In a press release dated September 28th, 2005, B'Nai Brith Canada claimed that the 2nd Annual Canada Palestine Film Festival, which opens today at Winnipeg's prestigious Cinematheque theatre, is "about propaganda not art." The implication, of course, is that defending the State of Israel — regardless of its behaviour — can be "objective" and "artistic," whereas criticizing Israel's actual human rights record, or portraying Palestinians as human beings with legitimate claims to self-determination, is by definition "propaganda," or worse: anti-Semitism.
CanPalNet-Winnipeg rejects such simple-minded claims to "objectivity," as well as chauvinistic double-standards which suggest that Jews and Israelis alone can express "artistic" views and sensibilities in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict; Palestinians apparently cannot.
In their press release, B'Nai Brith legal counsel David Matas repeats his annual claim that "the very title of this year's festival, 'Occupation Will Still Be Televised,' denotes an attitude that is a priori prejudicial and harmful to Israel, and blatantly misrepresents the facts on the ground."
Never mind the fact that many Israelis, including the "refusenik" soldiers interviewed in the Israeli documentary "On the Objection Front," believe that it is the Occupation itself that is "prejudicial and harmful to Israel." But David Matas is clearly implying by this sentence that there is no such thing as "an Israeli occupation," a statement that flies in the face of aggressive Israeli colonization and military rule in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem since 1967, not to mention 38 years of United Nations resolutions (going back to Resolution 242), and repeated violations of assorted international legal covenants, including (but not limited to) the Geneva Conventions, which specifically prohibit the transfer of "settlers" into occupied territory.
It is clear that it is Matas himself who has little real knowledge of the "facts on the ground" in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and little awareness of (or concern about) the human rights abuses of the Israeli State.
David Matas goes on to decry the fact that "a public venue [Cinematheque] is being used to host an event that has as its raison d'etre the promotion of vicious anti-Israel propaganda." Interestingly, this past year when Concordia University balked at hosting a speaking engagement with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Matas (on behalf of B'Nai Brith Canada) threatened legal action against the university administration for not allowing that "public institution" to be used by local Zionist groups to advance their political agenda.
It is crystal clear from these two examples that David Matas is a hypocrite when it comes to Israel-Palestine. Evidently, he does not care one iota about a "public institution" hosting talks or events about the Israel-Palestine conflict, so long as Matas agrees with the content. It is also clear from such examples that Matas — representing a human rights group that is only concerned about certain kinds of victims, and unwilling to consider the possibility that Israel can do wrong – has a clear conflict of interest when it comes to advancing the cause of human rights.
Whether Israel engages in massive human rights violations or war crimes is an empirical question — not a matter of faith or definition. Matas should know better, as he has done good work related to human rights and immigration in other areas.
B'nai Brith is correct about one thing: we do not claim to be "neutral." It is our view that to profess "neutrality" in the face of injustice, is to side with the oppressor. This is an elementary moral truism, whether we are talking about Israel-Palestine, or Apartheid South Africa, or the Nazi occupation of Poland, or for that matter, historical and ongoing Canadian colonialism and treatment of First Nations peoples. And no, we are not suggesting "equivalency" through the use of such comparisons. We are rejecting the myth of "neutrality" and the mindless calls for "balance" that plague any discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
We agree with Canadian historian Irving Abella (author of the classic book "None is Too Many") when he scoffed at a CBC journalist for suggesting that they needed to find someone to represent "the other side" in the debate about Zundel and Holocaust denial. Abella rightly exclaimed: "What's to be said for the other side? The other side was the killing side!" Palestine is not Nazi Germany, but serious human rights violations are occurring, and Palestinians are slowly being dispossessed of their ancestral homeland in the name of ethnic-religious exclusivity. Abella's principled indignation at the notion that "balance" requires a forum for someone to defend military occupation and ethnic cleansing, is a universal moral principle that B'Nai Brith Canada has yet to grasp.
In an article in the September 29th Winnipeg Sun, Pat St. Germain states that even using the adjectives "brutal and illegal" to describe Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands "doesn't suggest organizers are wide open to debate." Germain also lets Matas dominate the article, with a brief sound byte in the middle by one of CanPalNet's members.
