I recently signed a letter protesting the Toronto International Film Festival's decision to showcase and celebrate Tel Aviv. This in the very year when Gaza happened. The decision made the festival a participant in the newly launched campaign to "rebrand" Israel. Arye Mekel, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's Director General for Cultural Affairs, has said that artists and writers must be enlisted in order to "show Israel's prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war." The protesters felt it was wrong for the much-respected festival to be used in this manner. The role of art, after all, is not to prettify but to expose reality with all its contradictions and complexities.
I signed the letter without reading it carefully enough, without asking myself if some of the wording wouldn't exacerbate the situation rather than bring about constructive dialogue.
Last week, Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz, director of the Chai Center in Los Angeles, explained to me the meaning of the Hebrew word "teshuva"-to fix things you have done incorrectly, not just by never doing them again but by "coming with a sincere heart. Words that come from the heart enter the heart."
Some of the words in the protest letter did not come from my heart, words that are unnecessarily inflammatory: The simplistic depiction of Tel Aviv as a city "built on destroyed Palestinian villages," for instance, and the omission of any mention of Hamas's 8-month-long rocket and mortar attacks on the town of Sderot and the western Negev to which Israel was responding when it launched its war on Gaza. Many citizens now suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result. In the hyper-sensitized reality of the region in which any criticism of Israel is swiftly and often unfairly branded as anti-Semitic, it can become counterproductive to inflame rather than explain and this means to hear the narratives of both sides, to articulate the suffering on both sides, not just the Palestinians. By neglecting to do this the letter allowed good people to close their ears and their hearts.
Additionally, protesting the use of the festival to "rebrand" Israel was perhaps too easily misunderstood. It certainly has been wildly distorted. Contrary to the lies that have been circulated, the protest letter was not demonizing Israeli films and filmmakers. On one of the many trips I have made to Israel, I spoke at Tel Aviv University's film department and am well aware, as I'm sure the other signatories are, that Israeli films are not a mouthpiece for their government's policies. Nor was the letter an attack on the legitimacy of Tel Aviv as an Israeli city, or a call to boycott the Toronto Film Festival. In fact, many signatories are attending the festival and have films showing there.
As I said in my recent blog, the greatest "re-branding" of Israel would be to celebrate that country's long standing, courageous and robust peace movement by helping to end the blockade of Gaza through negotiations with all parties to the conflict, and by stopping the expansion of West Bank 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.
The Israeli-Palestinian story cannot be reduced to a simplistic aggressor-victim relationship. In order to fully understand this, one must be willing to come together with an open heart and really hear the narratives of both sides. One narrative sees 1948 as the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their land. Another sees it as the birth of a nation. Conceivably it was both. Neither narrative can be erased, both must be heard.