Over the years, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival — with screenings throughout the Bay Area — has shown many films about Israel/Palestine, including some that powerfully depict the Palestinian perspective. This year’s presentation of Advocate offers viewers insight into the struggle of Palestinians to obtain justice in the Israeli courts. The Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) was asked to co-present Advocate as a Community Partner, and enthusiastically agreed. Then the invitation was subsequently rescinded and JVP was told it could not participate in the Community Partner program in any way.
The film festival relies on funding from the SF Jewish Federation, which has long attempted to constrain debate about Israel through conditions placed on its grant recipients. These conditions were made explicit in response to the film festival’s 2009 screening of Rachel, a documentary about a young American Quaker activist who was crushed beneath an Israeli bulldozer as she protested the demolition of a Palestinian home. JVP and the American Friends Service Committee were co-presenters of the film. An outcry whipped up by rightwing pro-Israel groups ensued, and in 2010, the federation adopted a policy dictating what types of Israel-related programming are acceptable for organizations receiving federation funding, including proscribing partnership with anyone who “undermines the legitimacy” of Israel as a Jewish state, a prohibition so vague that any criticism of Israel could fall within it. More specifically, grantees may not partner with anyone that is supportive of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). BDS is a nonviolent strategy to pressure Israel to end its violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people. Under federation policy, organizations like JVP and the American Friends are blacklisted.
In this way, the federation asserts the right to control what opinions audiences may and may not be exposed to, and ties the hands of many Jewish community organizations that might want to provide diverse programming.
Israel’s defenders resort to censorship because Israel’s violent and oppressive treatment of Palestinians is patently indefensible to people who believe in the universality of human rights. Instead of welcoming debate, Israel’s defenders seek to silence the growing numbers of US Jews and non-Jews who oppose Israel’s policies. JVP has over 500,000 online supporters, more than 70 chapters across the US, and an advisory board including prominent intellectuals and artists such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Tony Kushner, and Eve Ensler. But a JVP speaker cannot be heard in any of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Centers or in educational programs put on by the many Jewish organizations that rely on federation funding.
The campaign of silence is not only against members of the Jewish community. As communities of color increasingly identify the Palestinian struggle with their own, they too are being targeted. This June, for example, a work by a Latinx artist drawing connections between the U.S.-Mexico border and the West Bank Separation Wall erected by Israel was removed by the San Francisco Jewish Community Center from its La Frontera exhibit.
In his statement of dissent, the curator of the exhibit put it best: “When censorship — and this is censorship — raises its ugly head, it’s a lose-lose situation.”
Carol Sanders is a Berkeley resident and a long-time activist with Jewish Voice for Peace. She is a retired attorney.