Polarizing event stands out as an awful experience for the community

The showing of the movie “Rachel” by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival to a packed Castro Theatre audience on July 25 had all of the elements of a rally for the International Solidarity Movement: a film that depicts its central character as an innocent martyr, followed by the grieving mother appearing before an audience of audible and enthusiastic partisans.

Vgoldberg, larry

Larry Goldberg

The International Solidarity Movement is the Palestinian organization that sponsored the participation of Rachel Corrie and a group of her young friends, who put themselves in harm’s way, in a war zone, where their reckless behavior exposed them to the risk of accidents such as the one that took Rachel’s life. No ISM official was present during the incident, and the organization says it bears no responsibility for what happened.

The setting was Rafah, a town in Gaza on the border with Egypt that is the center of over-the-border smuggling of arms, drugs, etc. The danger was palpable. A gigantic bulldozer was in the process of destroying some homes that had harbored terrorist activity, and Rachel and her friends either laid down or sat in front of the bulldozer.

In the movie, the bulldozer looks to be about 30 feet high with a forward blade about 6 feet tall. The operator would  have very limited vision. This was no ordinary piece of farm equipment.

The IDF conducted a full inquiry and came to the conclusion that Rachel died in a very unfortunate accident.

“Rachel” is presented as a documentary, but it is so amateurishly and crudely constructed it is a wonder that the festival staff did not reject it simply because of its low quality. The film tries to present “evidence” to support the theory that Rachel was killed purposely, not accidentally. There is no video of the actual incident, nor does the film include any witnesses who saw the event in its entirety.

The movie is fatally infected by bias. The Israeli soldiers who spoke seem to be heavily edited or truncated so that the filmmaker can advance her views. However, the Israeli coroner who conducted the autopsy is allowed to state that Rachel’s body did not bear wounds consistent with being struck by the blades of the bulldozer; she most likely died by suffocation.

The film is incoherent and disorganized, and there is no narrator to pull it together. There is overwhelming repetition, because apparently that was the only way the director could drive home her message. The editing is done with the force of a bludgeon rather than the skill of a rapier that a competent filmmaker would possess. And, in the end, the film is intensely boring.

The SFJFF did allow Dr. Michael Harris to address the audience from the stage before the film, and he spoke firmly and eloquently. The Jewish community owes him a debt of gratitude for his courage and his message. Dr. Harris spoke of other Rachels — Israelis who have been murdered by terrorists while doing nothing more than riding a bus or having a cup of coffee.

Harris’ speech can be seen on the Web, but the video does not fully capture the sounds of the audience, which constantly jeered, booed and interrupted him. People did applaud, though, when he noted that the American Friends Service Committee had sponsored a dinner honoring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the program following the film, Cindy Corrie appeared to be a skilled and dedicated follower of ISM and its message. She gave interminable answers to the questions she was asked.

I asked the only question that was critical of the experience I was witnessing. The young woman from the festival staff who was holding the microphone tried to pull it away from me the instant she realized I was criticizing the program.

We wrestled for the microphone as a second member of the staff advanced on me. The crowd immediately started booing me and yelling as I struggled to keep my grip on the microphone. I could hear a woman’s voice across the aisle yelling, “Shut him up, shut him up.”

I held on to the microphone and asked why the SFJFF could not acknowledge that a series of mistakes had been made — in the film and the way it was presented, including the political sponsorship of the event — because it would be truthful and cleansing to do so. I also asked whether the festival could assure the community that something like this would not happen again. When a potentially controversial film is being considered, it should be done in consultation, and should not be framed as art when it is in fact political commentary and sure to be polarizing.

I believe these questions will be asked again and again of the festival in the months ahead. These issues are especially important to address in light of the film festival’s outstanding achievements of the past.

The afternoon was simply the worst experience for our community in many years. The event did not contribute to discussion or reasoning but simply sharpened and exaggerated the difference of views in the community. You could feel the hatred in the room.


Larry Goldberg is a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council and is on the regional board of AIPAC. He also teaches politics at the Fromm Institute of USF. He lives in Tiburon.