14 September 2009
A protest at the Toronto International Film Festival has taken center stage after a group of artists and writers signed a letter of protest against the festival’s decision to spotlight the city of Tel Aviv. Activists say the TIFF spotlight plays into Israel’s attempt to improve its global image in the wake of the assault on the Gaza Strip and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. Over 1,500 people have signed the letter, called “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation,” including Jane Fonda, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte. We speak with journalist and author Naomi Klein, who helped draft the letter.
AMY GOODMAN: The Toronto International Film Festival is renowned as one of the world’s top cinematic events, the staging ground for the top films in any given year. But since the festival’s opening last week, a protest over the Israel-Palestine conflict has taken center stage. At issue is the festival’s decision to host a showcase on Israeli films from Tel Aviv for its inaugural City-to-City program. Palestinian activists say the TIFF spotlight plays into Israel’s attempt to improve its global image in the wake of the assault on the Gaza Strip and the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land.
In the weeks before the festival, a group of artists and writers drafted a letter of protest against the Tel Aviv spotlight. The letter is called “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation.” It says, in part, quote, “Whether intentionally or not, [TIFF] has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine…We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers…nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF. However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of…an apartheid regime,” unquote.
The declaration has attracted over 1,500 signatories, including actors Jane Fonda, Viggo Mortensen and Danny Glover, musician David Byrne, and the actor and musician Harry Belafonte. But it’s been met with scathing criticism and accusations of anti-Semitism. Supporters of the Israeli government have accused the Toronto Declaration members of a slew of false charges, including that they want to boycott Israeli films and even the entire festival itself.
Well, the journalist Naomi Klein was one the original authors of the Toronto Declaration. She joins us now in our firehouse studio.
Naomi, just lay out the whole conflict and how you got involved and what this declaration is.
NAOMI KLEIN: Absolutely, and I’ll just—thanks for having me back, Amy. I just want to make one tiny correction, which is that the letter doesn’t call Israel an apartheid state. It says that this is a state that many respected people have described as an apartheid state, like Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu. So it invokes them, and it quotes them.
And I think that’s an important distinction, because what we’re trying to pull out in this letter is that this is a controversial decision, and the people who have signed it are saying exactly what the declaration is called, that they don’t believe this is a time of celebration, that the forty-two-year occupation continues. But moreover, this is the year that began, in January, with bombs and missiles falling on Gaza, leading to the deaths of an estimated 1,400 people, many of them children. There’s been no accountability for those crimes. Israel continues to refuse to cooperate even with a basic UN fact-finding mission led by the respected South African judge Richard Goldstone.
So, we’re very clear: this is not about whether or not there are Israeli films at the Toronto International Film Festival. Every year there are. Of course there should be. They’re welcome. If the films are wonderful, they should win honors. What’s happening at the Toronto International Film Festival this year is that not films, but a city is being honored, the city of Tel Aviv. The mayor of Tel Aviv is in Toronto being feted, because this is seen as something that’s really good for Israeli tourism. So this is really departing from the realm of arts and entering the realm of politics and industry in this decision to grant this honor and this privilege to the city of Tel Aviv, so that’s what people started objecting to it. And it wasn’t us who started it; it was Palestinians who rejected to the granting of this special status, this honored status, for the state of Israel in this year’s festival.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain why the Toronto International Film Festival is celebrating Tel Aviv.
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, this is a very—this is a controversial question. Cameron Bailey, the co-director of the festival, says that it was entirely his decision, that there was no political interference, and we take him at his word. He’s very respected in the film community. But what we are saying is that, whether knowingly or not, this decision fits in with a campaign, a very aggressive campaign, that has been launched by Israel’s Foreign Ministry to use culture really as a weapon to distract attention from the occupation and from the allegations of war crimes in Gaza, but even before the Gaza attack.
And what’s interesting is that in—Toronto has been selected to test market something that is called “Brand Israel,” the rebranding of Israel. And this is because Toronto has really been a kind of a battleground. It has a very strong Palestinian community and solidarity community. It also has a very large and active Jewish community. And it’s been a battle zone. So, actually, Canada has more Israeli diplomats than any other country in the world, because this—including the United States, despite our relatively small population, because the Israeli government sees Canada as a very important battleground, as a very important testing ground. So Toronto has been selected to sort of test-drive this rebranding campaign for Israel.
And, you know, it’s not our imagination; it’s not a quiet conspiracy. We’ve read about this in the New York Times and Reuters reports. And I’ll just give you one example. A couple of months after the attack on Gaza, as we remember, this was really a turning point in terms of world opinion with regards to Israel. There were protests around the world. In London, there were an estimated 100,000 people in the streets condemning Israel’s actions. Opinion polls were showing a plummeting of support. And more and more people were starting to talk about using tactics like the tactics that were used against South Africa during the apartheid years, saying that there has to be strategies beyond just talk. And so, it was in this context that a top official in Israel’s Foreign Ministry said—and this was quoted in the New York Times—“We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater company exhibits. This way, you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
And so, this has been playing out at a lot of cultural festivals, and you’ve covered this on the show before. The Paris Book Fair, which is an enormously important book festival, had a special spotlight on Israel for its sixtieth birthday a couple of years ago. The Turin Book Fair also did. But this—and there were protests, but they were much quieter than what’s happened now in Toronto, and that’s because of Gaza, I would say. It’s because now, because of the year that we’re in, because of the continued impunity for Israeli war crimes, people are drawing a line and saying this is no time to celebrate.
