Toronto’s ugly side
I suppose I should say something about the political controversy roiling the film festival — the boycott over the inaugural City-to-City program featuring films from and about Tel Aviv.
Canadian filmmaker John Greyson has pulled his film COVERED from the festival, and a group of about 50 celebrities, artists and “activists” ranging from Jane Fonda and Danny Glover to Slavoj Zizek and Naomi Klein signed “The Toronto Declaration” objecting to the City-to-City prorgam. Their public letter denounced Israel as an “apartheid regime” and called the program a whitewash.
I had only planned to attend one City-to-City screening — of the 1969 comedy BIG DIG, which I believe was the first Israeli film to win international acclaim (it was nominated for the Golden Globes best foreign film prize). I may see if I can fit another C-to-C film or two now, simply to see what will happen. I also may reconsider seeing THE TIME THAT REMAINS by Elia Suleiman. I got the film on the merits — I mostly loved his 2002 comedy DIVINE INTERVENTION — but Suleiman is one of the signatories.
I generally oppose politics interfering with art if that art be nonpolitical, and so I don’t see how there’s even a moral issue here. Hosting a series of films about Tel Aviv in no way, shape or form implies anything about Israeli or Middle East politics. Even if I don’t see the Suleiman, I will be seeing films at this festival from Iran and Egypt, as well as BIG DIG. I’m pretty sure I won’t have to trade in my “Likud is for wets” badge for a Kaffiyeh.
There’s other issues here. First of all, there’s the selectivity I am morally certain is going on. I guarantee you that if there is a C-to-C program next year, there will be no furor, regardless of that city’s past. If it’s Moscow, there will be no calls for inclusion of perspectives from Budapest, Prague or Tbilisi, to name cities in countries invaded by Russia more recently than the establishment of Israel (which is actually the beef — more on that anon). This is nothing but the latest example of the international cosmopolitan class using some event to throw at knee to the groin of “that shitty little country.” It’s what today’s (corrupt class of) artists and “intellectuals” do when they want to posture and feel morally superior. As well ask a tiger why it eats zebras — it’s its nature, what a tiger does; today’s morally and intellectially corrupt cosmopolitans blame Israel, it’s their nature, what they do. Israel has the best human-rights record in the Middle East and need make no apology for itself. But it is repeatedly held to standards no other country must meet and held in (selective) contempt by the international cosmopolitan class, including artists and “intellectuals.”
Second, the petition assumes that all the films being Israeli means that somehow Palestinians and their concerns are marginalized or that the program is a whitewash. That is, to put it gently, a crock of shit. I have not seen any of the City-to-City films yet obviously. Yet, to judge from the descriptions in the TIFF Guidebook, several are at least in part about relationships between Arabs and Jews in Tel Aviv, including A HISTORY OF ISRAELI CINEMA, PART 2, which largely covers a period when the Palestinian issue was a central concern, and often from a POV critical of Israeli government actions and sympathetic to the Palestinians. And this is true of Israeli cinema generally — the highest-profile Israeli release of the year is THE LEMON TREE, which, whatever its merits as a work of art (I didn’t see it because the trailer made it look like pat, gawdawful saccharine), is plainly a movie sympathetic to the hardships Israeli security measures in the West Bank have imposed on ordinary Palestinians. I myself saw at Toronto one year Amos Gitai’s KEDMA about the establishment of Israel, which ended with a lengthy impassioned monolog by an Arab about how “you may win today, we will never go away and we will haunt you forever.” In a free Western society such Israel, artists are free to be critical of their government’s foreign policy and they often are (I hear this is true of the US too). So to reduce this series to “an Israeli point of view” is always already to have misunderstood everything, most particularly the moral difference between Israel and its Arab neighbors — that political opinion and art runs the gamut from Peace Now to Likud (forgive the anachronisms). There are even hyper-Orthodox Jews who mourn the establishment of Israel every year and pray for its destruction because it was established as a secular state and not by the Messiah, and is thus a blasphemous pretender. There is simply no such thing as an “Israeli POV,” something the protesters are blind to.
