So– I wake up this morning to a barrage of emails giving me a link to a web posting that has been widely picked up. It says that Rabbi Hier at the Simon Wiesenthal Center (he and I were friends—I thought) claims I support the destruction of Israel because I signed (along with many other artists, historians, including eight Israelis, mostly filmmakers) a petition protesting the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to feature a celebratory “spotlight” on Tel Aviv. We understand that by doing this the festival has become, whether knowingly or not, a participant in a cynical PR campaign to improve Israel’s image, make her appear less war-like. The Israeli Consul General said a year ago that Toronto would be the launch site of an extensive “Brand Israel” campaign. Artists and others of us who love Israel do not want art to be used to whitewash the tragedies committed against Palestinians, most recently in last winter’s terrible war in Gaza (1400 Palestinians dead, mostly civilians, many more wounded, and there are documented human rights violations) and the ongoing blockade of Gaza that is deepening a serious humanitarian crisis, wreaking havoc on the lives of innocent people, and preventing reconstruction in the aftermath of the attack.
The letter we signed did not —repeat: DID NOT–call for a boycott of any part of the Toronto Film Festival. In fact, many of the people who signed the letter are showing films there and many of the Israeli filmmakers that go to the festival show films critical of Israel. We protest the use of Tel Aviv to rebrand Israel. We are standing up for integrity of art, not censoring anyone. The letter certainly did not call for the destruction of Israel or call into question the legitimacy of Tel Aviv as a city. But In the year when Gaza happened there shouldn’t be a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv.
I have been to Israel many times. The first was in the early 1980s and it was love at first sight…for the country and for its people. I stayed in a Kibbutz with the great Israeli novelist, Amos Oz, and his family. I raised money for a senior center in Haifa, for a girl’s shelter in Jerusalem. I have spoken at the Hebrew University. I traveled into Lebanon with the Israeli army in 1981. I went deep into Russia in the 80s to secretly meet with Soviet Refusenik, Ida Nudel, after which I a national speaking tour in the U. S. to build support for letting Ida go to Israel where she now lives. In other words, I have been intimately involved with Israel over 3 decades. On almost every visit I also went into the West Bank, met with Palestinian artists, visited Palestinian refugee camps, drove through the Israeli settlements that encroach increasingly into Palestinian territory. I have seen suffering on both sides. 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.