Israel, Politics

The Other Israel Film Festival represents me

I’m usually blase about most Jewish institutions, readers of this blog will know, but I am enthusiastic boosters of those that “get” it. And nothing could have boiled my blood so quickly as when I read of the attempt to paint the JCC in Manhattan as enabling destructive talk about Israel.
Richard Allen, a member of the JCC, is peddling small-minded paranoia in calling the Other Israel Film Festival a participant in the boycott, divestment and sanctions  (“BDS”) movement and has called on the board to McCarthyize their community.
Allen is joined by  Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who told the paper, “At this time when Israel’s very life may be at stake it’s especially important not to patronize anyone who doesn’t stand with the State of Israel. … Stop claiming you are a Jewish community center, because there is no place there for centrist people.”
This is preposterous. The hysteria behind such a claim would be funny if the merits of this case weren’t downright offensive. Liberal-minded members of the community need to put this laughable accusation where it belongs: the garbage bin. The JCC in Manhattan, under the leadership of Rabbi Joy Levitt, is one of — if not the — most pluralistic institutions in the New York Jewish community. It hosts thoughtful, intelligent, quality programs satisfying so much of the communal spectrum.
On the same night, the welcoming rooms of that building hosted a Shabbat dinner of the Other Israel Film Festival (no event of which Mr. Allen ever attended) and the annual dinner of CAMERA. At the OIFF dinner, two Israeli Arab TV stars spoke eloquently against efforts like Mr. Allen’s — from the Palestinian side. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contacted all the filmmakers, producers and actors flying in from Israel to boycott the Other Israel Film Festival. Panelist Mira Awad, Arab pop singer-songwriter, answered the question about why she still came, and she did so with inspirational personal authority:
Mira Awad recalled the night she decided to accept the nomination to represent Israel in the 2008 EuroVision. It was during the crescendo of Operation Cast Lead, she explained, when distrust between Israeli Jews and Arabs were equally sky high, and the majority of her fellow Arab citizens of Israel were demanding she withdraw. Prominent Jewish Israelis were disgusted to be represented by an Arab, similarly calling for her ousting. But in the face of this polarization and venom, she decided firmly to proceed with her Jewish counterpart, Achinoam Nini. Together, they sang “There Must Be Another Way” before the world stage to set a new tone and lend hope to a dismal moment.
“I am a dialogue person,” she recalled saying to herself then. “If I believe in dialogue, then shouldn’t I believe in dialogue now, of all times?” She wouldn’t answer the calls to boycott then and she wouldn’t answer the calls to boycott now, she told us. She was coming to this festival because it’s about Israel and she’s an Israeli cultural icon. If we are measured by how we behave in moments of moral choice, Mira Awad represented Israel powerfully.
After that endorsement, yes, I want more of Mira Awad and the Other Israel Film Festival in the JCC. Lots more. And how will we hear those voices if the slightest, most distant relations to critical voices are prohibited? A culture of fear is enough to prevent their presences, which is all Mr. Allen’s proposal will accomplish. I was proud of Awad, of us, of Israel. The participants of the film festival and JCC programming are not adovcates of BDS, and Mr. Allen’s tarnishing of the building’s reputation will not save Israel from greater forces.
In other years, Other Israel Film Festival panels featured Chiam Yavin, Israel’s Walter Cronkite, interviewing the next generation of Israeli Arab filmmakers and actors. It also featured leading Israeli experts on closing socio-economic gaps (read: the gap between Jews and Arabs, Jews and migrant workers, and others) have headlined nuanced conversations that Mr. Allen likely couldn’t handle.
The evidence posited for the nefariousness of the JCC’s work is paltry and eyeroll-worthy:

  1. The festival web site links to two Israeli Arab groups which litigate on behalf of Arab equality in Israel — two groups which work within the Israeli legal system. Neither of these organizations contribute time or money to the global BDS movement, although a decade ago one signed a letter supporting divestment from companies that profit from the occupation. The occurrence raised a stink and since that org never again participated in similar statements.
  2. Films at the festival were co-sponsored by the local J Street affiliate, many of the members of whom are regular participants in JCC programming and are paid JCC members. (J Street opposes BDS, by the by.)
  3. Other co-sponsors Mr. Allen doesn’t like include several prominent Israeli human and civil rights groups. Their participation is a “hekhsher” of these groups, he says. Which it is, the same extended to a cornucopia of Jewish orgs that live, work and pray together here in NYC.

