Highly regarded festival should be applauded, not castigated

The theater of the absurd has returned to the Bay Area Jewish community, and sadly everyone seems to be playing their predictable parts.

This time the play is called “Rachel Corrie at the Jewish Film Festival” with a sub-title: “Film festival audience applauds Ahmadinejad” and a sub-sub title: “Boycott the Jewish Community Federation.”

VSnitow, Alan

Alan Snitow

First, on the SFJFF: The festival is an independent arts organization programming often-provocative works of artistic excellence and asking controversial speakers to attend. That’s not a mistake. It’s the SFJFF’s raison d’être.

For 29 years, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has held a unique place in the world of Jewish film. It is respected by curators, critics and filmmakers internationally as a serious artistic venue and not just a vehicle for parochial self-congratulation. As a result, other Jewish film festivals look to the SFJFF as a leader that pushes the boundaries of Jewish conversation to include films and speakers critical of the American Jewish establishment, the relationship between Israel and the diaspora, and how we interpret our history.

Second, on the film and filmmaker: Simone Bitton is a respected Jewish Israeli filmmaker whose work has been shown around the world, and she is in top form in her film about Rachel Corrie. It is reminiscent of Oscar- winner Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” in its investigation of a controversial killing.

Although critics have screamed about the film’s lack of context, all sides in the debate over Corrie’s death are heard, and I came away from the film believing it provides strong evidence that Corrie’s killing was an accident. However, the real debate here isn’t about the mindset of non-violent protesters or of Israeli bulldozer operators, but about the policies being followed in Gaza by Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.

Third, on the presence of Rachel Corrie’s mother, Cindy: What’s the big deal? “Oh,” we’re told, “she’s a naïve dupe of the terrorist conspiracy in Gaza, Beirut and Tehran.”

The critics seem to think that Bay Area Jews will suddenly become Hamas supporters upon hearing from an aggrieved mother. This is condescending arrogance.

Fourth, the Ahmadinejad applause: I was there, and I saw S.F. Voice for Israel representative Michael Harris’ smile of satisfaction when some in the crowd gave him the response that “I expected,” as he put it in a post-film interview. I saw Harris provoke that response intentionally, and he got what he wanted.

As an interviewer, film director and television news producer at the local Fox affiliate over the past 25 years, I know how easy it is for anyone with a modicum of skill to get a few people in a diverse audience of hundreds to respond to a provocation. It’s a total distortion and a slander to tar the SFJFF, its audience and its supporters as cheering the Iranian dictator.

Harris’ comment about Ahmadinejad came in an attack on the American Friends Service Committee, a co-presenter of the film, for having dinner with Ahmadinejad — the kind of thing the pacifist Quakers have been doing for, what, 200 years? Is that a big surprise? And remember, President Barack Obama once said that he would talk with Ahmadinejad, and his administration still wants talks with Iran.

But, perhaps, that’s really the point of this tempest. The right-wing activists who have fomented this piece of theater are really targeting the new generation of liberal Jewish leaders in Washington and also here in the Bay Area. Some of these activists are even calling for a boycott of the S.F.-based Jewish

Community Federation’s fundraising campaign, which is more essential than ever during this economic downturn.

We of all people should be wary of boycotts, and the most dangerous kind of boycott is one against talk, contact and cultural exchange.

Talk in its various forms, from prayer to film, is what culture is all about, and the S.F. Jewish Film Festival has long led the way in opposing boycotts and their next of kin, blacklists. It broke the official Jewish community boycott of public contacts with the Soviet Union when it brought the first Jewish film festival to 50,000 Soviet Jews in Moscow in 1990. It broke the official Jewish boycott of contacts with Palestinians when it brought non-violent leader Mubarek Awad to San Francisco to speak after a film in 1988.

Such boycotts might seem ridiculous now, but there are those in the Jewish community who want to bring them back, and the first step is to define narrowly what is acceptable talk inside the Jewish community.

The S.F. Jewish Film Festival as a bastion of free expression is the obvious place to launch that campaign. The festival might be just a bit player in this theatrical showdown, but the principles at stake couldn’t be more important.

Alan Snitow is a Berkeley-based documentary filmmaker and former news producer at Fox affiliate KTVU-TV. From 1986 to 1992, he was the first board president of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.