AMY GOODMAN: Respond to Ivan Reitman, the film director, who said, “Film is essentially about telling global stories, of exploring the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda in the end, only serves to silence artistic voices.”
NAOMI KLEIN: You know, I would actually agree with that statement, but it isn’t us who did that. We didn’t politicize the festival. We objected to the politicization of the festival. We’re not trying to silence anyone, but simply voicing our opposition to the festival’s decision to grant Israel this special status.
You know, when—we looked into this whole rebranding strategy. Jewish Voices for Peace, the terrific anti-occupation, San Francisco-based organization, jvp.org, they’ve done a—produced this great document, a fact check of all the lies that are being spread about our campaign that I really urge people to look up. But they talk about—they have some documents talking about this rebranding campaign and the goals of it. And they quote a top PR official in Israel, saying that the real goal is to create “a narrative of normalcy”—that’s a quote—“a narrative of normalcy around Israel.” So, you can have a tiny little compartment where you can criticize Israel’s actions in Gaza or the expansion of settlements, but when it comes to every other part of Israeli society, we have to act like nothing is going on; we should, of course, celebrate Tel Aviv in a film festival and at book festivals, and so on, and promote Israeli tourism.
So what has happened with TIFF is that—TIFF is the film festival—that—
AMY GOODMAN: Toronto International Film—
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah—is that they convinced themselves that it was normal just to have a celebration for the city of Tel Aviv in this of all years. And when people objected to that, led by Palestinians, they turned around and said, “You’re politicizing the film festival,” because I think they have really convinced themselves that there is nothing abnormal about this decision. And we’re saying, if this were any other country, it would be so obvious that this was a political decision that amounts to taking sides in a conflict.
And to just give you one example, imagine that this year the Toronto International Film Festival had decided to have a cinematic spotlight, a cinematic homage, as Ha’aretz described this program, on the city of Colombo, with the full blessing of the Sri Lankan government, overwhelmingly Sinhalese-dominated, not a single Tamil director, just as there’s not a single Palestinian director in this spotlight. Now, Toronto has a huge population—a huge Tamil population, very active. They would have been protesting outside, because it would have been perceived as a sort of a whitewash in a year that the Sri Lankan government rightly stands accused of war crimes.
For some reason, Israel is supposed to be the exception, and we are accused of singling out Israel. But, in fact, what we’re doing—and when you look at the people who have signed our letter, like Howard Zinn, Harry Belafonte, Eve Ensler, these are people who have devoted their lives to applying human rights standards across the board. They’re not singling out Israel. What they’re saying is, we insist on applying the same standards that we apply to every other country to Israel, as well. And just as we wouldn’t celebrate another country that stands accused of war crimes, we don’t believe it’s apolitical to celebrate Israel.
And there’s been this insistence—and I don’t think it’s a misunderstanding; I think it’s a strategy—to turn this into a debate over censorship, because everybody hates censors. You know, everybody wants to celebrate world cinema and so on. Nobody is calling for the boycott of TIFF. Nobody is trying to silence any films. But it’s much easier to sort of try to derail the conversation and turn it into a censorship battle, and that’s what the quote you just read is trying to do very deliberately.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have these quotes. You have one of the signers of the Toronto Declaration, Viggo Mortensen, who says—let’s see if I can find the quote—“The statement does not promote the boycotting or censorship of any artist or movie from Israel or anywhere else. Those who have attacked the statement with that accusation are simply spreading misinformation and, unfortunately, continuing the ongoing successful distraction from the issue at hand: the Israeli government’s whitewashing of their illegal and inhumane actions inside and outside their legal national borders.”
And then you have the award-winning filmmaker Robert Lantos, who says, “We are not talking about the West Bank or the Golan Heights here[, but] the biggest population centre in the heart of Israel, where the first neighborhood was built in 1887. If that is…‘disputed’ territory, then Ms. Klein and her armchair storm troopers are clamouring for nothing short of the annihilation of the Jewish State. They are effectively Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s local fifth column.”
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, it’s been a fun week, I have to say. Yeah, that’s actually the most powerful man in Canadian film and media saying that. And it’s an extraordinary lie, on every level. I mean, there are so many lies in that statement.
The reason why we are—we’re not singling out Tel Aviv; the festival singled out Tel Aviv, and it’s acting as if this is an apolitical decision. When you read the program, it says Tel Aviv is the economic and cultural center of Israel and doesn’t mention occupation once, actually doesn’t mention Palestinians once. It’s just this sort of light, frothy, breezy discussion of a city filled with cafes. And it even says—there’s an interview with one of the filmmakers, who talks about Tel Aviv is a place where you can go when you don’t want to think about the conflict twenty-four/seven. So it’s really this idea that you can not—you can sort of lift Tel Aviv out of the context of Israel, out of the context of the conflict, and just turn it into this apolitical space. The Defense Ministry is located in Tel Aviv. Fighter jets, during the bombing of Gaza, departed from the air force, very close to Tel Aviv. And people protested, Israeli peace activists protested, at the airbase to try to reach the pilots and tell them, you know, “What you’re going—about to do is commit war crimes.” You can’t lift Tel Aviv out of Israel. And the idea that by objecting to the spotlight we’re objecting to the existence of Tel Aviv, which is what he’s saying, is just diversion on a mass scale.
