I’ve been an admirer of J Street with a few exceptions since it began, and written often about its work here. But an Israeli friend has sent me a message of protest sent to J Street by a fellow Israeli peace activist. He was criticizing the Jewish peace group’s attack on Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni and others, who asked fellow Israeli filmmakers to withdraw their films from the Toronto Film Festival because the Israeli government turned Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary celebration into the centerpiece of this year’s artistic event. Thus the Film Festival was transformed into a venue for pro-Israel hasbara.
To give some background, after Israeli and international artists like Udi Aloni, Jane Fonda, Ken Loach, John Greyson, Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, Harry Belafonte, Julie Christie, Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Klein, John Pilger, Wallace Shawn, Alice Walker, and David Byrne discovered that the Film Festival was collaborating with the Israeli government, they criticized the Festival (read the Toronto Declaration) and urged other Israeli artists to withdraw.
To make several points clear, this was not an attempt to boycott the Festival as a whole, as it is being erroneously characterized by the pro-Israel smear industry (to use Daniel Levy’s useful term). It is not an attempt to boycott the Israeli film industry. It is an attempt to point out that world film festivals should not accept funding from the government of Israel to distract world opinion from its ugly Occupation and thus promote its political agenda. This is precisely the type of targeted protest by selective artists of a specific event which I feel is warranted in pointing out the harmful ways in which Israel exploits cultural ties for political gain.
Given the above, I was stunned to read J Street’s celebratory message of support for the Festival and its vicious attack on the Israeli and other artists who protested the government’s involvement in the event:
J Street applauds the Toronto International Film Festival for choosing Tel Aviv for its inaugural City-to-City spotlight.
Israel’s growing and internationally recognized film industry, centered in Tel Aviv, is rightly a source of pride for many Israelis and Americans. Through their art, Israeli filmmakers are presenting the world with a rich picture of Israel’s complex and layered society that goes deeper than simplistic headlines.
We find protests and criticism of the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to showcase Tel Aviv’s film industry shameful and shortsighted…
Some critics say their objection is to the Israeli government’s role in promoting the films and not the films themselves. Israel, like many other European governments, supports its film industry financially
The cause of peace will not be served by demonizing Israeli film and filmmakers as being part of the “Israeli propaganda campaign.”
We were also dismayed by the Toronto International Film Festival’s co-director’s statement that Tel Aviv is “contested ground.”
We urge those protesting Tel Aviv’s selection to reconsider their actions. We also call upon the Toronto International Film Festival to hold strong with their selection and not be drawn into a political fight.
There are two dynamics at work here. J Street is beginning to come into its own as a formidable political force in the American Jewish community. It’s first national conference will take place at the end of October and it’s being viewed as a “coming out party” for the American Jewish peace movement. As such, it is under intense scrutiny from said smear industry and its least stumble will be examined and placed under the magnifying glass. That is why J Street has taken centrist positions of late that bring it into conflict with more progressive elements of the American Jewish community. While I am sensitive to the predicament in which J Street finds itself, I remind them that when you constantly compromise your values in order to prove your centrist bona fides to the Jewish doubters, you may not convince them and you may alienate those who’ve been with you from the beginning.
The second dynamic is that opposition to Israeli Occupation and policy since the Lebanon and Gaza wars has intensified and in a sense radicalized. Before readers start trembling in their boots, by “radicalized” I don’t mean that the peace movement has become anti-Israel or adopted positions that endorse hatred against Israel. I mean that as Israel has shifted the ground out from under us through its brutish militarism, we have been forced to examine new ideas we might hitherto not have considered as seriously as we do now.
The Global BDS movement is a case in point. Neve Gordon’s endorsement of BDS in the L.A. Times marked the kind of sea change in the anti-Occupation movement that the Walt-Mearsheimer book did in popularizing the term, the Israeli lobby. Along with Naomi Klein’s embrace, it forced many of us to re-consider whether this was a legitimate form of resistance to Israeli Occupation.
Also, many of us have become more sensitized to the contradiction between Israel’s joy at its independence and Palestine’s sorrow at the accompanying Nakba. J Street’s indignation at the notion that Tel Aviv is “contested ground” is part of a refusal by Israel’s liberal supporters to acknowledge the phenomenon. They are slow to realize that there are two legitimate narratives here and that you cannot affirm one while at the same time denying the other. That is precisely what J Street has tried to do.
In that sense, J Street is fighting a rear guard action in defense of the indefensible. The Israeli government must be confronted wherever in the world it attempts to advance its political agenda. And yes, J Street, Israeli funding of a film festival IS a political act. Israel, in the aftermath of its brutish campaigns against Lebanon and Gaza, wants nothing more than to let the world know that it is a nice, normal nation like Canada, for example. To refuse to understand that the government’s funding of the Canadian arts event is a form of hasbara means J Street is burying its head in the sand. And I say this not as an opponent of the group, but as a supporter who is saddened by an instance in which it has gone off the rails. As the peace train leaves the station, the Jewish peace group runs the risk of being left behind if it refuses to recognize new realities as they develop.
An Israeli peace activist wrote this letter to J Street criticizing its statement of support:
It is legitimate to oppose cultural boycotts, but your failure to address the human tights violations associated with the history of Tel Aviv-Jaffa (mainly the ethnic cleansing of its non Jewish inhabitants, and the ongoing discrimination against the small minority who has managed to remain in the city) does not grant credibility to your initiative.
There is no need for using harsh words such as “shameful” to describe the supporters of the petition against the Tel-Aviv events at the Toronto Film Festival. This amounts to a smear campaign.
It would have been far better for J Street to have remained silent on this issue than to have made an ill-considered public statement that does neither the Israeli artists who boycotted nor the anti-Occupation movement as a whole, justice.