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“Rachel” in San Francisco: Who Needs a Guardian Council?

sfjffWe carried a report last week entitled You Must *Not* See This Movie? Muzzling Jewish Dissent.

The film has now been screened and here is the report circulated by Jewish Peace News on 28 July, about the event:

On Saturday, July 25, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screened Simone Bitton’s new film, “Rachel,” about the killing of pacifist ISM volunteer Rachel Corrie while she protested the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home in Gaza. See below for links describing what happened during the screening. First, some background and commentary.

When the SF Jewish Film Festival decided to include Bitton’s film in its program this year, it chose Bay Area-based Jewish Voice for Peace and the local chapter of the American Friends Service Committee to serve as the screening’s sponsors. JVP has sponsored a number of films at the Festival in years past. (I organized one of these sponsorships for JVP in 2000, when noted journalists Amira Hass and Hamdi Farraj were invited as guests.) The Festival also invited Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, to speak in conversation with Festival director Peter Stein after the film’s screening. These decisions unexpectedly provoked a furious reaction from some of the Festival’s biggest funders, including the Koret Foundation, the Taube Foundation, and the Consulate General of Israel in San Francisco, as well as from organizations like the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), which claims to represent the city’s “organized” Jewish community (certain local groups, however, like Jewish Voice for Peace, are not welcome under the JCRC’s tent).

These organizations’ reactions against the film were so severe — the Festival board’s president, Shana Penn, who is also the executive director of the Taube Foundation, resigned, citing her disagreement over the Festival’s handling of the film — that the Festival agreed to invite local “pro-Israel” activist Dr. Michael Harris to give a “balancing” perspective in an introductory statement before the film’s screening. Harris represents San Francisco Voice for Israel/Stand With US, an organization whose stated mission is to “take to the streets to respond to enemies of Israel in the San Francisco Bay Area.” In other words, this is a purely reactionary organization without any positive agenda.

From the outset, it was clear that those objecting to Bitton’s film regarded it as a nothing more than an attack on Israel, though these critics hadn’t actually seen the film. Moreover, the Koret and Taube foundations reverted to an ugly adversarial script in which, without a shred of credible evidence, they tarred Jewish Voice for Peace and AFSC as “virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic groups.” Koret and Taube jointly issued a flamboyantly hysterical statement likening the Festival’s screening of the film and inviting Cindy Corrie to sending Israel to its destruction. [In case anyone wants evidence of the full statement from the Koret and Taube Foundations is appended below -RK]

What is most surprising about this episode is the degree to which Jewish community and charitable institutions in San Francisco — historically one of the most progressive Jewish communities in the US — see themselves as being on the defensive in the Obama era. These institutions have done a tremendous amount of needed charitable work in San Francisco, both within and outside the Jewish community. Yet they also historically have acted to set highly restrictive limits on the breadth of the Jewish community’s political debate, and they display all the rigidity and corrosive defensiveness that the felt need for such discursive restrictions would imply.

But why were these organizations so provoked over the screening of a single critical film? Has President Obama’s insistence that Israel halt all settlement construction so rattled Jewish leaders and institutions that a cultural event as apparently innocuous as this could set off all the alarm bells? This is hard to fathom, given that the President has repeatedly affirmed his intention to make Israel more secure, not less. The White House’s stated objections, in recent days, not only to illegal settlement outposts but also to new Jewish construction in East Jerusalem that would harm prospects for a shared Jerusalem and an equitable resolution of the conflict seem expressly designed to curtail only the most egregious settlement activity — activity which, in turn, is often paid for by American Jewish extremists like Irving Moskowitz and Ira Rennert. What seems to be happening here is what progressive organizations like J-Street PAC have diagnosed as the disconnect between an established, often older, Jewish leadership and a younger generation of often unaffiliated Jews who hope for an equitable and principled resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is worth remembering that the film which has generated so much acrimony and sniping was directed by Simone Bitton, a Jewish filmmaker born in Morocco and raised in Israel. (You can read an interview in which she discusses her motives for making the film, and her view of the question of guilt for Rachel Corrie’s death, here.) The SF Jewish Film Festival is presenting 37 films made in or about Israel, as Joel Frangquist points out, including two about Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah and Hamas. Do Israel’s self-declared supporters believe their cause is so fragile that a single film in this line-up, or a single critical speaker, could unfairly and irreversibly tilt the proverbial scales? More importantly, do they really believe that festival-goers need to be protected from ideas with which some do not agree? This is a profoundly un-Jewish attitude toward contention and dissent.

Here’s a link to two personal accounts of what happended at Saturday’s screening in San Francisco.

And here is a YouTube video of Michael Harris’s much-heckled speech assailing the film:

–Lincoln Shlensky

Joel Beinin adds:

Neither [account of Saturday’s screening, on the site] fully captures the super-charged atmosphere and the emotional impact of the film.

Among the highlights, Jonathan Pollack saying, “I couldn’t live in this place if I didn’t resist, not just words (mas sfatayim), but actual resistance.”

Rela Mazali adds:

In autumn 2006 I was one of three speakers touring New England — a Palestinian woman from Khan Yunis, a Palestinian woman from Bet Jallah and myself, an Israeli-born Jewish woman from Herzlia. Of the several dozen venues and organizers that hosted us over three weeks, only a tiny minority were Jewish. And yet, at least two of these were contacted by the Israeli consulate before our arrival and “strongly advised” to cancel our talks because we were allegedly anti-Israel and dubitable. At one of these venues, whose organizers nevertheless went ahead and held the planned events, someone in the audience commented, “Just imagine the scandal if it had been the consulate of some Arab country that was contacting Muslim or Arab organizations and ‘recommending’ what and whom they should or shouldn’t host… yet the Israelis do it all the time and it’s treated as standard fare.”


Statement from the Koret and Taube Foundations
(as published in JWeekly, 28 July 2009, together with full SFJFF statements):

As staunch champions and allies of Israel, the Koret and Taube Foundations do not support any organization that promotes or provokes anti-Israel sentiment; nor do we provide funding to any organization whose mission runs counter to our position. While we have made no decision regarding future funding of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, we take issue in particular with three egregious errors in its upcoming presentation of the film, “Rachel”:

  • It is partnering with Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee, two virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic groups that support boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Both are closely associated with the International Solidarity Movement and other groups that aid and abet terror against the Jewish State. These groups cross the line for inclusion in the Jewish community.
  • The film festival made a conscious choice to present a film that lays blame for the accidental death of a civilian at the door of the State of Israel. We are deeply saddened by loss of life, most notably the countless Israeli lives lost and interrupted by virtue of service to their country. Presenting the story of a girl who put herself in harm’s way in no way advances our community dialogue. In fact, it threatens our community purposes.
  • Finally, we are appalled at the film festival’s decision to invite Cindy Corrie into our community. This bereaved mother cannot help but have a negative bias toward Israel. Why would a Jewish organization hand her a microphone and a soapbox from which to condemn Israel as Jewish audiences are expected to sit and listen politely? There is no possible counterbalance to a grieving mother.

Those who cavalierly fling Israel’s future into the grasp of those who would destroy it betray a mainstay of the mainstream Jewish community to support Israel and to counteract anti-Israel propaganda events, speakers and organizations. In this case, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has aligned itself with the wrong side.

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