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Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni on the importance of Toronto

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The Toronto Declaration refuses to go away, and Udi Aloni is one of the reasons why. Son the Israeli left-wing fixture Shulamit Aloni, Udi is an internationally recognized filmmaker (his films include Forgiveness and Local Angel) and a mainstay on the Tel Aviv art scene. As much as there is a liberal Tel Aviv establishment Aloni would be a central player, and he freely admits it, “Everything I do is out of my love for Tel Aviv.”

But more recently he has been attracting attention for his leading role in the controversies over the Toronto Declaration at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the effort to persuade Leonard Cohen to reconsider performing in Israel. His strong support for both efforts has made him a marked man back in Israel. “Israel has never been as right wing as it is now. Ever.” Aloni laments, “If you looks at the talkbacks on my articles, they’re really calls for assassination. Calls to liquidate me. Some of them I had to ask the newspaper to take them down. That’s a little bit scary.”

When I sat down with him last week over coffee at a cafe near New York University he was most interested in responding to Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Schnabel and Martin Sherman’s letter in the New York Review of Books criticizing the Toronto protests. They attack the Toronto protest calling it an attempt to “shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people” and claim it undercuts the Israeli peace movement among other charges. They write, “Some 10,000 Israeli citizens demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the military attack on Gaza in January this year . . . These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged.”

Aloni responds, “I represent the people who were demonstrated in Tel Aviv. Ninety percent of them would sign the Toronto Declaration. I can guarantee it. This is very important. The ones he speaks about weren’t there. The 10,000 people he talks about were the Palestinian citizens of Israel who came from outside [Tel Aviv].” He adds bluntly, “And second thing, ninety percent of Israel was supporting the Gaza fight, it’s a fact.”

Aloni is most interested in responding to Schnabel because he feels the letter was an attempt to build political cover, and early p.r., for his upcoming film Miral (which also stars Redgrave). It tells the story of Hind Husseini who set up an orphanage in Jerusalem for children left homeless by the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948. “I am known as very tolerant in the left,” Aloni explains, “I’m even tolerant of Shalom Achshav [Peace Now]. I’m not like the radical left, but this letter looks so cynical, so self-serving. If you can find one group of Palestinians that support this letter, then I will shut up. But this letter is exactly the text of the Zionist left. And the right-wing of the Zionist left at that.”

Aloni was not surprised the letter made a pro forma reference to the holocaust to justify Israeli behavior (Aloni: “It’s Schnabel playing Spielberg,”), but he was outraged over the charge that the Toronto Declaration’s use to the term "apartheid regime" was unjustified. Redgrave, Schnabel and Martin wrote, “We oppose the current Israeli government, but it is a government. Freely elected. Not a regime. Words matter.”

“This is not a regime because there are elections in Israel?” Aloni responds, “If you were a Palestinian, there are 4 million Palestinians who cannot choose who will take their land, from which airport they will fly, they can’t ride on the Jewish roads, and they cannot choose which road they can build. Those 4 million people will never vote. Therefore, from the point of view of a Palestinian, according to Schnabel’s own definition, it’s a regime. Because those people never vote. According to his own definition it’s an apartheid regime.”

Aloni believes that Schnabel should know this given that he decided to shoot his own film, which takes place in the West Bank, in Tel Aviv instead of Ramallah. “[Schnabel] says ‘let the Israeli films be shown,’ but when he decided to make a film about Palestine he decided to put the entire production in Tel Aviv. All the money went to Tel Aviv and not to Ramallah. Why? Because he knows that it is impossible to shoot in the occupied Palestinian territories. So before he says ‘let the Israeli films be shown,’ which no one tried to stop in the first place, he should be fighting for Palestinian films to be able to be shot! That’s the true censorship.”

For Aloni the letter points to misconceptions of how Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is understood in the US. “For me what’s important is not to defend what we did in Toronto, but to challenge the lies in what [Schnabel] wrote. The worst of what he wrote was that he claims that Palestinians died, were killed, because of the paranoia of the Israelis. Not because of our fundamentalists, not because of our ethnocracy, not because of stealing land, not because of all those things, he claims that because of Israeli paranoia thousands of Palestinians died.” Aloni says he could see this being the case in 1948 fresh from the experience of the holocaust, but it no longer holds, “All he does here is give an excuse for ‘48, but he cannot give an excuse for 2009.”

Despite his growing reputation Aloni has conflicted feelings about cultural boycott. He is a firm believer in economic boycott, and in the end will honor the guidelines that the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel have announced out of a sense of solidarity. For Aloni, the decision to promote the Toronto Declaration was due to the almost total lack of debate and protest inside Israel. “One reason I am soft on the boycott, including the cultural boycott, is because there is no opposition. If we had an opposition, like in Iran, I would definitely work against the boycott. But when there’s no opposition you lose your argument against boycotting.” He continues, “People were more angry about the letter to Leonard Cohen than the Toronto Declaration. It’s because it’s exactly hurting the liberal, progressive nationalist left. Who is going to hear Leonard Cohen? The middle class, little bit intellectual, they’re not ready to sacrifice anything. Those people that Schnabel talks about in Tel Aviv, they don’t exist. The regular people refuse to sacrifice even the smallest thing to fight the occupation. They even refuse to sacrifice listening to Leonard Cohen.”

And it is for this reason that Aloni defends making his beloved Tel Aviv a focus of the protest. Although many liberal supporters of Israel see Tel Aviv as the shining example of what Israeli culture could be, Aloni believes that it is the exception that proves the rule , “The liberal city, a very vibrant liberal city in the middle of a colony, it’s not an exception of the colony,” Aloni explains. “This is very important. [Tel Aviv] is the example used to show that that the barbarians around the colony are in fact barbarians. Every colonization has its vital liberal city, which in turn is the essence of colonialism itself.”

If you’re in New York you can see Udi Aloni’s film Forgiveness this upcoming Friday, October 16 at 7:00 pm in Room 802 of the Kimmel Center at NYU. The film will be followed by a conversation between Aloni and Prof. Nina Thomas on trauma, memory and filmmaking.

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