The petitioners make great hay about the involvement of the Israeli government and claims this as proof that the series is intended as a whitewashing image-booster for Israel. There is a certain sense in which this is undeniable — one wouldn’t expect the Israeli government to consciously push the country as bad. But then, one would not expect that of any government in the world — again, why the double standard, why does only Israel have to morally justify itself doing what every government in the world does? Further, the involvement of foreign embassies, consulates and culture ministries in film series is entirely routine and unremarkable. I see a particularly large amount of it in Washington. I’ve seen diplomats from Ukraine, Hungary, France, and Taiwan make introductory presentations at film series; I’ve been to film screenings at the embassies of France and Austria; and seemingly every foreign series gives at least a “thank you” to the embassy of that country. Just last weekend, I saw Resnais JE T’AIME JE T’AIME, which was substituted for the planned HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR because of some unresolved copyright issues. A person from the French Embassy apologized and said “the ambassador himself sent a letter to M. Alain Resnais in an effort to resolve the issue.” Embassy involvement is routine, normal and means nothing — grownups know that. And BTW, Israel’s culture minister … is an Arab.
Which brings me to the ugliest claim in the petition — that Israel is “an apartheid state.” Alan Dershowitz handles the particulars of this vicious lie here. It’s a stupid claim that discredits the person making it as ignorant and morally obtuse. Word-roots aside, not everything that keeps people apart is “Apartheid.” There is no institutional separation whatsoever of Arabs and Jews in pre-1967 Israel and anyone who says there is is ignorant or a liar. Even Jimmy Carter, who mainstreamed the use of the A-word in reference to the West Bank knows it doesn’t even arguably apply in Israel proper. As for the West Bank fence and associated security measures, whatever may be said about them, they are forms of border security that every nation in the world with a hostile neighbor has always practiced and still does. Is North Korea (or South Korea for that matter) an apartheid state because the DMZ separates the geographic entity called Korea into the two states and seals them off from one another? Is Canada an apartheid state because it demanded identification and asked me questions about my business yesterday. And make no mistake. If you think Judea and Samaria to be occupied territory, to be not legitimately part of Israel and ought to be a Palestinian state, then it is foreign territory, whatever its de facto status at any point in time, making the fence and the stuff that goes with it a form of border security, not a separation of people. Look, it’s one thing to be critical of particular Israeli actions or even the residual presence on the West Bank and the security fence. But calling Israel an “apartheid regime” is, like Trutherism, Birtherism and Holocaust denial, simple and pure proof that the person has taken leave of reason in the name of some irrational hatred and no longer deserves to be taken seriously.
Which brings me to what is most interesting/depressing thing about this whole kerfuffle — that it’s about denying the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence, not criticism of particular sins it may be committing today. This series is called City-to-City, not Country-to-Country, and the focus is not Israel, but Tel Aviv. Why exactly MUST the Palestinian issue have a presence in a series about Tel Aviv. The city is located in pre-1967 Israel, far from the West Bank or any other “officially” disputed land. It was a Jewish city from the very beginning, and was even part of the (much-smaller) Jewish state envisioned in the offered 1947 two-state partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Arabs rejected this and immediately attacked the Jewish state on the day it declared its independence; the Israeli victory in the resulting war produced the pre-1967 borders. The point of this history is to draw attention to a particular phrase in the Festival’s chickenshit response to the withdrawal and the boycott. C-to-C programmer Cameron Bailey released a statement saying that “that the city remains contested ground.” Exqueeze me? Baking powder? What about *Tel Aviv* is “contested ground”? And keep in mind that this is how the *programmer defends his choice.* The only universe in which Tel Aviv is disputed is one in which Israel’s per se existence is.
Combined with the ugly “apartheid” lie, the international diplomatic equivalent of “racism” (oh, have I mentioned the Durban Conference or the UN’s “Zionism is racism” resolution? … I’m seeing a pattern here) … it all suggests that the view on the table is one of absolute delegitimation of Israel itself. It’s the only explanation that fits all the facts.