Marblehead, Massachusetts is the kind of small town where a community online board of events includes posts about a missing cat and calls for recommendations on who can clear a gutter—that is until a notice of a film about how Israel is covered in American media was published. Allegations of anti-Israel propaganda were lobbed, not against the coastal community’s residents or filmmakers, but the documentary’s narrator, Roger Waters.
One resident called Waters “an anti-Semitic woman.” Another compared him to former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke.
The film, Occupation of the American Mind by Loretta Alper, Jeremy Earp and Sut Jhally, played on Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist church of Marblehead, but not before sparking a small town controversy. A campaign to cancel the screening was launched through an open letter published in local papers. The letter alleged the film is anti-Semitic because it uses an anti-Israel lens, backed up by a list of bullet points claims like: “Palestinian children are raised from childhood to hate Jews and Christians”—never mind a substantial minority of Palestinians are Christians.
The letter was circulated on social media by the Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, an organization that sends teens on trips to Israel and has made donations to far right groups including Honest Reporting, CAMERA and the Clarion Fund, the latter categorized as an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Marblehead Reported printed Lappin paid to run the letter in papers, but did not stipulate if the funds were provided by Lappin personally or his foundation.
Coverage of the screening and protests was published by the regional papers, the Jewish Journal (a Salem outlet that receives funding from the Lappin Foundation according to a quick search of the org’s most recent tax returns-FY 2015, 2014 and 2013), the Daily Item and the Salem News.
From the write-ups, it seemed all of the protesters were out against the film.
“It’s insensitive. It’s propagating hate to Israel and it’s using an old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories against the Jews in a movie. That’s why I’m here,” demonstrator Eli Davidyan told the Salem News.
Yet according to the filmmakers, there was far less brouhaha from critics. Not mentioned by the local Massachusetts press corp, was that on the day of the screening members of the group Jewish Voice for Peace gathered outside of the church signs supporting the showing of the documentary.
“The screening happened, nothing blew up, but there was high drama,” said Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp in an emailed report. According to Alper, most local media missed that many Jewish community members supported the screening. I’ll add, the local outlets that covered the protests against the film failed to include a disclosure note about the letter being an initiative of one of their donors.
[A] few dozen protesters out front calling us anti-Semites and Nazis as we walked in, telling us we had blood on our hands, etc., and a packed house for the screening — which most of the protesters attended. Interesting thing was that there were no disruptions from them during the screening. Our theory is that when they actually saw the movie that Robert Lappin had convinced them was going to be a Leni Riefenstahl documentary, they were surprised it was actually a movie about the very intimidation tactics they’d been using over the preceding week to smear us and shut down the screening. Regardless of them, the response to the film was overwhelmingly positive, lots of support from progressive Jews in attendance, and a robust Q & A in which questions about anti-Semitism from the Lappin crowd more or less lost their luster and fell apart under the light of rational thinking.
But, of course, despite what was clearly a triumph for the amazing women who stood their ground and showed this film in the face of a truly stunning barrage of hate, the two most widely read and trusted local newspapers in the area published stories about the screening this morning that seem to have been dispatched from an alternative universe. The Salem News basically erased the fact that the film received an overwhelmingly positive response, erased the voices of the progressive Jews in attendance, and even erased the fact that JVP [Jewish Voice for Peace] was outside protesting alongside the right-wing extremist fringe, and instead proceeded to write a story entirely through the frame of those very same extremists.But there was one ray of journalistic light. By far the best, and most fair, piece of reporting came from Leigh Blander of the Marblehead Reporter, who disrupted Lappin’s otherwise successful effort to make this about ‘area Jews’ (as in all area Jews) versus ‘the insensitive and maybe even anti-Semitic church organizers’ by reporting accurately on the Jews who were there who weren’t right-wing fanatics, supported the film, and actually believed we should be talking about Palestinian human rights.”
Editor’s note: this piece was updated after publication to include an expanded version of the emailed report from the filmmakers.