Distorting the Anti-Israeli Protests in Toronto

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John Greyson’s entirely reasonable decision to protest the Toronto International Film Festival’s City-to-City spotlight on Tel-Aviv (and the supporting letter from a group of activists, artists and intellectuals such as Naomi Klein, Jane Fonda and Slavoj Zizek) has been predictably distorted and misrepresented by Israel’s backers. Greyson cites the war in Gaza (for which both Hamas and Israel were criticised for human rights abuses by the UN this week), the continuation of a long-established apartheid-style policy in the Occupied Territories as reason for his reluctance to allow his film ‘Covered’ to be shown at a festival which turns a blind eye to the reality of Israel’s outrageous flouting of decency and international law:

To my mind, this isn’t the right year to celebrate Brand Israel, or to demonstrate an ostrich-like indifference to the realities (cinematic and otherwise) of the region, or to pointedly ignore the international economic boycott campaign against Israel. Launched by Palestinian NGO’s in 2005, and since joined by thousands inside and outside Israel, the campaign is seen as the last hope for forcing Israel to comply with international law. By ignoring this boycott, TIFF has emphatically taken sides — and in the process, forced every filmmaker and audience member who opposes the occupation to cross a type of picket line.

The follow-up collective letter to the TIFF protests the spotlight also, correctly pointing out the uncomfortable fissure between a city such as Tel Aviv, that admittedly has its admirable qualities, and the grim reality of Israeli state policy:

The emphasis on ‘diversity’ in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada. Looking at modern, sophisticated Tel Aviv without also considering the city’s past and the realities of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, would be like rhapsodizing about the beauty and elegant lifestyles in white-only Cape Town or Johannesburg during apartheid without acknowledging the corresponding black townships of Khayelitsha and Soweto.

Israel’s supporters haven’t been long making their voices heard: Marvin Hier of the Simon Wisenthal Center told a press conference that “Tel Aviv is one of the freest cities in the world, warts and all: a model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, for Arabs and Jews.” He added: “It is the height of hypocrisy to single out Tel Aviv. These protesters cannot masquerade their hatred toward Israel.” One need only point out the fact that the Tel Aviv distict population is comprised of only 2% Palestinian Arabs, a shockingly low number for a city built on razed Arab villages, to show Hier’s model of diversity to be the nonsense it is.

Then a number of Hollywood Jews (their words, not mine) have signed a letter of counter-protest, employing some breathtaking hyperbole to denounce the anti-Israel protest as ‘a blacklist’, saying that “Blacklisting them [Israeli films] only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect. Those who refuse to see these films for themselves or prevent them from being seen by others are violating a cherished right shared by Canada and all democratic countries.”

Let’s go back to what Greyson said in his letter (my emphasis):

Let’s be clear: my protest isn’t against the films or filmmakers you’ve chosen. I’ve seen brilliant works of Israeli and Palestinian cinema at past TIFFs, and will again in coming years. My protest is against the Spotlight itself, and the smug business-as-usual aura it promotes of a “vibrant metropolis [and] dynamic young city… commemorating its centennial”, seemingly untroubled by other anniversaries, such as the 42nd anniversary of the occupation. Isn’t such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?

and the collective letter of support (my emphasis once again):

We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.

Now, call me old-fashioned, but a diligent close reading of those two statements reveals to me no hatred of Israel or its film-makers but rather points out the iniquity of doing what is in effect propaganda work for the Israeli state. I don’t blame the likes of David Cronenberg, Jerry Seinfeld or Minnie Driver for standing up for Israeli filmmakers and it’s quite possible that their knowledge of the controversy was at best flimsy or distorted by the pre-drafted letter of protest they were asked to sign. One must also bear in mind that the majority of the signatories are American, and in much of the US, on the left as well as the right, criticism of Israel is routinely tarred as anti-semitism. But all those signatories should at the very least read the two letters as they were actually published. There is no hatred of Israel nor is there any overly-emotive chest-beating.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a great admirer of recent Israeli cinema, particularly the films of Avi Mograbi, Ari Folman, Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz, Eran Riklis, Raphaël Nedjari, Keren Yedaya and Eytan Fox. Films by some of them were screened in the TIFF. Israeli films deserve to be seen, not least because they sometimes offer an honest, objective account of Israeli society that is at odds with some of the brow-beating nationalism of right-wing Israelis and their Zionist supporters (Fox’s The Bubble is, ironically, a clear-eyed account of Tel Aviv’s shortcomings as a ‘diverse city’). But Israel, or Tel Aviv, cannot be treated the same as other countries as long as its government continues to flout international law, proceed with policies that border on ethnic cleansing, while at the same time having the gall to accuse those who oppose illegal West Bank settlements of supporting the same. It is likewise disingenuous of an Israeli filmmaker such as Samuel Maoz to claim he might not have won the Golden Lion at Venice, as he did for his war film Lebanon, had Jane Fonda or any other signatories been on the jury. Israeli films get a fair crack of the whip in international film festivals and I know nobody who suggests that they should be boycotted or shunned. Ken Loach was accused of censoring Tali Shalom Ezer’s Surrogate at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year when he called for a boycott. But his target was not Shalom Ezer or his film, but rather the fact that the organizers had accepted money from the Israeli government to pay for Shalom-Ezer’s travel costs.

It’s true that boycotts of Israel, be they academic or cultural, should be applied with care and discretion (I have no qualms whatsoever about applying economic boycotts) and though they are supported by some on the Israeli left, such as Ilan Pappe and Neve Gordon, they are opposed by others such as Uri Avnery. It is also true that some of those who take a pro-Palestinian stance are motivated more by hatred of Israel than a sense of justice for Palestinians. But the calls of protest against the Toronto International Film Festival were nothing but measured and reasonable.

Related: John Greyson responds to criticism from producer Robert Lantos.


One Response

  1. seanachie

    September 18, 2009 6:35 pm

    Update All credit to Roger Ebert, who, having initially condemned the protest, revised his position when presented with more facts. He said

    I’m writing this the day after first posting this entry. I now regret it. The point I make about artists is perfectly valid but I realize I wasn’t prepared with enough facts about the events leading up to the Festival’s decision to showcase Tel Aviv in the City-to-City section. I thought of it as an innocent goodwill gesture, but now realize it was part of a deliberate plan to “re-brand” Israel in Toronto, as a pilot for a larger such program. The Festival should never have agreed to be used like this.

    It’s a brave, honest retraction, and one which aims to please neither side of the debate. It also confirms my suspicions mentioned above that some of the Hollywood figures that signed the condemnation of the protest might not themselves have been fully aware of the situation. It all underlines the importance of getting information out to combat the hasbara lies. Even staunch supporters of Israel can view things clearly when they are provided with the truth.