The SF Jewish film Festival, the SF Federation,
and the Pro-Israel Community
by Lawrence W. White MD
For many years, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) has run films critical of Israel, often with attitudes bordering on anti-Semitism. This year, the film “Rachel” celebrated the life and death of Rachel Corrie. Rachel was an impressionable young student recruited by the International Solidarity Movement, (ISM), a Hamas-supporting group, who was sent to Gaza to aid in the campaign to demonize Israel. She was accidentally killed when she entered a war zone to try to stop the removal of tunnels used to smuggle arms to Hamas. The ISM loves martyrs, and so Rachel became a glorious sacrifice to the cause of demonizing Israel. And so, one of the many ideologically motivated film makers, made a documentary about the life and death of Rachel. And predictably, the SFJFF decided this rather mediocre film was a must showing for their annual festival.
The film festival compounded this provocation by co-sponsoring the film with two anti-Israel groups, and by inviting Rachel’s mother, Cindy Corrie, a mouthpiece for ISM, to speak. .The showing of the film was welcomed by the most vocal elements of the anti-Israel community, who hailed the screening as a milestone in getting American Jews to break with Israel. Pro-Israel spokespersons, such as Michael Harris who was invited to give a short presentation before the film to mollify critics, were booed and harassed. Larry Goldberg, who attempted to ask a question after the Cindy Corrie soft-ball interview, had the microphone snatched from his hands by SFJFF goons.
And then there was the showing of Defamation by the film festival, a film that ridiculed concerns about anti-Semitism as if a guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington had not been murdered recently because of Jew hatred, as if a world-wide outbreak of anti-Semitism has not occurred as a result of solidarity with the Arab masses and manipulation by the Arab sheikdoms. Further, “Defamation” ridiculed teaching about the Holocaust, giving respectability to the views of Norman Finkelstein, a professional anti-Semite and Israel hater, who makes his living speaking to conventions of Holocaust deniers, who refers to the Holocaust as an “industry”, and who ridicules Elie Wiesel as the “clown prince of the Holocaust”. The film mocks Abraham Foxman and the ADL, and glorifies Walt and Mearsheimer, the authors of “The Israel Lobby”.
There are Jewish film festivals all over the country; none have been controversial. The difference is that the others are about film, about Jewish culture, about history, about real people and honest problems. The SFJFF is largely about left wing anti-Israel propaganda. The CEO, Peter Stein, and most of his board, are ideologues who are less interested in Jewish film, culture, and history than in anti-Jewish propaganda.
The result? A major rift in the community between those who support the existence of a Jewish state and want a strong US-Israel relationship, and those whose radical proclivities are far stronger than any feelings for Israel or for the survival of the Jewish people.
For those supporting Israel, there are two main targets that have emerged; the film festival and its director, and the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, which has given its imprimatur year after year to the festival, and contributed funds collected from its donors to the festival.
The SF Federation has not acted in good faith. When the controversy exploded, leaders and staffers in Federation initiated a letter writing program defending the showing of “Rachel”. The director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an arm of Federation, published a column in J, ridiculing film festival critics and implying that they were a tiny, angry, and vocal minority, who were unconcerned with the issues of the greater community. The SF Federation nominated Peter Stein as a hero of the Jewish community in a contest run by the United Jewish Communities.
The Federation CEO, Daniel Sokatch, a founder of the anti-Israel group "J Street" and a member of their advisory board, complained about muzzling of the “progressive” community. Sokatch, who did untold damage to the reputation of Federation in the larger community, compounded the controversy by defending the film festival. As pro-Israel donors began to consider bypassing Federation with their dollars, Sokatch also bailed out by taking the CEO job at the New Israel Fund, another fringe group which, like J Street, is anti-Israel while claiming to be pro-Israel. Why the Federation chose a far-left wing ideologue as CEO says more about the Federation than about Dan Sokatch. At best, it is a demonstration of naïveté, at worst, an indication of the political inclinations of the Bay area Jewish community.
Recently, pro-Israel leaders in the community attempted to find a formula to heal the rift. They asked the Federation to pass a resolution that would deny funds to any organizations that advocated harming Israel via boycotts, divestment and sanctions. At the insistence of Federation, the wording was watered down repeatedly. Zvi Alon, Natan Nestel, and others tried to run an advertisement in the weekly Jewish paper, “J”, advocating for this resolution. Then Federation successfully used its muscle to get “J” to refuse the ad. This time the critics fought back, threatening to expose the behind the scenes censorship by Federation. As a result, “J” backed down and reluctantly ran the ad.
