish. I’m not anti-Semitic.” I’m sure his best friend is Jewish, too.

Actually, I can’t be sure of that, but I am sure that his view of what happened on the Mavi Marmara is misinformed. The protester, one Frank McClain of Larkspur, CA, accused Israel of murder and likened the actions of members of the IDF defending themselves from lethal attack to those of Somali pirates.

Indeed, the question as to whether the “New anti-Semitism”, the one that conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment, is a correct understanding of what is happening in the world today is subject to continuing debate. With both Abe Foxman and Norman Finkelstein figuring prominently in his film, Shamir has both poles of the argument covered.

I found Defamation a bit all-over-the-place and at the same time too focused on Foxman (I would have either included less of the ubiquitous head of the ADL, or perhaps done another film entirely on him). Shamir’s inserting himself into the narrative à la Michael Moore could be either positively effective or annoying, depending on your documentary filmmaking preferences. Nonetheless, he did a good job of covering various aspects of the role anti-Semitism plays in the lives and psyches of Jews (mainly American and Israeli) today, ultimately asking more questions than he answered (he’s Jewish, after all).

My biggest criticism is that there was a gaping hole in the film in the way of an age gap. On one hand, Shamir, uses up a lot of footage following a group of Israeli high school students on a March of the Living-style trip to Poland, and on the other, he spends a huge amount of time following Abe Foxman and his post-middle-aged cronies galavanting around the globe from mission to mission. Were there no American Jewish and/or Israeli Jewish Millennials and Gen Xers the filmmaker could have interviewed and featured more prominently? I, for one, would have wanted to know what they thought and had experienced in relation to anti-Semitism. Shamir did include interviews with some Orthodox Jewish men, some of whom could have been on the younger side – but their long beards made it challenging to discern their actual age.

My biggest take-away from the film was an absolute sense of horror at the educational content, objectives and results of the Israeli teens’ trip to Poland. Far scarier than any stone thrown at a school bus full of Hassidic children in Brooklyn, or some of the things coming out of Norman Finkelstein’s mouth, was the lessons learned – or not learned – by the teens. I don’t know the MOTL program well enough to make generalized accusations against it, nor can I judge all teen trips to Poland by what I saw on screen in Defamation, but I came away appalled by the students’ lack of nuance or sophistication in their understanding of both history and current reality. Perhaps the kids got a bit carried away with the notion that there are still some people in Europe who are not enamored with Jews or Israelis (to the point of being afraid to interact with the locals or to venture out to explore the neighborhood around the hotel), but the responsibility for their overblown sense of danger, insecurity and victimization does not rest with them. It lies with the adults who prepared them for and accompanied them on their visits to the sites of the Ghettos and Nazi death camps.

As an educator and as a parent, I could not but feel disheartened when a girl who earlier on was worried about not connecting with her emotions finally breaks down in sobs at the museum at Auschwitz. It’s not because I was unmoved by her crying, but rather because I had a sinking feeling that her teary exclamation of identification with the victims of the Nazis of, “They took our hair, they took our teeth…But I didn’t do anything to anyone!” would end there. It would end at her own feeling of victimization, rather than where the lessons of the Holocaust should ultimately lead – to taking action in the world so that no group (Jews included, but not exclusively) again falls prey to hatred, bigotry, racism or genocide.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


Clearing Up Misperceptions

April 18, 2010

When I was growing up, I, like almost all my contemporaries, thought that there were no Jews living in Central and Eastern Europe post-WWII. There was this sort of disconnect – I knew that there were Jews in the Soviet Union (for whose freedom I was protesting by standing and holding “Let My People Go!” signs at rallies in front of Toronto’s Queen’s Park), but at the same time I thought of Central and Eastern Europe as “Judenrein” thanks to the efforts of the Nazis and the immigration of DP’s to North America and Israel.

It wasn’t until I, as a graduate student, read Eva Hoffman’s memoir, Lost in Translation (not to be confused with Sofia Coppola’s film with the same title, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson), about her childhood in Krakow, Poland in the 1950’s, that “the token dropped” (as the expression goes in Hebrew) and I understood that Jewish life in Europe did not end with the Holocaust. It may not have been the same Jewish life as existed before the war, but it was Jewish life in that Jews were living there.

It is amazing how long it can take for a person to intellectually break free from the ideological box of one’s (Labor Zionist, in my case) education. It is for this very reason – the “Europe=death, Israel=life” outlook – that some people are opposed to the popular March of the Living program, whose 2010 cohort is currently en route to Israel from Poland as this post is being written. It is actually thanks to one of MOTL’s critics, Edward Serotta, and his Centropa Institute that I was fortunate to be able to visit Austria, Hungary, Romania and Germany during the summers of 2007 and 2008 and add some shades of gray to my once black and white perception. I had the privilege of visiting contemporary Jewish communities in those countries and learning first-hand from their members about post-WWII European Jewish life. Most important for me, I had the chance to ask my fellow Jews, both older people and younger ones, why they chose (in those cases where they had a choice) and continue to choose to live in Central or Eastern Europe. It is critical for those of us with an American/Israeli-centric view of the Jewish world (ie. most of us) to hear the answers to this question.

All this serves as prelude to my noting a new young adult book called, “Under a Red Sky” (not to be confused with the Bob Dylan album with a very similar title) by Haya Leah Molnar. It is Molnar’s memoir from the time when she was Eva Zimmerman, a Jewish girl growing up in Bucharest, Romania around the same time that the other Eva was growing up in Krakow. In a review in the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon describes the book as “full of odd, vivid details from a time and place in Europe that seldom figures in books for young adults” – nor in the American Jewish consciousness. That is precisely why it is important for teens – and perhaps also those of us who find ourselves way past adolescence – to read it . (Note: Gurdon cautions that gruesome and distressing scenes of WWII make it appropriate only for readers sixteen years old and older).

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.