Why Is Jane Fonda Being Accused Of An "Attack On The Heart and Soul Of Israel"?

You know how those flamboyant Hollywood types like to exaggerate. And when people anywhere talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict, moderate words are usually in short supply. Put the two together, and it's not surprising to find heated language flying on every side. But if, as William Blake said, the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, we might learn a lot about the Middle East tragedy from excessive words coming out of Hollywood.

Actually, right now, they're coming out of Toronto, the latest place where Hollywood has met the Middle East -- appropriately enough, perhaps, since Toronto has huge active Jewish and Muslim communities as well a very creative film scene.

This year the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is honoring the 100th anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv by spotlighting 10 Israeli films. That has sparked a protest (not a boycott, contrary to some rumors) by more than 60 artists, including Danny Glover, David Byrne, and Eve Ensler.

But the big catch for the protest organizers was two-time Oscar-winner Jane Fonda (Best Actress: 1971 for Klute, 1978 for Coming Home). When she signed the protesters' "Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation," she put the whole controversy even more firmly in the headlines.

The Declaration declares that Tel Aviv cannot be looked at in isolation from the suffering of the Palestinians; the TIFF program "ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants"; the festival's claim to encourage diversity is "empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program."

John Grayson, the Canadian filmmaker who initiated the protest, further charges that TIFF, "whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine." "We're not protesting the Israeli films or the filmmakers," he says. "Our target is TIFF's Spotlight on Tel Aviv itself, and specifically its connections to the 'Brand Israel' campaign [a campaign supported by major Canadian media companies to polish Israel's image] and the Israeli Consulate, which make the spotlight look and feel like a propaganda exercise. We're telling TIFF that eight months since the Gaza massacre, this is no time to be uncritically 'celebrating' Tel Aviv."

Those are generally measured words, though it does seem unfair to call the focus on Tel Aviv a "celebration of occupation"; an "obfuscation of occupation" would have made the point more precisely. And in fact TIFF will show two Palestinian films along with the Israeli films.

But whatever bit of exaggeration the protesters may engage in is dwarfed by the sharp retort they've elicited from another two-time Oscar-winner, Rabbi Marvin Hier. He's not quite as famous as Jane Fonda, to say the least. But he does indeed have as many of those golden statuettes as she has on the mantelpiece (Best Documentary, Features: 1997 for The Long Way Home,1982 for Genocide). And he is an ordained rabbi. Hier produced his award-winning documentaries as part of his better-known work: He's founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

Rabbinical Nonsense

Rabbi Hier blasted the TIFF protest in overheated language, as "an attack on the heart and soul of Israel. … People who support letters like this are people who do not support a two-state solution. By calling into question the legitimacy of Tel Aviv, they are supporting a one-state solution, which means the destruction of the State of Israel. "

He went on to say, "If every city in the Middle East would have the cultural diversity, the freedom of expression, and treat its citizens, Jews and Arabs, the way Tel Aviv does, peace would have come to the Middle East long ago."

Well, there may be some truth in that. In fact, if every city, town, and village in Israel were as liberal as Tel Aviv, Israeli Jews would have agreed to a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state long ago.

But nothing else the rabbi says makes any sense. The starting point of his argument -- that the Toronto Declaration "question[s] the legitimacy of Tel Aviv" -- is a subjective interpretation of the text. I don't read it that way; neither does Fonda, who wrote: "The letter certainly did not call for the destruction of Israel or call into question the legitimacy of Tel Aviv as a city." But I can see how someone might read it that way. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, for example, might be inclined to question the legitimacy of Tel Aviv.

But Meshal has accepted the existence of the state of Israel (and, presumably, its largest city). That doesn't mean he likes it. It simply means that -- as the Toronto Declaration suggest -- there are realities that we accept as givens, even though they are built on tragic historical legacies. But those legacies deserve to be carefully remembered.

So even if some of the protesters view Tel Aviv's founding as illegitimate, to jump from there to the claim that "they are supporting a one-state solution, which means the destruction of the State of Israel," is what philosophers call a "howler," an argument totally without logic. The Toronto Declaration says nothing like that; not even close.

