Organizers say pro-Israel filmmaker with controversial past deceives, disrupts Penn BDS conference (UPDATED)

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MartinHimel
Filmmaker Martin Himel (Photo: Earthbook.tv)

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Organizers of the University of Pennsylvania’s BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) conference acted to prevent a rightwing pro-Israel filmmaker from interviewing participants at the conference because he misrepresented himself and disrupted the event Saturday, they said. 

The fracas started when organizers got word that Martin Himel, a Canadian filmmaker with a controversial ideological history, had registered for the event without identifying himself as a reporter and was interviewing conference-goers. After some discussion, a decision was made to tell Himel that he could not film any more, although he was allowed to attend the conference since he registered as a participant.

“This group talks about open press,” but they couldn’t handle tough questions, Himel said in a phone interview.

PennBDS explains the decision:

In order to ensure a safe and orderly event, the organizers of this weekend’s UPenn BDS conference, which has been the target of a campaign of vicious, slanderous attacks in recent weeks, instituted a press registration policy designed to facilitate media coverage without interfering with the work of conference attendees.

Unfortunately, at least one individual has abused this policy by deceiving conference organizers in regards to their true identity and agenda. This misrepresentation, and subsequent interview tactics employed by said individual, caused a substantial disruption to the organizers’ educational mission, prompting organizers to ask said individual to desist so that order could be restored.

All journalists properly registered, including colleagues of said individual [his film crew], maintain their access to participants and to conference proceedings that are open to media. Organizers regret any inconvenience caused to conference participants by the presence of said individual, and reiterate their commitment to allowing free access to journalists who conduct themselves in an ethical and professional manner.

This is not the first time Palestine solidarity activists have had to contend with Himel, who has also worked for WorldFocus and PBS. A documentary he produced about Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Concordia University in Canada and the protests that ensued painted Palestine solidarity activists as anti-Semites and compared the breaking of windows during a protest against Netanyahu to Kristallnacht.

Writing for the Toronto Star in 2003, Antonia Zerbisias dubbed Himel’s documentary as “hyperbolic”:

A controversial Global TV documentary that portrays last September’s student demonstration in Montreal against a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the dawn of a new Holocaust is getting a repeat showing this week – despite three formal complaints against the film.

The outgoing Concordia Student Union (CSU) as well as Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and the Canadian Muslim Forum claim that Confrontation At Concordia presents an unfair picture of events at the downtown campus, which is portrayed as “the vipers’ nest of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli hatred…”

The complainants have a point. I watched this film twice, and while there’s no doubt that some pro-Palestinian students got too hot under the kaffiya, comparing one broken university window, a trampled Israeli flag, a few frankly hateful placards plus some chanting, jumping and pumping fists to Kristallnacht, that infamous night in Nazi Germany when Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed, is hyperbolic to say the least.

But that’s how filmmaker Martin Himel described it when I asked him if bringing up the Holocaust wasn’t going too far.

“I don’t know how much you know about history, but Kristallnacht, all that started with breaking windows,” he said. “They broke windows, they put up posters of Jews and lo and behold.”

Himel makes no apologies for his documentary, adding that he is “not aware of the complaints” against it. Fair enough. He’s based in Israel where he reports for Global. But there’s no excuse for his not mentioning – or even knowing – that Netanyahu’s tour was co-sponsored by the Winnipeg-based Asper Foundation, established by his ultimate employer, CanWest Global chair Izzy Asper. Even a simple search of the Montreal Gazette, also a CanWest news organ, would have revealed that.

Another of Himel’s films, titled “Jenin: Massacring Truth,” was praised by Aish Hatorah, a Zionist organization linked to illegal West Bank settlements. And at a B’nai Brith-sponsored Ze’ev Jabotinsky Memorial event, Himel criticized a separate film about the Concordia protest by saying that the film “interviewed a self-hating Jew who agreed with the Arabs.”

Himel left the conference threatening to create problems for PennBDS, but returned as a participant. He said in an interview that his crew was continuing to film.

UPDATE: As Benjamin Doherty (bangpound) of the Electronic Intifada notes in the comments, Ali Abunimah has written a personal account of his interaction with Himel:

Here’s what happened: on Saturday morning, I was approached by two women who presented themselves as producers from Canada who were there to cover the conference. One of them clearly told me they were from the CBC. I was a bit surprised that the CBC would send a team to cover the conference but I thought perhaps with all the publicity it didn’t seem unreasonable they might have sent a US-based team from New York or Washington.

I agreed to be interviewed but later on. After the morning breakout session, one of the women buttonholed me and asked if I minded doing the interview then. Since it was the lunch break I said that was fine. She took me to a room where they had a camera and lights set up. They miked me and sat me down, and then the interviewer appeared. I learned only later that it was Martin Himel.

But the moment the interview began, I smelled something fishy. It was more of an attempted set up rather than a professional interview. Himel presented me with what he claimed were anti-Semitic cartoons from Palestinian media and wanted to confront me with them. The only thing I could see is they were printed off from the anti-Palestinian website “Palestinian Media Watch.” Palestinian Media Watch, I told Himel, is notorious for anti-Palestinian propaganda and is funded principally by a man currently on the run for money laundering.

I answered that I had no idea where the cartoons came from and didn’t trust the source. He then started talking about alleged incidents of anti-Jewish statements from “Fatah TV.” I dismissed the questions saying I couldn’t comment on things I hadn’t seen and if he had wanted me to comment on them he ought to be able to show them to me.

Then strangely, he started asking me about what I thought about the Palestinian writer Mazin Qumsiyeh – I just laughed and said he should read Mazin’s brilliant books.

His other questions seemed to be about proving that the real reason for Palestinian hostility to Israel was Islamic religious fanaticism.

At this point Himel seemed nervous because I wasn’t taking the bait, and he said, “I’m just as tough on the Jews when I interview them.” I told him firmly I didn’t appreciate him making generalizations about “the Jews” because such language sounded anti-Semitic and I didn’t care to hear it.

I quickly cut the interview short and left the room. I never signed Himel’s release form. I immediately reported to conference organizers that Himel and his crew were misrepresenting themselves as CBC journalists in order to gain access to conference speakers with, I believe, the intent of setting them up and obtaining soundbites that could be distorted or used to defame them and the conference.

Another dirty trick foiled.

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