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critical, progressive ideas from pondering jews


MIFF and boycotts

by tobybee

Last year Ken Loach pulled his film Looking for Eric from the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF). And the director of the festival, Richard Moore, seemingly proudly, proclaimed this years festival a “ken loach free zone”. (to read more about Moore, MIFF, the boycott last year, and the awarding to MIFF of the Voltaire award for supporting free speech by Liberty Victoria, go here.)

But while Loach may be absent, the issues which he raised are not. Once again, it seems, MIFF has knowingly used Israeli Government funding to bring an Israeli director to the festival as a guest. And this led to the director and producer of Son of Babylon, a film set in Iraq, to request that their film not be shown as part of the festival. They no longer wanted to be associated with MIFF. Did MIFF comply? No, it turns out.

From The Age:

The Melbourne International Film Festival has been threatened with legal action for refusing to withdraw a film at the request of its makers, who objected to the festival receiving funding from Israel.

The Iraqi-set feature film Son of Babylon screened on July 26 and July 28, as scheduled, despite demands it be withdrawn in protest at the fact that the festival receives funding from the Israeli government. That funding amounted to a return economy-class air fare for an Israeli director, just as it did at last year’s festival.

“The festival was informed in enough time to stop the screening … therefore if you have knowingly disregarded our wishes and screened the film, we will of course be left with little alternative than to take appropriate action against the festival,” producer Isabelle Stead wrote to MIFF executive director Richard Moore last week.

“We would of course be very reluctant to do this, but you should not underestimate our resolve to ensure that our film is not associated with the state of Israel as long as it continues its illegal crimes against humanity,” she added.

There is in the filmmakers’ stance a distinct echo of Ken Loach’s decision to withdraw his film Looking For Eric from last year’s festival on the same grounds.

On July 18 last year, The Age broke the story that the veteran English filmmaker had said “if it did not reconsider the sponsorship, he would not allow the festival to screen his film”.

In a letter to Mr Moore, Mr Loach cited “illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods” and “the massacres in Gaza” as reasons for the boycott.

In refusing to return the Israeli government sponsorship, Mr Moore said acceding to Mr Loach’s demand would be “like submitting to blackmail”.


This year’s flare-up is a little more complicated, however.

Mohamed Al-Daradji, the director and co-producer of Son of Babylon, wrote to the festival about 14 hours before his film was due to have the first of its two festival screenings last Monday, requesting that the festival cancel it and the second scheduled screening on Wednesday July 28.

Within two hours, Mr Moore had replied. “To request a withdrawal of the film on the day of the screening is simply not acceptable and shows a lack of respect for our organisation,” he wrote. “We are not able to replace the film at short notice and we will screen it today. I am prepared to consider other options for the second screening but I will also need to consider the financial ramifications to our organisation.”

In a separate email, Mr Moore suggested the festival could cancel the sold-out July 28 screening in return for a payment of $4450. The filmmakers offered to reimburse the festival for some of the costs associated with the screening on the assumption that it had been cancelled. They also offered to help the festival find alternative sponsors.

However, the July 28 screening went ahead, prompting an angry email from Ms Stead.

“When we grant a festival permission to screen a film that took us years to make along with danger, blood, sweat and tears we do so with trust. I would have thought a festival would morally recognise the need to tell a Palestinian co-production that it was funded by the state of Israel,” Ms Stead wrote.

“I will again reiterate that any permissions granted to Melbourne IFF to screen Son Of Babylon have been revoked.”

The website for Human Film and Iraq Al-Rafidain, which made Son of Babylon, claims the production company is “continually working to breakdown cultural divides through film” and “do[es] not apply any language, cultural, political, religious, or any other barriers to our film making practice”.