At a contentious meeting on Nov 19, Federation voted against the resolution, promising to reconsider it at their February meeting, and hoping the issue would go away by then. Perhaps they failed to understand that this controversy had now gone international. Media coverage had exposed the rift, and had shown how extreme anti-Israel groups have hijacked both the film festival and the Federation, and acted to accelerate the abandonment of Israel by a growing segment of the American Jewish community.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a thoughtful and articulate writer, published an article in the Jerusalem Post on this subject. Pointing out facetiously that the world agrees that “Israel is the primary culprit in the Middle East conflict, the cause of relentless Palestinian suffering and the primary obstacle blocking the way to regional peace” Gordis discusses how the world has instigated a chorus of opprobrium as exemplified by the Swedish organ-snatching blood libel, Norwegian divestment, Turkish severance of military cooperation with Israel, and the US administration notion that the problem in the Middle East can be boiled down simply to the “settlements”, including areas of Jerusalem currently “occupied” by Jews.
And the list seems endless. American Jews have now joined in. According to Gordis, Canadian and American Jews have lashed out at the Toronto International Film Festival for its honoring of Tel Aviv. Two American Jewish sociologists have written that 50% of American Jews under age 35 have stated that the destruction of Israel would not be a personal tragedy for them. And on and on.
As Gordis pointed out:
“In San Francisco, Jewish communal funds were used to support the SF Jewish Film Festival's screening of Rachel, an Israel-bashing "documentary" about Rachel Corrie of International Solidarity Movement fame. Noting that the SFJFF was now effectively in partnership with Jewish Voices for Peace, a well known anti-Israel, pro-boycott organization, many prominent Jews vehemently protested. But the film was shown, anyway.”
So Federation, now an unindicted co-conspirator in the abandonment of Israel, will not agree to withhold funding from those who demonize Israel. And further they hope (expect) that their critics will forget about this by the time of their next meeting. They won’t.
The good news is that this is not a new phenomenon. We have seen this drama many times before. Because Jews from Central Europe preceded Eastern European Jews in immigrating to America by two or three generations, they found themselves suddenly embarrassed by those who clamed to be their fellow Jews. The new arrivals spoke Yiddish, lived in poverty, and were completely unassimilated, while wealthy German Jews, who had fully become a part of the larger American community with leadership positions in government, finance, retailing, and professional life, looked down their noses at their co-religionists as they figured ways to set themselves apart from these aliens..
Then we had the phenomenon of those Jews who put loyalty to Roosevelt ahead of rescue of European Jews. Or Jews who put loyalty to Stalin ahead of saving Jewish intellectuals from show trials and execution.
And again, those elements of the Reform Jewish community who opposed Zionism in the 1940s, formed the American Council for Judaism, and installed Rabbi Elmer Berger as its CEO. Their fear? Accusations of dual loyalty, and a desire to prove beyond any doubt their allegiance to their host nation.
And again, when a fight erupted over community control of schools in New York, wealthy Manhattan Jews wanted to ally with the black community more than they wanted to protect the less influential Jewish teachers and social workers. And again, when Leonard Bernstein and his ilk lionized the black Panthers and radical black anti-Semites.(immortalized by Tom Wolfe in “Radical Chic”). Or recently when Michael Lerner (another anti-Israel propagandist pretending to be pro-Israel) invited the rabid Israel hater Alice Walker to give the Yom Kippur sermon at his temple.
It is hard to pick up a newspaper without reading some evidence of a rift in the Jewish community. Samuel Freedman has written a wonderful book called “Jew vs. Jew” in which he profiles many examples of internecine battles among Jews in America over the last 50 years. Though this is not a new phenomenon, the Bay area excels at the sort of venom in which the far left seems to specialize.
So what now? Those who want SF Federation to declare their clear intent to deny funding or validation of anti-Israel action or talk are here to stay. At the same time, another group, also large, influential, and well connected, is trying to secure the resignation of Peter Stein. If Stein does not resign voluntarily (which seems unlikely) supporters hope to get funders to withdraw support from the film festival.
Federation loudly defends itself, pointing out that it has been active in promoting Israel. And the film festival defends itself by pointing to some of its other cosponsors and non-controversial films. However, as long as Federation does not declare its intent regarding support for those who defame Israel, and as long as Peter Stein remains stubbornly recalcitrant and continues calling the shots at the SFJFF, the rift will remain.