Hardly reasons to drop the OIFF or institute background checks. Mr. Allen, in his insecure Crusader mentality, is blowing a chill wind of intellectual petrification into a building that is unafraid, as he seems to be, of tackling pressing issues.  The “circle the wagon” types may always insist that Israel’s “dirty laundry” not be discussed outside the tribe — but if we cannot discuss our thoughts inside our JCCs then where can we discuss them? Only when Mr. Allen is there to chaperon the conversation? What next? That those insufficiently pro-Israel won’t be able to use the pool? That an inquiry be instituted into the loyalties of JCC membership applicants?
This is beyond creepy, it’s just plain stupid. The JCC in Manhattan is not a linchpin in the global BDS movement, nor is it a “hub of Israel deligitimization.” It is home to the conversations most of us have with each other, both supportive and probing of Israel. Mr. Allen can spend his personal funds on “website, print ads, transit ads, demonstrations, leafleting and public picketing.” But aren’t there bigger BDS fish to fry than this?
If we’d like to institute guidelines at the JCC in Manhattan, then let us pass these alternatives:

  • That the rooms of the building will host speakers, events and activities representative of every niche and persuasion of the Jewish community.
  • That all conversation about Israel — be it right or left — will be high-quality, knowledgeable, pluralistic and truthful.
  • That no deligitimization happen under its auspices — of neither states like Israel, nor community members like progressives.
  • That no matter the fate of Israel, we will not succumb to fear of ourselves or others.

I personally support Joy Levitt and her building, Carole Zabar and her film festival, the staff and thousand-plus participants who drew closer to Israel after seeing both “the Israel that is” and “the Israel that ought to be.”

10 thoughts on “The Other Israel Film Festival represents me

  1. Excellent, KFJ. Are the three reasons you gave the only support for Allen’s claims that the JCC is getting soft on BDS? Seems thin gruel.
    Israeli films, at least those that get English subtitles, have been left-minded for as long as I can remember, whether on social and economic issues, religion and faith, war, politics, etc. I can’t think of a single “right wing” Israeli film that made its way to the US. Some are more centrist than others, but they all tilt to the left, generally.
    On a sidenote, it is heartening to see you support intellectual pluralism, especially after our recent discussion concerning Glenn Beck, when such spirit seemed absent in favor of punishing ideologues you don’t agree with. If you will allow me a friendly poke in your side, and taking into account that Daniel/mobius sees the “pro-Palestine movement” as favoring BDS – including against the Other Israeli Film Festival – would you support the JCC as vehemently were it not under attack by those seeing themselves as battling BDS?

  2. I am glad The Jewish Week and Adam Dicker have the time and the space to waste on such ridiculous accusations. Let me get this straight, Richard Allen is claiming that The JCC has a festival (which I now learn is itself Boycotted by pro-Palestinian groups for being pro-Israel) that partners with groups like NIF and Jstreet (who both appose BDS) but have links to groups that support minority rights in Israel.
    That is like accusing someone of a crime because a cousin of a cousin did something that was not bad.
    Are you actually printing this?! This is the weakest case I have ever heard.
    If it was not clear that this is ridiculous: Allen says that the JCC shouldn’t show films that are critical of Israel… Is this Iran? Is their a uniform we should be wearing?

  3. The staff at the JCC tell me that wacko individuals attack the JCC all the time for perceived political bias from the right, left, secular, religious and other petty grievances. The only reason this received any attention, it seems, is because it had a BDS hook.
    Victor: I take time to support institutions that walk the talk about communal pluralism. Too many an institution gives lip service to “big tent” pluralism but is gun-shy in living up to their own rhetoric. The JCC is not one of those institutions.
    As for Glenn Beck, you can hardly call Beck a purveyor of thought that is “high-quality, knowledgeable, pluralistic and truthful” like the programming of the JCC. He’s a demagogue. (Neither does Fox claim nor attempt to be pluralistic.)

