In 1915, D. W. Griffith presented "Birth of a Nation", a blockbuster film that presented a positive view of the Ku Klux Klan. The film was hailed for its pioneering innovative camera techniques, for its special effects and artistic techniques. It was widely viewed, breaking all existing box office records. Unfortunately, it was also dishonest. It claimed reconstruction was a disaster, that blacks could never be integrated, and that the Clan's violent actions were justified. The film was filled with fabrications, and lack of accuracy. More importantly, it promoted white supremacy and gave sustenance to American racism. It was the catalyst for riots in major American cities as gangs of whites attacked and murdered blacks. Despite this, President Woodrow Wilson described the film as "all so terribly true" Thus we saw the power of film to influence public policy and morality.
I suspect that in 1915 there were well-meaning folk who defended showing "Birth of a Nation" it on the grounds of esthetics, free speech, and the promotion of "healthy dialogue" around "divisive issues". The Cindy Corrie's and Peter Steins of the day undoubtedly claimed that the film promoted healthy dialogue and promoted social justice.
Fast forward to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF). As the French say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, (the more things change, the more they remain the same). As most of my readers know, the festival chose to screen a documentary film about Rachel Corrie, a young member of the ISM who was accidentally killed after she chose to enter a war zone in which the Israeli army was operating to destroy the infrastructure hiding smuggling tunnels. In addition, the festival invited her bereaved mother, who has been on the lecture circuit preaching hatred, to come and talk about the film. Further the film is not subtle in its condemnation of Israel, presents no context to explain why Israel was destroying the tunnels, or how the ISM deliberately creates “martyrs”. Further, the film is directed by a person well-known for her anti-Israeli bias.
Thus, a film that promotes a point of view both dishonest and dangerous, that uses the tragic death of a naïve and uninformed young woman to further an amoral agenda, has now been shown at a Jewish film festival. Like its predecessor of 1915, it is filled with fabrications, and like its predecessor, it is designed to provoke and inflame the darkest of passions. And the response was, predictably, a near riot resembling a gathering of brown-shirts in 1930s Germany.
I have previously written about the role of Peter Stein, director of the SFJFF, in this sordid affair. Stein’s presence at the helm of the festival has been the major problem. With more astute guidance, this blunder never would have occurred.
Let me be clear. Peter Stein is not an evil man. In fact, I believe that he is well-meaning. He is knowledgeable about the esthetics and the production of film. Unfortunately, Stein is out of his depth as director of the SFJFF. . He has not a clue about community and group dynamics, and lacks any understanding of the historical and sociological background of the films that he is screening or the audiences to whom he is presenting. He fails to appreciate how film can be used (and often misused or abused) as a polemical device, one that has been dangerous historically. And he is completely unsophisticated about the ethical and moral requirements of a civilized society
Screening this film, inviting Cindy Corrie, and appealing to an audience of anti-Israel folks, were all errors of judgment. And there were many individuals who warned him of these errors. Rather than examining the arguments on their merits, or engaging his critics, he chose to go into lockdown mode, trying to reframe the debate as an issue of free speech, or of esthetic freedom, or of healthy dialogue between different points of view. It never occurred to him that there are some points of view that are simply too abhorrent to be discussed.
Quite apart from the message of hate, this has cast a serious cloud over the Jewish Film Festival. After all, it is the board and funders of this organization who selected Peter Stein and did little to guide him in the need for caution and circumspection
Consider the many mistakes he made. For starters, the selection of the film showed no ability to distinguish between a one-sided political polemic and a serious and informative film. To not understand that this is a propaganda piece designed to discredit the Jewish state, is to fail to be attuned to the needs of the Jewish community.
Secondly, Stein wrote a publicity piece about the film in which he took the inflammatory words of Jewish Voice for Peace and disseminated them as fact in order to promote the film. This material, presumably representing his own point of view, runs contrary to any concept of truth and justice. His positive statements about Rachel Corrie, and about the film director Simone Bitton, his claim that at worst Rachel was "perhaps naive", while on the other side there was an "inadequate military investigation", show an ignorance and bias inappropriate for the director or a major film festival.
