Why is it so difficult to criticise Israel in the US?

July 24, 2010
Richard Kuper

zspaceGaza Tunnels to Cape Cod: The denial of Free Speech, Facts, and International Law

By Chris Spannos, 24 July 2010

On the ground, the “separation wall” that is between Israel and the Occupied Territories of Palestine is officially more than 4-times the length of the Berlin Wall. The wall in our minds however, stretches all-the-way from the war-torn Middle East, across the Atlantic and into the small affluent village of Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It is in this unlikely place where public discussion of equal human rights for Israelis and Palestinians is, if not forbidden, frowned upon. These walls, both in the Middle East, and in our minds, must come down if we are to end this shameful affront on human rights.

Woods Hole is a village in the township of Falmouth, just a short ferry ride across from Martha’s Vineyard, with a proud reputation that far exceeds its size. This place is home to an internationally renowned scientific community hosting the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the US Geological Survey, the Marine Biological Laboratory, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, among other facilities. It is a year-round revolving door for scientists and researchers and a place where the exchange of ideas aims to advance our scientific understanding of the way the world works. In the summer it is bustling with vacationers who enjoy its pristine beaches and ocean. In the winter, the local population is left to themselves, dwindling down to about 900 people, as life slows to a crawl.

It is here that a few of us local film lovers and social justice advocates decided to start a weekly movie and discussion group, primarily in the winter months, by starting a chapter of Cinema Politica—joining a Canadian non-profit documentary network. Our goal was to show political films covering issues of social justice, and also to stimulate discussion about subjects covered in the films.

Since our first screening in November 2008, we have aspired to Cinema Politica’s mission of “screening truth to power” by showing almost 60 films in the former Woods Hole Firehouse.  During that time we have won a sizable following in the community. Our efforts proved very rewarding, with plenty of room to grow, that is, until the Woods Hole Community Association (WHCA), a group that manages buildings in the community, including leasing the old Firehouse from the Town of Falmouth, suspended our use of that space, raising the question of whether or not power cares about truth. In small areas like Cape Cod, and especially in Woods Hole, limiting access to community space by curtailing freedom of speech removes diverse perspectives in an area where there are already too few.

The association’s decision came following our June 4 screening of the award winning documentary “Occupation 101: Voices of the Silenced Majority.” It is a film by American brothers Sufyan and Abdallah Omeish that, as the movie’s own description says, “details life under Israeli military rule, the role of the United States in the conflict, and the major obstacles that stand in the way of a lasting and viable peace.”

As with all our films, we try to tie our programming into current events. Our decision to show “Occupation 101” was based on the breaking news that the Israeli military had carried out a bloody raid on the Free Gaza flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian-aid to the people of Gaza—killing 9, injuring dozens, and arresting hundreds more, including part-time resident of Woods Hole, Katherine Sheetz.

Last Sunday, back in Woods Hole, Sheetz reported her experience aboard the Challenger One, a ship just 300 feet away from the infamous Mavi Maramara, to a local church group, the Ad Hoc Committee for Peace in the Middle East. Sheetz’s experience was recounted in the July 15 Falmouth Enterprise, where she explained that, while the resulting deaths were tragic, the point of the Free Gaza voyage was to draw attention to a growing humanitarian crisis.

The night that Cinema Politica screened “Occupation 101” was one of our best with over 50 people in attendance and with very lively post-film discussion. After the film, I began by asking if anyone knew the year-round population of Cape Cod. A young woman very quickly responded “230,000.” I then asked if anyone knew how many people live in Gaza. Answer: 1.5 million. I then explained that Gaza is just over half-the-size of Cape Cod and that 1.5 million Palestinian’s live sandwiched together in a space 25 miles long and 4-to-8 miles wide, making it one of the earth’s most densely populated areas.

“Occupation 101” was released in 2007. Relating the film to current events, I asked if anyone knew why the flotilla was on its way to Gaza. After a moment of silence, I explained that the population of Gaza has long been under siege; the Israeli blockade that has been imposed since June 2007 was in response to the Palestinian vote that democratically carried Hamas to political power in January 2006.

Discussion that night continued late into the evening, ranging from issues of human rights to voices not heard in the mainstream media. Most present agreed on the need for an alternative perspective and expressed appreciation of Cinema Politica’s role in the community. Others were able to draw from personal experience to broaden the discussion, for example the young Jewish woman who traveled to Israel in 2009 and said that Israelis are much more aware and critical of the human rights situation in Palestine than we are here in the U.S.

Perspectives in the U.S. that are critical of Israel’s occupation don’t receive the visibility they deserve for much the same reason the WHCA suspended Cinema Politica. For example, Amnesty International U.S.A titled their report reviewing Israel’s December, 2008 attack on Gaza, “22 Days of Death and Destruction.” This Israeli operation, named “Cast Lead,” subjected the captive population of Gaza to a wave of air strikes, reducing the homes and public infrastructure to rubble, and leaving nearly 1,400 Palestinians dead—a majority of them civilians—and more than 5,380 wounded. Amnesty also reported that “Palestinian rocket attacks killed three Israeli civilians and caused severe injuries to 4 people, moderate injuries to 11, and light injuries to 167 others.” 10 Israeli soldiers were killed in the fighting, 4 of them by “friendly fire.”

