A screening of Simone Bitton's RACHEL - a documentary on the life and death of peace activist Rachel Corrie that previously screened at Berlin, Tribeca and Hot Docs - at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this past weekend has sparked outcry in the Jewish community there, allegations of anti-Semitism, boycotts and at least one resignation.
When the film finally unspooled on Saturday night, it played to a packed Castro Theatre, where - at least according to eyewitness accounts - there seemed to be strong support for screening the film and polite opposition toward those opposed.
For the past several weeks, some conservative Jewish groups were incensed that the festival would screen the film about Corrie. Two groups that have long backed the festival - The Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture - attacked the festival, the film as well as two other groups that were working with the festival to promote the screening of the film - Jewish Voice for Peace and American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that promotes pacificism. In a joint statement Koret and Taube (both of which are led by philanthropist Tad Taube) attacked the SFJFF for working with the two groups:
But it wasn't just the partnerships that upset the foundations, they were opposed to the screening of RACHEL:
Corrie was killed in 2003 while protesting Isreali actions in the Gaza Strip when a bulldozer operated by Israeli Defense Forces killed her - either by pushing debris over her or by effectively running her over. Whether or not the operator of the bulldozer saw Corrie has been disputed. Corrie has become a lightning rod ever since, with peace activists and Palestinian supporters hailing her as a martyr, while militant supporters of Israeli have dubbed her naive or in league with terrorists or worse. Since her death, her parents have worked to support her cause. In fact, Rachel's mother Cindy was invited to speak after the screening of the film at SFJFF, and this, too, was deemed unacceptable by the Koret and Taube Foundations:
The local Bay Area's J Weekly was even more explicit in an editorial, even though it said the festival should go ahead with screening RACHEL:
We are all for free speech. We are all for scheduling controversial films. But Cindy Corrie's appearance crosses a line. The Jewish Film Festival is under no obligation to offer a microphone to Israel-bashers."
For its part, the festival stuck to its decision to screen the film, releasing a statement noting that the festival was screening two films about the capture and/or kidnapping of Israel soldiers and calling Cindy Corrie's appearance at the festival "customary (and even expected by audiences)" who want to interact with filmmakers or subjects of the films they just viewed.
Bitton - who is Jewish and was unable to attend SFJFF - spoke about the controversy in a recent interview:
They are a real threat to Jewish intelligence, pluralism and humanism. I feel that it is very important, specially now, not to be intimidated by this aggressiveness. American Jews have a great responsibility these days–they have to help the new administration in its efforts to bring peace and justice in the Middle East. There is a real hope now that things will move in the right direction, but this hope is fragile. Jews have to be the first ones to criticize what has to be criticized in Israel’s politics, and the best way for them to do it is by supporting the Israeli voices that stand against occupation. If they surrender themselves to the pressure, like the pressure being put upon the SFJFF, how can they expect President Obama to resist the much more heavy pressure he is confronting, coming from the military and industrial lobbies, who need the continuation of war and occupation for their own interests? It’s time that American Jews make a clear choice, and stop letting these ignorant censors dictate what is good and what is bad for Jews. Because it is the choice between life and death. Between justice and oppression. Between pride and shame.
I know the many feel the right way. But they have to say it out loud more massively than they already do."
Despite weeks of controversy, the audience at the Castro seems to have been largely supportive of the SFJFF as well as the appearance by Cindy Corrie. In what must be viewed as an attempt to calm some of the accusations of bias, the festival invited Michael Harris of San Francisco Voice for Israel to speak prior to the film. According to a blog post on the Jewish Voice of Peace's Muzzlewatch - admittedly not an unbiased bystander - this was not as successful as Harris might have hoped:
"Initially, the audience was quite respectful of Harris' comments, and unanimously applauded his assertion that Isreali victims of suicide bombings, along with Rachel Corrie, should all be alive today. It was only when Harris began attacking the film, the festival, the International Solidarity Movement (of which Corrie was a member) and the co-presenters that things got ugly. There certainly were a lot of interruptions of booing, as well as more thunderous applause when he mentioned JVP and the AFSC...
After the film Cindy Corrie took the stage, answering a few questions... In one question, Cindy was asked whether she had met with the families of Israeli Defense Forces members killed in the conflict. Cindy not only answered yes, but added that she had met with the parents of suicide-bombing victims as well. She went on to ask us to mourn the deaths of her daughter, Israelis AND Palestinians, for which the audience applauded. The contrast between her and Harris, who left out the Palestinians, could not have been more striking."
Rabbi Lynn Gottleb, who was at the screening and who is affiliated with both the JVP and the AFSC, wrote in another post that the reaction of the crowd was evidence of "a growing movement tired of being censored about Isreal":
"The Koret and Taube Foundations are part of a wide spectrum of individuals and organizations, Christian and Jewish, who attempt to enforce the axiom: there shall be no public criticism of Israel. This platitude ironically goes hand in hand with the view that ‘Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.’ Over the past several decades, self-appointed watch dogs of appropriate Israel discourse have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and poured out enormous doses of vitriol upon any individual or organization that dares to expresses even a drop of sympathy with the plight of Palestinians.
The fact that the vast majority of people in the crowd at the Castro Theatre would not let the Voice of Israel representative speak his mind without interruption reflects growing frustration with the use of pubic slander, character assassination, cancellation of speakers, firing of faculty and demand for resignations by the so-called defenders of Israel. Since when are people with views that differ from AIPAC, for instance, invited into mainstream circles to speak for five minutes before a pro-Israel speech or film? The representative of Voice of Israel was not there to dialogue. Only to chastise. The crowd refused to be chastised. When the impassioned proponent of Israel mentioned JVP and AFSC in order to condemn them as virulent anti-Semites, the crowd burst into cheers and applause to honor them instead."