Last night I saw Black Bus, a film about two women in Israel who escaped from the ultra-orthodox communities in which they had grown up and the physical and mental hurt which they had lived through. As the film began, and something came onto the screen about how the Israeli Government had provided financial support for the film, my brother and I turned to each other, in mutual recognition that, by seeing the film, we were breaking the boycott. And I felt a little sick. But I watched the film (which, while flawed, was deeply revealing and provocative – I’ll write something about it later today hopefully), and I’m glad I did. I wonder at how to implement the boycott in Melbourne in ways which are useful (and I wonder what ‘useful’ means here). It’s a question of tactics, I guess: is it more useful that I don’t go to the individual films that have been supported by the Israeli Government, or ‘should’ I be avoiding MIFF in totality because it has received the support it has? Or should I be seeing the films, and then speaking about them, because the critique they provide of the Jewishness of the Israeli State, of some of the Jewishness of the Jews who live in the State, is vitally important. I don’t know.


bits of jew-y arts news

by anzya

I’ve come across news of a couple of exciting jewish arty projects, so thought I’d take this opportunity to plug them here:

1. A Film Unfinished is released this year: a doco about an unfinished Nazi propaganda film made in the Warsaw ghetto which uses actual footage, diaries and interviews with survivors. It has been getting excellent reviews, including this one by Jewdar at Heeb magazine who writes:

Watching the footage, and, knowing what the Nazis had in mind for their subjects, it’s hard to escape fully the conclusion that this film ultimately wasn’t propaganda but anthropology–the Nazis making a video record of the quaint customs and rituals of what were supposed to be Europe’s last Jews in their natural habitat.

For Melbournites, it is also screening at MIFF in July & August.

2. Klezmer bands from around the world have got together to create the album Klezmer Against the Wall . Their cd is available online and from itunes, with proceeds going towards music and arts projects in Palestine.  reports (the unfortunately predictable) that,

Florida’s main Jewish radio station, Shalom South Florida, has responded to “Klezmer Musicians Against the Wall” by banning all American and European Klezmer bands featured on the CD from their airwaves.

In other jew/arts news, that seems relevant to mention today, there is a bit of a row brewing over in Adelaide, where a poster advertising artist Andrew Steiner’s exhibition about Art and the Holocaust was removed by a staff member who said, according to the AJN :

The flyer had ‘Holocaust’ written on it, and we’ve got a customer that comes in here who doesn’t believe in the Holocaust, so if we have stuff up there like that, then we have to get into arguments with people, and we can’t be bothered.

Geez, lady.

AJN and The Australian reports that the complaining customer turned out to be notorious Holocaust denier Fredrick Toben.

Naomi Klein and the BDS campaign

by tobybee

There’s been a bit of media recently in Melbourne about the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign that has been initiated by Palestinians. That media has centered around the call by Ken Loach for the upcoming Melbourne International Film Festival to reject the sponsorship of the Israeli Government, or he will pull his film from the festival. His call was, in turn, in response to the demand from the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which issued a statement asking the MIFF not to partner with the Israeli Government. The Jewish News this week, as well as another Melbourne Jewish blog (which has posted twice), have severely criticised Loach’s move as misdirected and wrong. But, I think, they miss many key points of the BDS campaign, as well as of Loach’s aim.

Firstly, pulling a film from a film festival is a non-violent act, surely better than waging war. Secondly, the boycott is aimed at the Israeli Government, not at particular Israeli people, films or cultures. It is therefore quite different to the Chinese Government’s demand that a film be pulled from the festival because it shows a side of China which they wish to deny. Thirdly, boycotts sometimes work and are a recognised form of alienating a government which tries to pass itself off as a ‘normal’ government: Israel sponsors international film festivals in order to make it appear as a particular type of government, one which is kind, generous, benevolent and democratic. It’s important to say that while that might be true for some Israeli citizens, it’s very much not true for others.

There were similar mass international boycotts of South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and they worked: they brought international attention to a state which was dysfunctional (to put it mildly). Would the people who are protesting Loach’s boycott have protested the boycotts of South Africa? I think probably not. The difference, it seems to me, is an emotional one. It’s hard to look at a country you love and see its problems. It’s sometimes just plain hard. And it hurts. I’m not going to pretend otherwise: it’s an emotional struggle.

