World

Controversy Over Israel Waylays Toronto Film Festival

As Israel attempts to rebrand itself at Toronto, many celebrities are voicing their disgust.

The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the world's foremost film events. It features starlets, klieg lights, red carpets and all the hoopla that goes along with the world of cinema.

This year, the festival features Oprah Winfrey's much-ballyhooed film Precious, which won the People's Choice award.

But this year also features a development never seen in the history of TIFF. In August, Canadian filmmaker John Greyson ignited a furor when he withdrew his film, Covered, in protest of TIFF's City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv (the metropolis is enjoying its 100th anniversary).

The feting of Israel's premiere city at one of the world's most glamorous cultural celebrations was an idea dreamed up as part of a rebranding campaign announced with great fanfare by the Israeli foreign ministry. The project took on even greater urgency in the aftermath of the Gaza war, in which Israel's standing around the world took a severe beating. This is how the ministry came to include Tel Aviv's birthday bash as part of its rebranding strategy.

A year ago, in the Canadian Jewish News, Amir Gissin, Israel's consul general in Toronto, announced the launch of Brand Israel, a million-dollar initiative funded and organized with three leading Jewish corporate leaders who champion a hard-line, pro-Israel political perspective.

Among them is David Asper, scion of the clan that owns CanWest, theCanadian conservative media empire. CanWest owns conservative media properties like the Jerusalem Post and the New Republic (together with Marty Peretz). CanWest also donated $500,000 directly to TIFF.

The goal of Gissin and his pro-Israel corporate supporters was to create a multimedia branding strategy that would present Israel to Canada and the world in the most favorable light possible by shifting attention away from Israel's wars and occupation and toward its contributions in the cultural, technology and medical sectors.

One of the elements of the campaign was organizing the City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv:

The consul general also alluded to other major plans for next year in his Brand Israel attack arsenal.

He revealed the Dead Sea Scrolls are scheduled for exhibition in Toronto in 2009 and that plans are in the works for a major Israeli presence at next year's Toronto International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand.

With the help of the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, Israel will also have a "significant presence" at this year's TIFF, he said.

Greyson, in his protest letter to the festival -- and in the subsequent Toronto Declaration, signed by 1,000 international luminaries, including Naomi Klein, Danny Glover, Eve Ensler, Jane Fonda, Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, Ken Loach, Harry Belafonte, Julie Christie, Viggo Mortensen, John Pilger, Wallace Shawn, Alice Walker and David Byrne --  made clear that he was opposing neither the festival per se nor Israeli filmmaking.

And contrary to the Hollywood counterattack launched against Greyson and the declaration, he never called for a boycott of either. He was opposed only to the City to City spotlight.

In fact, Greyson says he has made a documentary profiling the most prominent Israeli anti-occupation activist, Ezra Nawi. The film will be screened in Toronto this month (not through TIFF), with financial assistance provided by the Israeli government. So nothing is quite as black-and-white as the opponents of the TIFF protest have made it.

Some of the key supporters of the Toronto Declaration have paid a heavy price for their support. Naomi Klein, also a prominent supporter of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement, was caricatured in a local Toronto newspaper as "hysterically" anti-Israel.

When she was a 20-year-old college student (19 years ago), she wrote an editorial that criticized Israel's record on women's rights and other issues. Leading pro-Israel smearmeister, Hillel Neuer (responsible for the Durban II travesty), portrays Klein's college editorial as full of:

Goebbelslike venom -- [with] Israel [portrayed] as wicked, racist and depraved in its essence ...

Klein comes under further attack for her article's "hysteria, rage and paranoia." She is also falsely described as "today's leading opponent of Israel in the Western world."

Speaking as someone who comes under such attacks all too regularly for my own views of the Israeli-Arab conflict, you never fully get used to this no matter how inured you are.

Fonda too came under fierce assault for endorsing the declaration. She founded an Atlanta charity, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, which enriches the lives of young women by seeking to avoid early pregnancy. Among her funders are many wealthy prominent local Jews, some of whom took umbrage at her stance on TIFF and threatened to withdraw support.

Her worst fear was that the nonprofit she worked so hard to create would be destroyed. As a result, she felt compelled to pen a "clarification" of her endorsement, which didn't retract it but certainly tempered it with a series of statements that indicate pro-Israel operatives, including a Chabad rabbi, worked her over pretty well.

Jewish Voice for Peace, the leading anti-occupation group supporting such grassroots activism, released a detailed fact sheet that refutes the distortions and lies leveled against the TIFF protest by pro-Israel advocacy groups like StandWithUs.

Another important resource for understanding Tel Aviv's 100th birthday in the context of the Israeli history and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this online essay by Gabriel Ash.

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Richard Silverstein blogs at Tikun Olam, on Israeli-Arab peace. He also writes for the Guardian's Comment is Free blog. He lives in Seattle.