'Rachel' controversy at film festival highlights split in Jewish community

There's a division in the Jewish community about Israel's occupation of Palestine that was highlighted this past weekend by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival's social justice segment. To review, Israel has occupied Palestine since 1967 and has illegally transferred half a million Israeli settlers onto Palestinian land, has built roads on occupied land for Israelis only and has locked entire Palestinian villages, e.g., Qalqilya, behind barbed wire. Despite numerous U.N. resolutions and universal condemnation from human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Israel refuses to end its occupation of Palestine.

This division was evident at the screening of "Rachel," a film by Israeli-French filmmaker Simone Bitton about the killing of Rachel Corrie by the Israeli military. The pre-screening controversy was extensive, starting with condemnation of the festival for including "Rachel" and for inviting Rachel's mother, Cindy Corrie, for a Q and A after the screening. The vitriol reached such heights that Cindy Corrie was provided with a personal bodyguard at the festival, and police were on hand to protect the anti-Israeli occupation demonstrators outside the theater.

Daily Kos quoted an e-mail from San Francisco Israeli Consulate General Akiva Tor as follows: "The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival made a serious error in judgment in inviting Mrs. Corrie to the festival. She is a propagandist who is immune from responsibility for the causes she supports ..." On the other hand, Rabbi Brian Walt of Rabbis for Human rights said of Rachel's parents, "They are extraordinary human beings who generously support the work of Rabbis for Human Rights and other Israeli human rights and peace groups."

The American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace supported Cindy Corrie's appearance and co-presented the screening of "Rachel." The documentary investigates the killing of Rachel Corrie by reviewing redacted documents provided by the Israeli government and by interviewing numerous witnesses who were at the scene of the killing. The audiences' boos and cheers highlighted the mixed feelings in the Jewish community by those who want to defend Israel's image at any cost and those who want to put justice first.

The festival continued with a film about famed Jewish civil rights attorney William Kunstler and the film "The Yes Men Fix the World," which used tactics similar to those seen in "Borat" and "Bruno," spoofing American corporate greed and corruption. Andrew Bichlbaum, co-producer and director, was on hand to answer questions and encouraged the audience to take on their own guerilla actions in promoting social justice. Further evidence of the split in the Jewish community on Israel-Palestine was Bichlbaum's announcement that they had turned down an invitation to the Jerusalem Film Festival in protest of Israel's occupation of Palestine.

But the most surprising social justice film was "Defamation" by Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir. The film examines anti-Semitism with interviews of American and Israeli Jews. The range of opinions went from the extreme "a Nazi behind every bush" to "Jews are successful and powerful in the U.S. and have no cause for insecurity." At the Q and A an audience member criticized Shamir for downplaying anti-Semitism and reminded him that Israel is the insurance policy for world Jewry. He responded, "I don't want to be your insurance policy." He said he wants to live a normal life and have normal relations with Palestinians. He was critical of the efforts of American Jews whose actions end up propagating the conflict.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival deserves credit for not shying away from exposing this basic split in the Jewish community. All four of these films would make excellent entries into next year's Ashland Independent Film Festival or the Varsity's Foreign Film Week.

Gene Robbins is a dentist who has lived in Ashland since 1989. Last weekend he attended the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs through Aug. 10.

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