A Grassroots Approach to Confronting Anti-Semitism

The “Witness Palestine Film Festival” in Rochester, New York is currently celebrating its eighth year. In past years, the event lasted for one week and included three films. This year, the festival is much more elaborate, lasting for almost four weeks, and including five films, five panel discussions, and a culminating event with Palestinian food and a keynote speaker. The selected films include “The Lobby,” “Firefighters Under Occupation,” “The Great Book Robbery: Chronicles of a Cultural Destruction,” and “1948: Creation and Catastrophe,” which are wrought with antisemitic imagery, portraying Jews as liars, oppressors, thieves, and colonizers.

Based on the success of its film festival, it appears that the festival organizer – Christians Witnessing for Palestine (CW4P) – is a well-funded, well-organized and well-connected group. It also appears that over the past eight years, CW4P has faced no effective deterrence to its promulgation of anti-Israel propaganda. Determined to change that fact, my Alliance for Israel colleagues in Rochester and Syracuse and I made several attempts to engage the film festival’s various stakeholders and express our concern at their selection of films.

As most of the films are being shown at the Little Theatre in downtown Rochester, we spoke to the theater’s management, who explained that they had rented the space to the festival organizers and that they had signed a contract, which they could not break. We contacted the Downtown Presbyterian Church, which CW4P lists as its fiscal sponsor, but the reverend stated that he was not aware of the content of the films and was in no position to influence the festival in any way.

Unable to locate any contact information for CW4P itself, we then used an online form to send respectful messages to the festival organizers. Our messages expressed concern about their selection of films that demonize Israel and included suggestions of other films that offered a more balanced view. For example, rather than show “Firefighters Under Occupation,” that accuses Israel of impeding the efforts of Palestinian firefighters, we suggested the film, “Fire Lines,” which chronicles the cooperation and collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian firefighters during the 2010 fire on Mount Carmel in Haifa.

We received no response.

Given the fact that the festival is in its eighth year and that some of the films were shown in past years, it is unlikely that the owners of the Little Theatre are unaware of the propagandist nature of the films. It is also highly unlikely that a religious institution would agree to act as a fiscal sponsor for an organization without being aware of its mission. Furthermore, CW4P makes no effort to hide its contempt for Israel on social media, where it expresses traditional antisemitic tropes like blood libel and global conspiracies. A quick glance at its Facebook page, for example, exposes articles that accuse Israel of apartheid, “ethnic supremacy,” deliberately maiming Palestinians, and controlling American politics. There, “Christians Witnessing for Palestine” also articulates its support and alignment with the pro BDS group, “Jewish Voice for Peace.”

The film festival is now in its third week. And yet, as one film blamed Jews for the death of a Palestinian baby by fire (“Firefighters Under Occupation”), and another – to be shown on Sunday accuses Jews of stealing valuable books from Palestinian families – the Rochester Jewish community has, thus far, remained silent. Some may not know about the film festival. Some believe that protesting such events inadvertently generates unwanted attention to them. Others do not believe that reacting to the film festival is worthy of their concern or effort.

And yet, it is precisely the absence of immediate and unequivocal objection to anti-Israel propaganda such as the Rochester film festival that has paved the way for the BDS movement to poison the minds of so many well-meaning Americans. The Jewish community’s lack of public outrage has likely conveyed – and continues to convey –tacit acceptance of community-based antisemitic efforts. In turn, that apparent acceptance likely influences the decisions of unaffiliated Americans to join the BDS movement when its proponents come knocking at their door.

However, more concerning to me is the message that some Jewish communal organizations are sending to their own constituents by allowing events such as the Rochester “Witness Palestine Film Festival” to proceed without objection. At a time when morale is low and fear is high, American Jews are being made to feel even more helpless and afraid as they are encouraged to stay home, keep their heads down, and avoid making trouble.

When Jewish organizations do not issue a formal response to attacks on the integrity of their community, community members must organize themselves. In grassroots efforts, they should come together and protest hateful attacks on themselves as Jews and as Zionists, just like the residents of Highland Park, New Jersey did when their local public library promoted the book, P is for Palestine.

When they do, they will educate some participants and observers about the offensive nature of the event, bring well deserved negative attention to the organizers and contributors of the event, and generate a sorely needed feeling of pride and sense of collective responsibility in the Jewish community. If they do not, they should not be surprised by the proliferation of antisemitic events in their communities in the future.

About the Author
Melissa Landa Ph.D has been addressing the tactics and goals of the BDS campaign for four years. Most recently, she founded the new organization, Alliance for Israel. The diverse leadership and membership of Alliance for Israel reflects Melissa's teaching and research on cultural competence and anti-bias education as a former Assistant Clinical Professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Melissa taught courses about music as a form of social protest in apartheid South Africa (where she grew up) and about attitudes and beliefs about the "Other". She also created and led a University of Maryland short-term education abroad program in Israel that explored the immigration and acculturation experiences of Ethiopian Jews. Melissa earned her B.A from Oberlin College, her M.A. from Tufts University, and her Ph.D. from the University of Maryland and is the author of two books, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and numerous op-eds. You can contact Melissa by email: Melissa@alliance4israel.org
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