Third, after the controversy erupted, he remained oblivious to the consequences of his insistence on showing the film, and of inviting Rachel Corrie’s mother, an activist representing forces of hatred and division. He demonstrated a willful ignorance of the moral implications of his actions.
Fourth, Stein refused to give serious consideration to the many admonitions from community leaders. Most advised against showing the film, and almost all advised against inviting Cindy Corrie. Stein stonewalled, claiming to be an honest broker in trying to promote a dialogue, and insisting that the show must go on. That this would become a hate filled event was no secret to those who warned Stein about the wisdom of showing the film and inviting Cindy Corrie. That he chose not to listen led to the predicted fiasco, one which might have been avoided.
Fifth, Stein did not understand what was happening the night of the showing of the film. It is instructive to watch video of the presentation by Mike Harris prior to the film, to understand how completely this event was simply another hate fest. The people who treated Dr. Harris with rude jeers are reminiscent of the same people who shouted down Dan Pipes when he was in Berkeley and who prevented Benjamin Netanyahu from speaking to a group here a few years ago
Despite the one-sided display by much of the audience packed with Zionophobes, despite the hatred received by Dr. Harris as he attempted to give some balance to the film, Stein chose to lob softball questions at Cindy Corrie after the film, showing no thoughtfulness or reflection about what had just happened.
Finally, anyone can make errors of judgment. But after seeing unequivocal evidence of the error, Stein could not bring himself to acknowledge that he may have made a mistake and suggest positive steps to prevent a recurrence.
What Stein did say was the following;”This has become a lightning rod for a tremendous controversy: Is it appropriate for a Jewish film festival to screen a movie critical of the Israeli government?” (Italics added)
These few words show that either he is attempting to reframe the issue or totally fails to understand the problem. Changing the terms to "critical of the Israeli government", thereby treating it as a legitimate political debate, can best be labeled as "nice try" But he still doesn't get it. The movie is not about the point of view of the Israeli government (at the time of Corrie's death it was a left of center government).
The movie glorifies a woman and organization that were dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, not the replacement of the government. These are people who support organizations that glorify suicide bombers, and worship a man (Ahmadinejad) who has promised to commit a second Holocaust,
It cannot be ignored that a board member of the festival, Rachel Pfeffer, was the national director of Jewish Voice for Peace, and wrote a letter to "J" referring to the showing of the film as part of the film festival’s message of "social justice"
Let me be clear. Contrary to Stein's claims, this is neither an artistic nor a political issue. Neither is it a “teachable moment”. It can only be described as a moral issue. The pro-Corrie people support organizations that favor annihilation of the Jewish state. The other side seeks a lasting peace for all those living in the Middle East. What is there to debate?
I applaud Michael Harris for being willing to enter the belly of the beast and face the derision of modern day yahoos and ISM groupies, The hostile crowd might have become violent at any time. Dr. Harris’ words after the event bear repeating. As he put it
"The question that this poses to the Film Festival, and its supporters and funders, is this: Is it appropriate programming for the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival if it attracts an audience that not only boos a pro-Israel speaker, but applauds not only at the mention of boycotts/divestment/sanctions against Israel but even worse, at the mention of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?"
That is the key question that should be addressed. Instead Peter Stein is still making excuses.
If the perpetrator is Peter Stein and those on his board and staff who supported him, the victim is the Jewish film festival. An annual event that ought to be grounds for celebration has been badly stained. Not every controversy merits discussion; a civilized society does not debate the pros and cons of racism, of slavery, of genocide. . Sometimes dialogue lends credibility to matters that should be kept under a rock.
Stein’s bad judgment and obstinacy have brought discredit to the SFJFF. The festival board, the Jewish community, the San Francisco and East Bay federations, the funders and the various organizations that support the festival need to ask themselves how they permitted this to happen and more importantly how they can rectify it to prevent any continued deterioration in the reputation of the film festival
An initial step would be to replace Peter Stein and consider changing the composition of the film festival board