The Jewish Peace News sent around a week ago a summary of talks (as well as an addendum) that Naomi Klein – the Jewish author and activist, who wrote the books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine – gave in Ramallah and Jaffa. Klein’s book has recently been published in Israel, and she, in consultation with the BDS campaign, organised a book tour of the West Bank and particular areas in Israel (in doing so she makes it clear that the boycott isn’t of Israelis, but of Israeli institutions and the things/knowledge which they produce). Rebecca Vilkomerson posted this summary of her talks: it’s a good read because it brings out the complexities, the difficulties, and the necessities of Jews being involved in the BDS campaign. Klein has had an excellent article published about the boycotts, with responses to various criticisms of the boycotts, in The Nation as well. I highly recommend reading it.

Naomi Klein and the Boycott Movement : supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within (Israel) : exposing the Israeli Occupation Industry, a project of Coalition of Women for Peace (Israel) : Palestinian Global Call for BDS : Naomi Klein press conference in Bil’in

Naomi Klein’s recently completed visit to Israel had a galvanizing effect on the “boycott from within” movement here , which has endorsed the Palestinian call for BDS. Her public meetings, in Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa drew hundreds of people to hear her clear-eyed analysis of why it is time for a full boycott of Israel until the occupation ends, Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel have full and equal rights, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees is fully realized under international law.

I attended her events in Ramallah and Jaffa, where hundreds of people gathered, largely supportive, to participate in a conversation that felt historic. Klein spoke clearly as a Jewish activist, though she acknowledged that that was a new role for her. In Ramallah, apparently near tears, she told us, “I come to you with humility that I didn’t heed the call sooner. It was purely because of cowardice.”

This admission was complex and powerful, because it juxtaposed the clarity and simplicity of her reasons for supporting BDS with an acknowledgement that supporting boycott, perhaps especially for Jews and Israelis, requires a psychological leap out of our comfort zones.

Her presentation of why BDS is right, now, was remarkable in that she consciously presented it as a positive, movement-building tool to build a joint future with Palestinians, rather than simply a method to punish Israelis. She was insistent that the boycott was not about boycotting Israelis as individuals, but was actually an opportunity for increased communication and public education. She used the example of her own unconventional book tour in Israel and Palestine as an example of how to follow the BDS call with integrity while still interacting with and educating Israelis. She avoided ideological buzz words (such as “Zionism” or “anti-Zionism”) that could have been polarizing and yet emphasized the need to call things what they are (ie “apartheid” not just “human rights abuses.”)

She spoke clearly about BDS as a tool of non-violent solidarity, comparing not complying with the BDS call with crossing an invisible picket line. She noted that one reason to heed the call is because it has been called by so wide a swath of Palestinian civil society and that only boycott can make the occupation visible inside the Israeli “bubble.” Compared to the boycott of the Palestinian economy which includes the siege of Gaza and the choking system of checkpoints and other forms of control in the West Bank, boycott of Israel is a light punishment indeed. She quoted a Gazan who told her, “what Israelis call a crisis we’d love to have.”

She firmly rejected the idea that to boycott is anti-semitic, further noting that the BDS movement needs to be particularly vigilant in standing against anti-semitism, while being prepared to call out the use of anti-semitism as a way of silencing dissent. In this role, Jews worldwide, and Israeli Jews in particular, have a key role to play.

Finally, in Jaffa particularly, there was some discussion of the mechanics of boycott, especially from within. Yael Lerer, Klein’s Israeli publisher, suggested that lessons could be learned from Palestinian Israelis who have learned through experience about how to navigate living their lives without endorsing Israeli institutions. We are all learning as we go about what boycott means in practice, and that its implementation is a tactic, not an end in itself.

As Naomi Klein noted simply in response to a questioner, “It’s hard. But I still agree with it.”

–Rebecca Vilkomerson

Jewish Peace News editors:
Joel Beinin
Racheli Gai
Rela Mazali
Sarah Anne Minkin
Judith Norman
Lincoln Z. Shlensky
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Alistair Welchman