TAKOMA PARK – About 250 people – the majority of whom were strong supporters of Palestinians and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, watched a controversial movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on July 23.
According to the filmmakers, the film concerns “how the Israeli government, the U.S. government and the pro-Israel lobby have joined forces often with very different motives, to shape American media coverage of the conflict in Israel’s favor.” However, local Jewish groups say that the movie reintroduces stereotypes of how Jewish people are controlling the American culture.
A 45-minute condensed version of the original movie was followed by a two-member panel discussion. Moderator Theo Brown, of Public Engagement Association, explained that he invited many pro-Israeli organizations to join the panel, but was rejected by them all, including the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and two clergy members from Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue, in Washington, D.C.
Brown said he suspected the clergy members had been pressured not to join the panel.
Previously, JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber explained he refused to join a panel that was “so outlandish, so anti-Zionist, so anti-Israel.”
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom said that he at first had agreed to participate, “because I thought it was important to voice my concerns with the movie and the manner in which it was being shown in hopes that we could have a productive and thoughtful conversation.”
He continued, “Maybe I was naive for thinking such a conversation was possible, but I was willing to take a chance for the sake of building bridges in our local community.”
However, when Herzfeld learned who else was on the panel, said he pulled out because he did not believe there would be “a productive and thoughtful conversation.”
The two panelists who did speak were Matthew Mayers, D.C. Metro chair of J Street, and Taher Herzallah, associate director of outreach and community organizing at American Muslims for Palestine.
“As you all know, there has been a great deal of controversy” concerning the screening of “Occupation of the American Mind,” which is narrated by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, an active BDS supporter, said Brown.
The City of Takoma Park paid $1,000 to moderator Brown, according to Donna Wright, communications specialist for Takoma Park.
The movie was first scheduled earlier this summer, but Takoma Park officials delayed the screening to add a discussion at the end.
City Manager Suzanne Ludlow began the event by noting, “Tonight we are here to listen, share and learn.”
Brown then took to the microphone to state that “The City of Takoma Park wants to reaffirm” that it is not anti-Semitic and does not believe the movie is either.
Mayers, who described himself as someone who loves Israel but disagrees with many of the policies of the government, said the movie was “obviously an advocacy piece” and carried a pro-Palestinian view.
“I do not feel it is anti-Semitic. If I had, I wouldn’t be here. It is a one-sided view,” he said.
He said both Israelis and Palestinians have a claim on the land and that Palestinians live under an occupation. “It is real, and it is brutal.”
Herzallah called the film “an extremely high-quality” movie and noted that because Jews were quoted, it made it fair. The Jews were “speaking truth to power,” he said.
However, Herzallah said the objective of the film is not that Jews control the media as those who are against the film suggest. Instead, those who participated in the film spoke “about how Israel, Israeli institutes and Israel lobby tries to manipulate the media.”
“That is very clear and that is common knowledge so I do not think that this is a viable criticism,” Herzallah said.
He called for members of J Street to join the BDS movement and not buy any products made in Israel. The request was met with disagreement by Mayers who said the organization does not to be a part of the BDS movement.
“We do support civil rights for folks to participate in the boycott but we do not think it is the way to find a solution to this conflict,” Mayers said.
When asked if Israel had a right to exist, Herzallah replied, “States do not have a right to exist. Just like America does not have the right to exist on Native American land.”
Prior to the screening, about three dozen people held up signs outside the Takoma Park Community Center.
Many of them were members of Jewish Voice for Peace D.C. Metro. Some of their signs read, “From Palestine to Mexico, All the Walls Have to Go” and “Apartheid Isn’t Kosher.”
Most of JVP members refused to speak to media instead directing this reporter to speak with JVP Member Benjamin Douglas. He criticized the JCRC, “whose leaders appear to believe they speak for all Jews, but they do not,” he said.
He said his organization works to “challenge the status quo” and America’s support for Israel.
Many of the pro-Israelis who gathered carried a blue sign that read, “Want peace for Palestinians and Israelis? Say ‘No’ to conspiracy theories and propaganda.”
Herbert Grossman of Wheaton said he attended the event to state his wish for “a balanced movie that’s not produced by Waters.”
Yvonne Judd of Silver Spring questioned why Takoma Park sports so many signs against hate and then pays to show this movie.
“The movie is anti-Semitic. I am disgusted,” added Paula Bienenfeld of North Bethesda.
Inside the auditorium, Steven Sellers Lapham of Gaithersburg said he attended to protest the “$10 million a day” of American taxpayer dollars that he said is given to Israel.
JCRC’s Halber, who fought to cancel the event, called it “entirely predictable, a lopsided taxpayer-paid forum.” He labeled it “shameful,” adding it “now will go down as a blight on Takoma Park.”
Editor’s note: This article originally misquoted Mr. Herzallah’s thoughts on the criticisms of the film. This section has been updated and we apologize for this error.