When I heard the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was holding a celebratory "spotlight" on Tel Aviv, I felt ashamed of Toronto, the city where I live. I thought immediately of Mona Al Shawa, a Palestinian women's rights activist I met on a recent trip to Gaza. "We had more hope during the attacks," she told me. "At least then we believed things would change."
Al Shawa explained that while Israeli bombs rained down last December and January, Gazans were glued to their TVs. What they saw, in addition to the carnage, was a world rising up in outrage: global protests, as many as 100,000 on the streets of London, a group of Jewish women in Toronto occupying the Israeli Consulate. "People called it war crimes," Al Shawa recalled. "We felt we were not alone in the world." If Gazans could just survive, it seemed that their suffering could be the catalyst for change.
But today, Al Shawa said, that hope is a bitter memory. The international outrage has evaporated. Gaza has vanished from the news. And it seems that all those deaths-as many as 1,400-were not enough to bring justice. Indeed, Israel is refusing to cooperate even with a UN fact-finding mission headed by respected South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Last spring, while Goldstone's mission was in Gaza gathering devastating testimony, the Toronto International Film Festival was making the final selections for its Tel Aviv spotlight, timed for the Israeli city's hundredth birthday. There are many who would have us believe that there is no connection between Israel's desire to avoid scrutiny for its actions in the occupied territories and the glittering Toronto premieres. I am sure that Cameron Bailey, TIFF's co-director, believes that himself. He is wrong.
For more than a year, Israeli diplomats have been talking openly about their new strategy to counter growing global anger at Israel's defiance of international law. It's no longer enough, they argue, just to invoke Sderot every time someone raises Gaza. The task is also to change the subject to more pleasant topics: film, arts, gay rights-things that underline commonalities between Israel and places like Paris, New York and Toronto. After the Gaza attack, as the protests rose, this strategy went into high gear. "We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits," Arye Mekel, deputy director-general for cultural affairs for Israel's Foreign Ministry, told the New York Times. "This way, you show Israel's prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war." And hip, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which has been celebrating its centennial with Israeli-sponsored "beach parties" in New York, Vienna and Copenhagen all summer long, is the best ambassador of all.
Toronto got an early taste of this new cultural mission. A year ago, Amir Gissin, Israeli consul-general in Toronto, explained that the "Brand Israel" campaign would include, according to a report in the Canadian Jewish News, "a major Israeli presence at next year's Toronto International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand." Gissin pledged, "I'm confident everything we plan to do will happen." Indeed it has.
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Let's be clear: no one is claiming the Israeli government is secretly running TIFF's Tel Aviv spotlight, whispering in Bailey's ear about which films to program. The point is that the festival's decision to give Israel pride of place, holding up Tel Aviv as a "young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity," matches Israel's stated propaganda goals to a T. Gal Uchovsky, one of the directors in the spotlight, is quoted in the festival catalog saying that Tel Aviv is "a haven [Israelis] can run away to when they want to forget about wars and the burdens of daily life."
Partly in response, Udi Aloni, the wonderful Israeli filmmaker whose film Local Angel premiered at TIFF, sent a video message to the festival, challenging its programmers to resist political escapism and instead "go to the places where it's hard to go." It's ironic that TIFF's Tel Aviv programming is being called a spotlight, because celebrating that city in isolation - without looking at Gaza, without looking at what is on the other side of the towering concrete walls, barbed wire and checkpoints - actually obscures far more than it illuminates. There are some wonderful Israeli films included in the program. They deserve to be shown as a regular part of the festival, liberated from this highly politicized frame.
It was in this context that a small group of filmmakers, writers and activists, of which I was a part, drafted The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration Under Occupation. It has been signed by the likes of Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen, Howard Zinn, Alice Walker, Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler, Ken Loach and more than a thousand others. Among them is revered Palestinian director Elia Suleiman, as well as many Israeli filmmakers.
The counterattacks-spearheaded by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the extremist Jewish Defense League - have been at once predictable and inventive. The most frequently repeated claim is that the letter's signatories are censors, calling for a boycott of the festival. In fact, many of the signatories have much-anticipated films at this year's festival, and we are not boycotting it: we are objecting to the Tel Aviv spotlight portion of it. More inventive has been the assertion that by declining to celebrate Tel Aviv as just another cool metropolis, we are questioning the city's "right to exist." (The Republican actor Jon Voight even accused Jane Fonda of "aiding and abetting those who seek the destruction of Israel.") The letter does no such thing. It is, instead, a simple message of solidarity, one that says: We don't feel like partying with Israel this year. It is also a small way of saying to Mona Al Shawa and millions of other Palestinians living under occupation and siege that we have not forgotten them.
This column was first published in The Nation (www.thenation.com)