Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The SF Jewish Film Festival; Latest Actions

By Lawrence W. White MD

I have previously commented regarding the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the “Rachel” and “Defamation” disasters of 2009, the controversy over the actions of Peter Stein, and the responses of the Jewish Community Federation and the JCRC. Most recently, (10/26/09) I recommended specific steps to resolve this crisis in our community and get the film festival back on track so that it will once again serve the community. Central to this was to secure the resignation of Peter Stein.

Currently, there are two efforts underway to prevent a repetition of this years events, which not only had a clear anti-Israel message, but also trivialized any effort to oppose anti-Semitism

The first effort is aimed at having Federation take a clear stand against funding any group that supports divestment, boycott or sanctions against Israel. This would actually let the SFJFF off the hook, since as an organization they do not advocate these positions. However, by insisting that any recipient of Federation funding not partner with any group that advocates these anti-Israel measures, this would prevent such actions as the partnership with Jewish Voice for Peace, or the invitation to Cindy Corrie who is a messenger for ISM. Those who are supporting this effort will publish an advertisement in this weeks J, and seek to have Federation adopt a measure to accomplish this stand.

The second measure is aimed directly at the Film Festival. It seeks the resignation of Peter Stein. The clear logic and rationale behind this are spelled out in the statement reprinted below. As long as this is a Jewish film festival, it must be pro-Israel. And as long as the SFJFF is a non-profit, they need to be an arts organization, not a political organization.

Why Peter Stein Should Resign

“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither, let my tongue cleave to my palate if I do not remember you…”

Psalms 137, 5-7

We are a group of pro-Israel supporters who firmly believe that the resignation and departure of Peter Stein from his current position as Executive Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) is an essential step to prevent a continuation of the years of films and programs which demonize the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens. This culminated on July 25th with the showing of the film “Rachel” combined with an anti Israel speaker and sponsorship. This is completely unacceptable for an organization which has enjoyed such substantial and generous support from the Jewish community through the 29 years of their existence. The pattern must be changed! No guarantee is possible but we know this is the way to begin.

We do not think that the Federation is the central address for this problem. Rather, we believe that SFJFF and its Executive Director is where the attention should be directed.

It is clear to us that Peter Stein bears personal responsibility for each of the decisions that led to the terrible event at the Castro Theater on July 25th of this year.

In his role as Executive Director of SFJFF, he selected "Rachel" for the Festival in February when he saw the movie in Berlin. He has final and personal authority on the selection of all films shown by the Festival.

Peter Stein decided to build a program around the showing of "Rachel" and selected Cindy Corrie as the speaker.

He decided that the Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee would be co-sponsors of the program as they had been for a number of times previously. These are both well known anti-Israel organizations.

Mr. Stein personally conducted the Question and Answer session after the showing of the film in a manner that gave Cindy Corrie an extended and favorable setting for her anti-Israeli message.

He has admitted that he did “due diligence” before the event and knew that it would stir a controversy but he went ahead with it anyway. An obvious search request on Google concerning Rachel and Cindy Corrie would show over 32,000 entries.

Another film which was also part of the recent festival and almost equally disturbing was “ Defamation.” Attention to it was diminished because of the controversy involving “ Rachel.” The film mocked the efforts of our community to fight anti-Semitism and tried to ridicule the importance of the remembrance of the Holocaust...

Mr. Stein also withheld information about the controversy he was creating from the President of SFJFF and the members of the Board until the Festival program was printed and received in the mail in June.

During the six years of his tenure as Executive Director, he has consistently selected films which have an anti-Israel bias and he has, therefore, nurtured the part of the community which shares this political perspective. The audience that was present on July 25th filled the auditorium and substantially represented this group.

SFJFF is an organization basically run by its Executive Director and the Board plays a supportive but inferior role. They provide no oversight to the Executive Director's authority to select all the films and design the programs. The staff is under Mr. Stein’s personal direction and he exercises final authority and responsibility.

The decision as to whether a film demonizes Israel is a subjective judgment and depends upon the eye of the beholder. If the beholder is Peter Stein, there can be no confidence that the present and past pattern will not be repeated.

To their credit, five members of the SFJFF Board (about one third) including the immediate past President recently resigned. They did so in protest to the actions of Mr. Stein and the other Board members since the current controversy began, as described above.

The remaining SFJFF Board, including a former Acting Executive Director of the Jewish Voice for Peace which was a co-sponsor of the “Rachel” program has a similar political perspective to Mr. Stein and cannot be expected to change either the oversight or his authority. They have been willing partners in the duplicitous and evasive strategy designed by Mr. Stein since the recent controversy occurred.

SFJFF has avoided either accepting responsibility or providing meaningful change from their longstanding pattern of anti-Israel films and programming. Mr. Stein’s strategy, which has been successful so far, is to literally outtalk and outlast those in the community who have expressed deep concern. He obviously wants to stay in control of the film festival so that, with the assistance of a compliant Board, the same political program can be continued in the years ahead.

We cannot ignore the fact that the continuing months of public and private discussion have not led to either an apology by the Festival or reasonable assurance that an event such as this will not occur again.

Therefore, we call for the immediate resignation and departure of Peter Stein from his current position. This is the only way to achieve much needed change. We also believe his resignation would be in the best interest of SFJFF as well as the wider community.

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