Other critical perspectives come from the international scientific community and, by using research, illuminate the human effects of Israel’s occupation. For example, this month, July 2, 2010, The Lancet medical journal updated their 2009 series “Health in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” with 16 newly published abstracts of peer-reviewed research (“Health in the Occupied Palestinian Territory 2010“). One of the main findings include a detailed appraisal of what took place after the 2008 Israeli attack on Gaza by surveying over 3,000 households there. The survey provides reliable data demonstrating that a third of the population was displaced during the war, that homes were destroyed, that a large number of the population incurred injuries and disabilities, that the quality of life worsened with increased insecurity, fear, stress, and suffering—all attributable to the war and occupation itself. Half the population does not have reliable access to water, electricity, and gas. One of the most a “horrifying” cases, according to Lancet editor, Doctor Richard Horton, was the report of white phosphorus burns on an 18 year old male civilian where 30 percent of his body was covered in wounds caused by the chemical burns of white phosphorus, which was used by the Israeli forces to attack civilians during Operation Cast Lead, an act prohibited by the United Nations. The findings demonstrate that the human suffering in Gaza is attributable to the siege, the Israeli occupation, the latest war, and internal Palestinian fighting.

The Lancet abstracts show the broader affects on health and the impact of the occupation throughout the Palestinian territories and give a sort-of “report card” on what life is like in this situation. Although the WHCA is not a scientific body, one would hope that those proud to live in a scientific community such as Woods Hole, would appreciate facts and reason. Yet it is not surprising that there are some who do not want to bring attention to these human rights violations and the collective punishment of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Palestinian people are not responsible for the violence and suffering imposed upon their lives and they have every bit of a right to life as we do on Cape Cod. So why are some in our small community so uncomfortable, and in some cases even angry, by a small volunteer run, non-profit film and discussion group?

Catherine Bumpus and Steve Junker, co-presidents of the community association that formerly rented the Old Firehouse to our group, say they have been receiving complaints from Woods Hole residents about Woods Hole Cinema Politica for more than a year and suggested that we give the association advanced notification prior to our showing films about Palestine and Israel. Initially they said the decision to suspend Cinema Politica for the remainder of the summer was based on a “breakdown in communication” and not because of the content of the films. They call the problem a “user issue,” and claim that the association “does not censor programs in its buildings.”However, at this week’s WHCA annual meeting the association finally explained that they thought our films constitute “propaganda” and “hate speech.” Does this mean that the WHCA would likewise classify the human rights reports and scientific research cited above in the same way?

In over 18 months Woods Hole Cinema Politica has shown only 5 films relating to Israel and Palestine—all framed within the context of international and humanitarian law, which is fundamental to understanding Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The community association’s suggestion that we give them advance notice of screenings on this issue—even though more than a few are on our email list and receive our month-to-month program already—was raised in December 2009 and was based on the agreement—which they fail to acknowledge anywhere—that the board would notify us of any conclusions it had made regarding what films we could or could not show at our Fire House venue. Our hope was that after they made their decision we would be able to determine if we wanted to take our film screenings elsewhere or not. In the 6 months after that meeting we did not hear from the association nor did we happen to show any films about Israel or Palestine. That we did not hear from the board about this until our June 4 screening of “Occupation 101” is exemplary of the kind of “communication breakdown” they speak of.

In the 6 months of silence from the community association (before their meeting earlier this week) they were unable to communicate:

(1)   any reason why we should give them advance notice of our film screenings on Israel-Palestine other than so they could better prepare themselves for complaints…

(2)   explain what any of the complaints people from within or outside the community, or on the board, had been regarding our films (although now we know the association itself thinks the films are “hate speech” and “propaganda”)…

(3)  allow us to respond to any such complaints during that  6 month period…

(4)  tell us what films they do or do not want us to screen…

(5)  explain how giving them the right to preview a film or asking for advance notice of our showing it, based on the films content, is consistent with free speech, or…

(6)  tell us how their suspending our showing films in a publicly-owned building is better than allowing the people of Woods Hole to decide for themselves what films they want to see.

And since their meeting earlier this week, we can now add to this list the association’s failure to explain how, in their view, these films are “hate speech” and “propaganda” and likewise how their own actions suspending our usage of the old Firehouse, are not a violation of free speech.

So far the community association has not been able to handle this issue in a credible manner. Our commitment to showing films that are not usually seen in the mainstream media is based on the importance of people having access to a variety of information sources in order to effectively participate in a democracy. It is also based on respect for universal human rights, scientific reason, and international law. The failed process of the WHCA has become a microcosm of the failed Mideast peace process that is writ large on the world stage.

Chris Spannos is staff at ZNet and a member of Woods Hole Cinema Politica.

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