In this article, Matas once again admits to having not seen 95% of the festival's content, and completely mischaracterizes Michel Khleifi's award-winning feature "Wedding in Galilee" as a film that "blames Israel for the impotence of Palestinian men." (Last year, he admitted on CBC radio that he had not seen any of the films he was attacking.) He also re-hashes his tired refrain that "Resistance is a code word for endorsing terrorism, and Occupation is a code word for Israel should not be there." (See Pat St. Germain, "Palestine Film Fest Slammed," Winnipeg Sun, Sept. 29, 2005, p.28)
But "resistance" is not a code word justifying "terror" as Matas suggests. It is true that "resistance" can be both violent and nonviolent. But even "armed struggle" against a foreign occupation is a right guaranteed under international law — so long as it does not violate the Geneva Conventions itself.
Targeting civilians is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, not to mention immoral and generally counter-productive. Our organization opposes all forms of terrorism, whether they are committed by non-state actors like Palestinian suicide bombers, or by the military of a country like Israel. David Matas clearly only opposes terrorism that is directed at Israeli civilians. Our organization is categorically opposed to terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator or the victim.
More to the point about the Canada Palestine Film Festival, however, is that the films themselves do not even promote armed resistance to Israel of any kind, discriminating or non-discriminating – though one of the documentaries ("Women in Struggle") does interview Palestinian women who have engaged in armed resistance.
Most of the films we have shown in the past, and are showing this year, offer example after example of nonviolent resistance: simply going outside to buy groceries during curfew, trying to cross checkpoints to get to school, or violating foreign military decrees prohibiting the building of homes, or the harvesting of crops, on land that has been owned by one's family for generations, even centuries. These are all examples of what we mean by "resistance." Matas would know this if he actually bothered to watch the films before condemning them.
For those who want to know what the Canada Palestine Film Festival is actually about, and who might care to view some of the film submissions before they condemn them, the festival aims in part to raise awareness about the nature of Israel's brutal military occupation, and the daily reality for ordinary Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, or within Israel proper.
We try to include films by Palestinians, as well as by Jewish Israelis, that don't typically get shown in Canada, or films that offer critical perspectives that you won't see or hear in the mainstream, corporate media. The festival is about letting such marginal voices speak for themselves, and letting Winnipeggers decide what to do with that information.
We do not necessarily agree with everything that is argued or said by the filmmakers, or their subjects, in the films we choose to screen. But we do think they are nevertheless worth seeing, discussing, and debating in public forums, in universities, in churches and synagogues, and in people's homes, and that grappling with such perspectives is a necessary prerequisite for understanding the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict, not to mention achieving a meaningful, lasting, and just peace in the Middle East.
Finally, I think it is important to re-emphasize that Palestinians are no less entitled to cultural, artistic, aesthetic, cinematic, and yes, political expression than any other people on the planet. Apparently, there are people and organizations who think otherwise, and who believe that any and all criticism of the State of Israel is either "anti-Semitic" or a defence of terrorism. This is complete and utter rubbish. Thankfully, increasing numbers of people in Winnipeg, Canada, and around the world (including more and more members of the Jewish community in both Israel and the diaspora, who are saying "Not in My Name" to occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing) … thankfully, such people are beginning to lose patience with the bullying tactics of Israel's apologists. They are beginning to lose patience with the threats and all-too-common charges of "anti-Semitism" from those, like David Matas, who cannot handle criticism of their favoured State.
Thankfully, audience-goers at last year's first Canada Palestine Film Festival were not intimidated, and feedback from people who actually bothered to watch the films was almost universally positive. Honest, ordinary Canadians are beginning to open their eyes to the fact that there are serious issues of human rights, dignity, self-determination, and liberation that need addressing in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Regardless of how loud the hysteria, how prevalent the non-sequiturs, and how thick the mud and name-calling hurled by the likes of David Matas and B'Nai Brith, the truth about Israel's actual behaviour is evident to those who care to see. Like it or not, Mr. Matas, the Occupation will still be televised.
Paul Burrows is a member of the Canada Palestine Support Network (Winnipeg), ISM-Winnipeg, and an organizer with the Canada Palestine Film Festival.