  4. Ben,
    Fabulous post. I assume you’ve shared this directly with Joy, but if not, be sure she sees it. She and the JCC deserve all the support that fair-minded people can give her in the face of this Know-Nothingism.

  5. I’m curious. I’m a Jew, but every time I encounter the “Jewish community” it makes Zionism, the support for an ethnic-state of “Jewish people” in historic Palestine, the litmus test.
    Well, I don’t believe in that. I live in America. I’m an American, not an Israeli. And the Israelis (all of them) despise the idea of secular democracy in the region. They deny Muslims and Christians (read: Arabs) equal rights before the law. They are engaged in non-stop war with everyone around them to defend what I understand to be an “apartheid state”.
    My family fought Hitlerism. They stood up against the idea that states represent “peoples” rather than being constituted by citizens. They opposed militarized, racial states. They stood for democracy (and in my family, socialism) — and never for a day supported Zionism.
    So now I’m being told by right-wing fanatics and liberals alike that unless I support a race-state called Israel (whether it does “good” things or its usual horror-show) that I am a “self-hating Jew.”
    My question is: if Israel is what “real Jews” do — then why on earth would I want to have anything to do with it? Israel doesn’t produce Einsteins, Freuds or Marxs. Nope. Just Sharon and Liebermans.
    That’s not me. Not my family. But it does seem to be the requirement of organized Jewry.
    I honestly don’t understand how any American Jew, living in a secular democracy, can look to Israel as a good thing. When was it good? Back during the Stern Gang days? When they expelled 800,000 Palestinians to embark on their settler-colonial project? When they aided apartheid South Africa for decades? When they used the most intense state-mandated brainwashing to convince Israelis that the whole world wanted nothing more to do than eradicate Jews (all evidence of anti-Semitism’s near total decline to the contrary)?
    Zionism is to Jewishness what Nazism was to Germans or fascism to Italians. It is just awful. Why do you support that?
    And if you do support it, why don’t you leave the USA where respect for a secular democracy is the beginning of politics, not its end.

  6. Kosher, you’re rehashing a mishmash of anti-semitic tropes, from “Jews as race”, which derived from the blood purity laws during the Spanish Inquisition created to uncover false Christians, to the hatred of Jewish nationhood of the French Republic, “to the Jew everything, to the Jewish people nothing”, to the deranged ideas of Luther and Voltaire, Spinoza and Marx, which identified something innate in the Jew which could not but corrupt and destroy in the Christian order. Your understanding of Zionism is so imbalanced, so non-historical, that I wonder whether you have any grasp of the concept, as such. Your ideas are a sloppy hatred of a caricature of Jewish people. A caricature not of your making, but of which you are but the last in a long line of grateful recipients. Lastly, thank G-d Israel has not produced a Marx, a man whose ideas, in the right hands, condemned generations, including my own family, to decades of Soviet oppression. In short, read a book. I have some suggestions.

  7. So now I’m being told by right-wing fanatics and liberals alike that unless I support a race-state called Israel (whether it does “good” things or its usual horror-show) that I am a “self-hating Jew.”
    Could you be more specific about who is making such claims?
    Israel doesn’t produce Einsteins, Freuds or Marxs. Nope. Just Sharon and Liebermans.
    I understand your sentiment that Zionism is a failed movement, but to be fair Israel has produced plenty of Einsteins, Freuds, and Marxes.
    I’m a Jew, but every time I encounter the “Jewish community” it makes Zionism, the support for an ethnic-state of “Jewish people” in historic Palestine, the litmus test
    I do have to question your veracity. I have had plenty of experience in the American “Jewish community,” and the issue of Israel is never more than a cursory subject (at best) in such circles (at least based on my experiences.)

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