SFJFF: We’re sorry, we’ve learned … let’s move forward

Far from “quelling” the fires of the “Rachel” controversy, a small minority of the Jewish community, embodied by a recent op-ed penned by Lawrence Goldberg and Dr. Michael Harris, has fanned those flames through continued distorted attacks on the work and mission of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Dana Doron

As part of our process of healing rifts and growing beyond the controversy, the SFJFF has twice apologized publicly for underestimating how the “Rachel” screening and a post-film appearance by Cindy Corrie would so painfully expose and exacerbate existing divisions in the Jewish community around discussions of Israel.

Others, including j., have called for an end to the destructive sniping.

But partisan attacks like the one by Goldberg and Harris (“Proposal to quell the ‘Rachel’ fires: Expand the size of the SFJFF board,” Dec. 4) persist.

And far from signaling that the SFJFF is an organization “in peril,” the continuation of these attacks points out the imperative for the Jewish community to support an independent arts and cultural institution.

Independence has enabled the SFJFF to be a pioneer, engendering more than 100 Jewish film festivals around the globe, including local festivals in Sonoma County, Contra Costa County and Silicon Valley. We remain the largest Jewish film festival on the planet and continue to break new ground with our films and programming.

Our reputation as a thoughtful and professionally run organization enables us to attract the highest caliber of films and filmmakers, including dozens each year from Israel (36 out of a total of 71 films this past summer), making SFJFF one of the leading showcases of Israeli cultural and artistic expression in North America.

A call for a gerrymandered board of directors, whose members must pass a litmus test to be slotted into one of two political categories, is wrongheaded. Far from creating balance, it would cause irreparable harm to a Jewish community that looks to the festival for exposure to the broadest range of ideas, opinions and information.

Our current board members hold a variety of viewpoints, representing the heterogeneous Bay Area Jewish population, and we are actively seeking to expand our board to draw more expertise from across our community.

We believe that any arts organization needs more ideas rather than fewer to thrive and provide the richest possible experience for its community.

Independence does not mean isolation. The SFJFF maintains a close and productive relationship with local institutions and has held — and will continue to hold —

rank and constructive meetings with the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Israeli Consul General’s office, as well as with many individuals. Topics of those meetings include our programming and our partnerships.

Our efforts have led to some important initiatives to help us move past the controversy, enable dialogue and ensure less turbulence in the future.

For starters, we have established a board committee and lay advisory group to work with staff, the JCRC and other community members to improve the way we anticipate, communicate about and present potentially controversial programming.

In addition, the board has voted to include in the organization’s values statement an affirmation of SFJFF’s long-standing practice of exploring the many dimensions of Israel through film.

Overall, we have renewed our commitment to presenting the highest quality film programming, combining our longstanding principles of independence with an appreciation of the broader concerns of the greater Jewish community.

In 2010, we will celebrate our 30th anniversary. Our path toward this milestone has not been perfect, and we will continue to draw constructive lessons from every experience. We are bolstered by the recent support we have received from a range of sources in both the arts and Jewish worlds:

• SFJFF was named by the Slingshot Foundation as one of the 50 most innovative Jewish organizations in North America.

• SFJFF’s New Media Initiative, supported by Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, has launched a series of free online Jewish short films, the most recent of which has been viewed more than 320,000 times across the world.

• The Walter and Elise Haas Fund, through its Jewish Life program, has provided a $75,000 grant to SFJFF in support of its work.

• The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has awarded a $201,000 grant over three years to support SFJFF’s core operations. That’s a 30 percent increase over its previous support.

• SFJFF just received a prestigious $25,000 grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in support of special programming for its 30th anniversary festival.

• SFJFF is partnering with the Consulate General of Israel to present a film series in 2010 focusing on Israeli lesbian and gay stories.

We urge j. readers to celebrate the SFJFF’s unique role as an independent cultural arts organization, not tied to any social or political platform. We need more, rather than fewer, organizations that create a safe place to explore a diversity of opinions about what it means to be Jewish.

Join the thousands in the Bay Area and throughout the country who appreciate SFJFF’s faith in our own community’s strength — our ability to have difficult conversations about our differences, and our ability to come together as one people with many voices.

Dana Doron is the president of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival board.