Jewish Voice for Peace tries to open debate around Toronto Film Fest, other Jewish orgs (including J Street) look to shut it down

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The reverberations of the protest against the Toronto International Film Festival’s City to City program with Tel Aviv continue to be felt, and American Jewish organizations have started to respond to the controversy. The first comment came from Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center:

As a filmmaker and member of the Academy, I can tell you that this is nothing less than a call for the complete destruction of the Jewish State. There can be no other interpretation when the legitimacy of Tel Aviv is called into question. If every city in the Middle East would have the cultural diversity, the freedom of expression, and treat its citizens, Jews and Arabs, the way Tel Aviv does, peace would have come to the Middle East long ago.

Israel is accused of being an apartheid state because it did what every other country in the world would do – defend its citizens against an eight month rocket barrage launched by Hamas terrorists. Let’s be honest, the signatories to this protest may have been filmmakers, authors, directors and actors, but it is clear that the script they are reading from might as well have been written by Hamas.

Understated as usual.

The JTA then reported that J Street and B’nai B’rith International had issued statements condemning the protest. B’nai B’rith International misrepresented the protest as a boycott, when in fact a boycott hadn’t been called for. Their statements begins, "Several prominent names in the film industry, including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, and about 50 others, signed a petition to boycott the Toronto International Film Festival because of the event’s focus on Tel Aviv-based film makers." This is a mistake about the protest that has been repeated in several places (including here on Mondo). It is understandable inasmuch as John Greyson did pull his film from the festival in protest, but the Toronto Declaration actually makes it very clear that they are not calling for a boycott of the festival:

We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign . . .

The JStreet statement does refer to the action correctly as a protest, and finds it "shameful and shortsighted." They then make the odd choice to conflate a statement from the Film Festival’s co-director opposing the protests with the protest itself:

We were also dismayed by the Toronto International Film Festival’s co-director’s statement that Tel Aviv is “contested ground.” Anyone that questions Tel Aviv’s legitimacy as an Israeli city either needs a geography lesson or doesn’t believe in the two-state solution, which is the only way to secure Israel as a Jewish democracy and provide the Palestinians with a state of their own.

So JStreet opposes both the protest and the opposition to the protest? I’m confused. Actually JStreet is making a similar error to the Wiesenthal center by claiming the protests are questioning Tel Aviv’s "legitimacy." The protest statement does not do that, but it does seek to place Tel Aviv and its history in their rightful place in the conflict instead of in the de-contextualized bubble where they usually reside. From the Declaration:

Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada. Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.

Unfortunately JStreet didn’t just leave it at a statement. Beginning last night, it has been circulating the following email:

—– Original Message —–
        From: Jeremy Ben-Ami
        Sent: Thursday, September 10, 2009 10:11 PM
        Subject: Pro Israel Pro Peace Community Responds to Toronto Film Boycott

Jeremy Ben-Ami and Lilly Rivlin (as individuals) are collecting signatures on the letter below regarding the Toronto Film Festival.  We feel it is very important for the pro-Israel, pro-peace community to clearly articulate the lines that we will defend when it comes to actions that de-legitimize the state of Israel itself.  If you would like to join us in this statement, please email your approval to add your name (and affiliation for identification purposes) to the letter to Isaac Luria [J Street campaigns director].

We are trying to gather the names of 100 prominent Jewish Americans who are writers, academics, rabbis, activists and prominent thought leaders of our community.

We intend to deliver the letter by Monday and to apprise the media of the signatory list.

Please feel free to pass this effort along to others of your colleagues/acquaintances whose voices would add to the scope of this call.

Thanks so much for your consideration.

September 9, 2009

Paul Atkinson, Chairman of the Board
Piers Handling, Director and CEO
Toronto International Film Festival
2 Carlton Street, Suite 1600
Toronto, ON M5B 1J3 CANADA

Dear Messrs. Atkinson and Handling, 

We, the undersigned, thank the Toronto International Film Festival for choosing Tel Aviv for its inaugural City-to-City spotlight and to indicate our support for you as Jews who support a just and speedy two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel’s growing and internationally recognized film industry, centered in Tel Aviv, is rightly a source of pride for many Israelis and others, like us, who care about Israel. Through their art, Israeli filmmakers are presenting the world with a rich picture of Israel’s complex and layered society that goes deeper than simplistic headlines.

We find protests and criticism such as that leveled at the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to showcase Tel Aviv’s film industry shameful and shortsighted.

The cause of peace will not be served by demonizing Israeli film and filmmakers as being part of the “Israeli propaganda campaign.” In fact, anyone who actually watches popular Israeli films would know that the films are often vigorously critical of Israeli government policy.

Some critics say their objection is to the Israeli government’s role in promoting the films and not the films themselves. Israel, like some European governments, supports its film industry financially and does not employ any political litmus test to determine which films receive funding. Some of your critics, it appears, would have us believe that Benjamin Netanyahu personally selected these films for maximum propaganda effect. That, of course, is absurd.

We must also, however, express our dismay at the statement by the Toronto International Film Festival’s co-director that Tel Aviv is “contested ground.”  Just as we firmly believe that a Palestinian state must be established in territory beyond the pre-1967 borders, we hope that Tel Aviv’s legitimacy as an Israeli city has been long established.  Recognizing both these facts is essential to realizing a two-state solution, which is the only way to secure Israel as a Jewish democracy and provide the Palestinians with a state of their own.

We urge those protesting Tel Aviv’s selection to reconsider their actions. And we urge the Toronto International Film Festival to stand strong in the face of efforts to turn their artistic celebration into a political fight.



This seems to be crossing a line. First the charge that the protest works to "de-legitimize the state of Israel itself" strikes me as totally unfounded and seems more off of Rabbi Hier’s script than J Street’s usually measured statements. Maybe they are referring to the Festival’s co-director’s statement, but again, that has nothing to do with the protest itself. Second, and more disturbing, this letter seems to mirror the tactics of the traditional Israel lobby which seeks to cut off any critical debate over Israel and the history of the conflict. There are many of us who hoped J Street would be different. Now that J Street has been dubbed "The New Israel Lobby," here’s hoping this isn’t a sign that they’re planning on adopting the tactics of those that came before them.

Luckily, Jewish Voice for Peace is trying to bring some sanity to the discussion if only by focusing on what the Toronto Declaration actually says, and the history that it refers to. They have released two useful documents on the controversy. The first is a fact sheet "in response to the campaign of disinformation" against the protest letter. It looks at three of the biggest misconceptions around the protest: "1) That the protest letter unfairly singles out Israel; 2) That the letter calls for a boycott of the Film Festival and Israeli films and; 3) That the letter in any way delegitimizes Tel Aviv."

The second JVP document is a response to StandWithUs’s attempt to challenge the history behind the Toronto action. The response includes the very important history of Tel Aviv and its place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You should check out both of them.

Once again this episode shows that the leaders of the Jewish community would rather try to shut down debate rather than engage with the complicated and contentious nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thankfully, there are organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace that are trying to grapple with issues that have to be faced.

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