ROCKVILLE – A movie that the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) described as “a full frontal assault on Israel’s legitimacy” will be shown July 23 by the Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Commission.
Following an outcry when the movie was first announced, Takoma Park officials postponed the free screening of “Occupation of the American Mind” from its original June 13 date and agreed to add a panel discussion following the movie.
JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber was invited to be a panelist along with representatives from Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) and the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
However, he explained, “I would never sit on a panel with JVP or CAIR,” calling both groups “so outlandish, so anti-Zionist, so anti-Israel.” Both groups support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BSD) against Israel.
Sitting on the same panel “with people who question the very right of Israel’s legitimacy would give them credibility,” Halber said.
In a letter to Takoma Park signed by Halber and Meredith Weisel, director of Maryland Government and Community Relations, the JCRC officials noted that the other participants are “explicitly opposed to the very existence of the State of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. This is hardly the basis for a respectful and productive dialogue.”
The idea to screen the movie came from a city employee, noted Donna Wight, communications specialist for the City of Takoma Park.
Takoma Park is spending $1,000 to pay the panel’s moderator, Theo Brown. The money will come out of the city budget, Wright said.
The documentary is narrated by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who also supports the BSD movement and spoke before the United Nations, stating that Israel “is guilty of a number of international crimes,” including apartheid.
Halber said his organization reached out to Takoma Park when it first learned the film would be shown and asked officials to cancel the screening.
After learning the screening was postponed, a letter from the JCRC to Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart noted, “We are deeply angered to hear that the City of Takoma Park has decided to move forward with the screening.”
In the letter, the two JCRC officials called the film “tremendously biased against the American Jewish community by claiming that pro-Israel groups are engaged in a propaganda campaign and control the American media. This echoes centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes about the Jewish people controlling and manipulating media and the government, which ultimately led to the persecution or death of millions of Jews.”
They further called it “irresponsible” of Takoma Park to use tax dollars.
In her reply, Wright said the goal of showing the film and having a panel discussion “is to provide a diverse range of opinions from groups with different perspectives.”
Wright wrote to the Sentinel that Arts and Humanities “are an important part of Takoma Park’s identity and a source of community pride.”
She further stated, “This film was selected because it was thought to be an important and interesting film on current events.”
Halber questioned why Takoma Park needed to be involved in foreign policy. “Why don’t they work to better the lives of its citizens?” he wondered.
Some 10 days before the film was to be shown, Halber declared, “I am not letting go. I can promise you that.”
On Takoma Park’s webpage, the film is announced as part of the “We Are Takoma” series. It noted that the city has received “expressions of concern and support from a number of organizations and individuals.”
Because of that, there will be “space for a conversation about the points the film makes in a way that allows for people to express their thoughts and perspectives,” the post said.
In the calendar section of the local Patch newspaper, a listing for the film notes it is sponsored by JVP DC Metro and Voices from the Holy Land. Takoma Park is known for its progressive ways; it voted itself a nuclear-free zone more than 30 years ago.