In yet another incident in which the wealthy, powerful, tired old American Jewish leadership tries to tell the rest of us what’s good and bad for us and Israel, the Koret Foundation has excoriated the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival for screening an Israeli documentary about the life and death of Rachel Corrie. Even worse than screening the film, for the pro-Israel foundation which funds many Jewish projects and organizations in the Bay Area and beyond, was an invitation to Corrie’s mother, Cindy, to attend and answer audience questions. But before we delve into the controversy, let’s learn a bit about the film:
…In 2003, Rachel Corrie, a 22-year-old peace activist from the Pacific Northwest, attempted to stop a bulldozer operated by the Israeli military from demolishing homes and other buildings in Gaza. Corrie was struck and killed in what some witnesses claimed was a deliberate action, but what an Israeli inquiry ruled was a tragic accident.
Simone Bitton (Wall, SFJFF 2005), a veteran documentary filmmaker who is a citizen of both France and Israel, has crafted a dispassionate but devastating essay investigating the circumstances of Rachel Corrie’s death—including astounding eyewitness testimony from activists, soldiers, army spokespersons and physicians, as well as insights from Corrie’s parents, mentors and diaries. In assembling a thorough and candid account of the event, using both visual and narrative evidence, Bitton’s quietly persistent questioning manages to accomplish what the inadequate legal proceedings and the overheated press coverage did not: an unflinching examination that refuses to exculpate or equivocate.
But Bitton’s nonfiction essay is hardly a bloodless tract—in fact, even as it raises troubling questions about the Israeli military’s candor, it also manages to paint a complex portrait of a young, perhaps naive, idealist and the high price some pay in the name of committed activism.
So what we have here is a balanced, dispassionate film by an Israeli filmmaker which investigates the death of a highly controversial figure. This might cause some debate among audience members or within the community. But the level of vitriol that Koret has managed to elicit is astounding.
Besides inviting Corrie’s mother, the other reason Koret has a bee in its bonnet is that SFJFF invited two local organizations to co-sponsor the film, Jewish Voice for Peace and American Friends Service Committee. While AFSC has always been viewed with great distrust by the hard-right pro-Israel community, Jewish Voice for Peace is, as its name implies, a JEWISH group that is neither pro nor anti-Zionist (a concept very difficult for the pro-Israel Koret types to wrap their minds around). While it’s true that JVP is often reviled in these circles, often the revulsion is based on complete ignorance of the group’s real positions.
Now, it’s appropriate to examine Koret’s hysterical attack on the screening and those who orchestrated it. I quote the statement in full because the rhetoric is quite instructive:
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.
The Koret statement is not only hysterical, as I noted, but it is full of outright lies as much rightist pro-Israel propaganda is. First, JVP is neither anti-Semitic, nor “virulently anti-Israel.” In fact, together with J Street, it is one of the most effective Jewish peace groups out there. I do not support groups that are either anti-Semitic or anti-Israel and wouldn’t support JVP if it was. In fact, I’d make a pretty strong argument that JVP is pro-Israel, though not in the flag-waving sense that Koret demands in order to achieve that status.
JVP is neither “closely” associated with the International Solidarity Movement, nor associated with it at all. This too is a flat out lie. And as for its association with “other groups that aid and abet terror against the Jewish state,” this is such an empty charge as to be unworthy of address. I would point out though that Koret doesn’t even name any of the other groups so you can’t very well even refute the calumny.
Interesting that Koret finds JVP a group that “crosses the line for inclusion in the Jewish community.” So in effect, the Foundation has excommunicated the Jewish peace group. Aren’t you glad that we Jews stopped doing that after the Dutch Jews put Baruch Spinoza in herem? Unfortunately, no one’s told Ted Taube, director of the Foundation that fact.
The Foundation is so frightened of the impact of telling Corrie’s story through the Festival that it claims it will “threaten our community purposes.” What is astonishing about this is that an award-winning Israeli documentarian has decided that Corrie’s story is worth making a film about; yet an American Jewish organization believes the same project will damage the community. Does Koret have such a fragile sense of the strength of the American Jewish community that hearing Rachel Corrie’s story threatens us in some profound way? What does this say about Koret’s view of Jewish identity?
Also mind-boggling is the objection to hearing Cindy Corrie speak about her daughter. Somehow hearing Ms. Corrie’s maternal suffering will damage Israel again in some fundamental way. The very notion is preposterous. Audience members are intelligent enough to absorb Corrie’s views and integrate them with their own. Cindy Corrie isn’t going to poison anyone and turn them away from Israel forever over her remarks. In fact, if you want to be a true supporter of Israel you should be willing to listen to all reasonable critical perspectives including hers.
I also strongly take issue with this rather opaque statement demanding absolute loyalty in order to be a member in good-standing of the Jewish community (“a mainstay of the mainstream Jewish community [is] to support Israel and to counteract anti-Israel propaganda events”). Is it the purpose of the mainstream community to counteract anti-Israel propaganda? Perhaps it is a mainstay of Aipac, the Israel Project, ZOA, or other Israel lobby groups. But is this the sine qua non of what it means to participate in our community? I think not. I’d rather that the main quality of being a member of the Jewish community is being a thinking Jew, of caring about the issues that affect Jewish life and identity, of grappling with the problems facing us. But no, our job as good Jews is not to fight the good fight for Israel–at least not in the sense that Taube defines it.
To be fair, Koret is a funder which does great good in the Jewish community. The programs it supports reflect a generally progressive view of Jewish life and culture. But the problem is Israel. Koret is an exemplar of PEI (progressive except Israel). And they suffer this affliction to an even greater degree than many other American Jews. If you examine its giving to Israel-centered groups, it focuses on such right-wing groups as the Likudist Shalem Center ($100k), Jewish National Fund ($100k), and the hasbaraist MEMRI ($200k). They funded Commentary Magazine ($450k), the Reaganite Hoover Institution ($1.7-million), and the local Chabad network ($160k).
H/t to Michael Levin.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.