Jane Fonda made this clear in her response to Hier: "I, in no way, support the destruction of Israel. I am for the two-state solution. I have been to Israel many times and love the country and its people." It is perfectly consistent for Fonda to sign the Declaration as a way to pressure Israel to move more rapidly toward a two-state peace agreement, as she says: "It is out of love for Israel and all that it promised to be that I protest the use of art (which is meant to search for truth) in this branding campaign. The greatest 're-branding' of Israel would be to celebrate that country's robust peace movement by allowing aid to be delivered to Gaza and stopping expansion of the settlements. That's the way to show Israel's commitment to peace, not a PR campaign. There will be no two-state solution unless this happens."

To accuse Jane Fonda of "an attack on the heart and soul of Israel" is just plain silly. It would make as much sense to say that anyone who talks about the theft of native American land is promoting the destruction of the United States.

How did an educated rabbi miss this obvious point? Most likely, because he wanted to miss it. He's been trained to miss it. Everyone he counts as a friend or colleague would probably miss it too. People who call themselves "pro-Israel" because they support a right-wing anti-Palestinian agenda tend to hang out with each other and reinforce each other's narrow-minded perspective.

Though the rabbi does have his Oscars and his Hollywood connections, I'm quite sure his penchant for exaggeration about Israel comes much more from his Jewish connections. I say that having grown up in the Jewish community, having read and heard Jewish views on the Middle East for over half a century, and having endured similar extremist criticisms directed against myself for many years.

The unfortunate reality is that too many Jews are as intemperate and unreasonable in their views as Rabbi Hier. Too many thrive on discovering new criticisms of Israeli policy and treating each one -- no matter how thoughtful or how minor -- as if it were a threat to the very existence of Israel.

A rabbi with such close links to Hollywood, the world's most image-conscious city, should know better. Shrill, hysterical responses to mild (and usually quite legitimate) criticism does nothing to help the image of "Brand Israel" or its Jewish supporters. On the contrary, crying "wolf" when there is no wolf tends to invalidate everything else the crier says. It looks like an attempt to manipulate people in the service of a hidden agenda. And it raises disturbing questions about what's going on inside the hysteric's mind.

Unreasoning, Unjustified Terror

I don't know Rabbi Hier. But I've known plenty of people who were just as quick to turn any critique of Israeli policy into an attack on Israel's existence. It was pretty clear to me what was going on in their minds: fear. And not just any old fear, but "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror," as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it in his first inaugural address. A mind filled with that kind of terror can easily interpret a difference of opinion or a minor slight as a life-threatening assault.

FDR said fear was the only thing we have to fear. Well, it's certainly not the only thing Palestinians have to fear. They deal every day with teenaged soldiers licensed to kill them, settlers free to attack them, roadblocks manned by soldiers or bureaucrats determined to grind them down, and an endless array of insults and assaults on their basic human rights.

But the irrational terror that haunts too many Jews when it comes to Israel is the greatest threat to Israel itself, because it's the strongest factor preventing Israel from agreeing to a fair and just two-state solution. Why so many people would cling to just self-defeating terror is a vexing question. I've got a few ideas of my own, but perhaps no one will ever really understand it.

Terror, whatever its source, is a bad basis for policy. It breeds hysteria, which prevents clear thinking. By now, the "pro-Israel" hysterics have been at it in so many places, for so long, and with such powerful effect that much of what they say gets taken seriously, as if it were sensible and worthy of thoughtful discussion. Once they win that point, really thoughtful discussion is no longer possible. And without thoughtful discussion, the peace that Israelis and Palestinians need to make them secure is not possible either.

The unreasoning cries of alarm raised by the likes of Rabbi Hier are far too common in the Jewish community. They distort public perception of the Middle East conflict, creating a huge emotional cloud that blinds people to the very real possibility of rational solutions. And their obvious, even ridiculous, tone of hysteria hurts everyone. Even right-wing Jews who are out to prevent a Palestinian state would serve their cause better by creating a more reasonable image. An Oscar-winner from Hollywood certainly ought to know that.

Perhaps, if they would just calm down and at least pretend to be reasonable for a few minutes, they will begin to understand why they should listen to the thoughtful criticisms coming from pro-Israel peace-lovers like Jane Fonda. No one can think constructively about security -- which is presumably what Rabbi Hier wants for Israel -- until they can first distinguish between real and unreal threats to security.

Whether a nation with over 200 nuclear weapons and the world's fourth of fifth most powerful military, vastly more powerful than any of its neighbors, can have any real security threats is an open question. Whether a nation that acts out of fear and refuses to make compromises for peace can ever be secure is an equally challenging question. To think about these questions in any fruitful way, the first step is just to be able to think, rather than responding with unreasoning, unjustified terror.

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