From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Wednesday, Sep. 09, 2009 03:05AM EDT
When I heard the Toronto International Film Festival was holding a celebratory “spotlight” on Tel Aviv I felt ashamed of my city. 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.”
Ms. 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 a hundred thousand on the streets of London, a group of Jewish women in Toronto occupying the Israeli Consulate. “People called it war crimes,” Ms. Al Shawa recalled. “We felt we were not alone in the world.” If Gazans could just survive them, it seemed these horrors would be the catalyst for change.
But today, Ms. 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 co-operate even with a toothless UN fact-finding mission, headed by respected South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Last Spring, while Mr. Goldstone’s mission was in Gaza gathering devastating testimony, the Toronto International Film Festival was selecting movies for its Tel Aviv spotlight, timed with the city’s 100th 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 this week’s glittering Toronto premieres. It’s quite possible that Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s co-director, believes it 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 areas: film, arts, gay rights – things that underline commonalities between Israel and places such as Paris and New York. After the Gaza attack, this strategy went into high gear. “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre 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.”
Toronto got an early taste of all this. A year ago, Amir Gissin, Israeli consul-general in Toronto, explained that a new “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.” Mr. Gissin pledged that, “I’m confident everything we plan to do will happen.” Indeed it has.
Let’s be clear: No one is claiming the Israeli government is secretly running TIFF’s Tel Aviv spotlight, whispering in Mr. 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.
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.
This is the context in which a small group of us drafted The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration Under Occupation, which has been signed by the likes of Danny Glover and Ken Loach (we will be unveiling hundreds of new names on the first day of TIFF). Contrary to the many misrepresentations, the letter is not calling for a boycott of the festival. It is a simple message of solidarity 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, and we are still outraged.