And it’s very, very unfortunate, because, as you said, you know, people like Jane Fonda have signed the letter, and the most dishonest smear campaign has been launched, directed at them. There was a headline on a bunch of gossip sites, like TMZ and Perez Hilton, last week that literally said Jane Fonda calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, which is so absurd. This is somebody who’s supported a two-state solution her whole life. And this is not a misunderstanding, once again. This is about discrediting everyone who dares to speak out on Israel, who dares to reject this narrative of normalcy. And the truth really appears not to matter.
AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Naomi Klein, journalist, author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. She helped launch the “No Celebration of Occupation” protest at the Toronto International Film Festival that’s taking place as we speak. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo. She has a cover story of Harper’s Magazine, as well as a big piece in The Guardian in Britain.
Naomi, you went to Gaza earlier this summer to witness the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Gaza. I wanted to play the comments of Jessica Montell, executive director of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. Last week the group released a report on the toll from the Gaza assault. The report backs Palestinian findings that over half the 1,400 Palestinian victims were civilians, including 240 children.
JESSICA MONTELL: The discrepancy between what the Israeli army has reported and what B’Tselem’s research has revealed is quite disturbing. The most blatant example, regarding children under the age of sixteen, the Israeli military has claimed that eighty-nine Palestinian children under sixteen were killed in Operation Cast Lead. B’Tselem visited families, took death certificates, testimonies, other information from the families on 240 Palestinian children under sixteen killed.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jessica Montell of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group. Naomi, you recently came back from Gaza, and just before we go to your piece on Jews, blacks, and the, quote, “post-racial” presidency in Harper’s, I want to ask you about that trip.
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, in many ways, this—for me, this is why I’m involved in this whole mess around the Toronto International Film Festival, because when I was in Gaza, I was so—I was so struck by the fact that Gazans felt that people had forgotten them.
And I was told something that really stayed with me. I was working with the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. They were taking me around, and we had a discussion with a group of NGO leaders, women’s rights leaders. And one of the things that was said to me was that there was actually more hope during the attack, which seemed—than there was now, than there was in the aftermath, which just blindsided me. I mean, how could you say that? How could you say that there was more hope while bombs and missiles were falling, when those children were being killed, than there is now?
And the answer was that when Gazans turned on their televisions—you know, in any kind of war, people who can are watching television to try to get any kind of information they can, or listen to the radio—and in addition to the carnage that they were hearing about, there were also hearing reports of a world enraged. They were hearing about those protesters in London, in cities around the world, just rejecting Israel’s actions, not buying that this was a defensive war. They heard reports of women in my city, in Toronto, occupying the consul general’s office. Jewish women did this and stayed, and it was an incredible action. And so, what I was told by people who I spoke to in Gaza was that there was a feeling that if they could survive these horrific attacks, this would be the turning point, that people were seeing the lawlessness, the brutality of the occupation, and there would be a demand for a new era, that the siege on Gaza, for instance, would have to be lifted.
Here they were, six months later, now eight months later, and the illegal siege on Gaza continued. There was no justice on the way. I mean, Gaza was—it felt to me like a massive crime scene, but that was being tampered with because the police hadn’t shown up. And just the outrage that such brutality, such open brutality, hadn’t led to any kind of justice. And that’s really what struck with me.
So when I got back to the city where I live, Toronto, and found out that we were planning to throw a big party for the state of Israel at our premier cultural event, the Toronto International Film Festival, that’s what prompted me to get involved in this protest, not that I enjoy being called Ahmadinejad’s fifth column—I really don’t—but, you know, I feel a sort of moral responsibility, having witnessed this sense from so many people in Gaza that these terrible crimes that we just heard about from B’Tselem had been forgotten and that there was no justice.
And when governments fail, you know, when the international community fails, when the UN fails to bring justice, then people have to step in and fill that vacuum. And that’s happened in the past, and it’s going to happen again. And this is, I think, why there is such an incredible fear and backlash against attempts to put other kinds of pressure on the state of Israel, not to just leave it up to Obama to talk to Netanyahu and hope that it works out. You know, people are seeing the failure of just high-level moral suasion.
And we know that there are other tools in the diplomatic arsenal, besides just talk, you know, besides just Obama suggesting to Netanyahu that maybe he shouldn’t build more settlements and Netanyahu proceeding to ignore him. There’s billions in military aid. There are all of these honors that are given to countries and all of these relationships, and all of them are treated as—when it comes to Israel, as completely untouchable. And there is an international movement that’s growing that is saying, actually, they’re not untouchable. We need to use all of these levers in the case of Israel, just as we have the right to use them in the case of any other country that refuses to abide by international law.