Supporting the Other Israel Film Festival is not ‘good news’

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A post by Philip Weiss yesterday spoke of the Other Israel Film Festival (OIFF) in good light.  It is important that we also hear the other side of this story and recognize the politics behind the event.

Recently, the director of the OIFF, Carole Zabar, wrote an article where she threw several unfounded accusations at the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). PACBI published a statement on the festival just yesterday, which I think asks readers of this site to carefully think through the agenda and mission statement of the OIFF before promoting the festival.  Here is one excerpt from the PACBI letter that is revealing:

(1) In a recent statement, Mr. Isaac Zablocki, the Director of the Israel Film Center, OIFF’s main partner, said: [3]

 ”The goal of the center is to share with the public these amazing [Israeli] cinematic achievements coming out of a country that is normally only seenthrough news headlines. Through our viewing library, screenings and promotion of films, we hope to share with the public a new slice of Israeli reality… an Israel filled with innocence, humor, and ideals.”

 This strikingly echoes the logic of the official Israeli propaganda campaign title Brand Israel, which aims to divert attention from Israel’s violations of international law and Palestinian rights to its artistic and scientific achievements.  One of its main founders of the Brand Israel campaign, Arye Mekel, the deputy director general for cultural affairs in the Israeli foreign ministry, described it to the New York Times [4]:

 ”We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits. This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”

 A former deputy director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, explained upon launching the Brand Israel campaign in 2005: ”We are seeing culture as a hasbara tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.”[5]

The problem here is that the OIFF project claims not to take a political position but partners with an institution like the Israel Film Center whose views are clear, not to mention that OIFF director, Carole Zabar, endorses the idea of Israel as a democracy “albeit with some challenges,” as PACBI writes. Thus, for those wishing to adhere to the criteria for cultural boycott the festival’s positions seem suspect, despite some of its intentions.

At least one Palestinian filmmaker has refused to screen her film at the festival, and perhaps it would be important for many other filmmakers to do the same in order to pressure the festival organizers to think more carefully about the event’s role in promoting Israel’s image.

On a separate point, Zabar’s own accusations at the boycott movement and her disinformation should warrant pause.  Of note is Zabar’s claim in the article that the South African anti-apartheid boycott movement was just economic.  I suppose this was a cheap attempt to delegitimize the academic and cultural component of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.  It would have helped, however, if she had gotten her facts straight.  A brief Google search online would have been enough to show how the cultural boycott of South Africa was even endorsed formally by the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid. 

Sami Hermez is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Lebanese Studies, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.

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