Toronto protest escalates as stars sign Federation ad against Tel Aviv boycott

The filmmaker-led protest at the Toronto International Film Festival over its spotlight on Tel Aviv has escalated into an intense political conflict and divided the international filmmaking community.

Known as “The Toronto Declaration,” the protest began when a single filmmaker withdrew his film from the festival and has since escalated into a full-fledged cultural boycott with more than 1,000 supporters. The seriousness of the campaign and the groundswell of support surrounding a protest letter has led organizers to schedule a press conference, to be attended by Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers, tomorrow morning.

At the same time, the Jewish Federation of Toronto is scheduled to take out an ad in The Global Mail, Canada’s national newspaper showcasing Hollywood support for Israel, using the tagline “We don’t need another blacklist.” So far, rumored signatories include actress Natalie Portman, producer Howard Gordon, manager/producer Guy Oseary and Gail Berman, former president of entertainment at FOX.

The counter protest is developing in response to a letter signed by over 1,000 filmmakers, actors and academics— including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Julie Christie and Viggo Mortenson—that calls Israel an “apartheid state” and accuses Toronto of being “complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.”

The vitriolic charges against Israel has evoked a determined response in the Hollywood community.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Weisenthal Center was the first to respond, saying he was “outraged” by the boycott.

“As a filmmaker and member of the Academy, I can tell you that this is nothing less than a call for the complete destruction of the Jewish State,” Hier said.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and Norman Jewison joined supporters of the festival sidebar, and charged the protesters with censorship.

“Film is essentially about telling global stories, of exploring the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda in the end, only serves to silence artistic voices,” Reitman told THR. Jewison told the trade the protest “smacks of anti-Semitic bigotry.”

Minnie Driver said in a statement, “Empowered groups of people, deciding whose stories can, and cannot be told, does nothing but remind us of oppression that has no place in filmmaking.”

Producer Tom Barad called the Toronto Declaration “absurd” and has composed a counter-protest letter that is currently circulating in Hollywood.

“It just feels unjust,” Barad said about the growing protest. “I think there’s some tear, some rip in the world when it comes to things that are Jewish—an anti-Zionist zeitgeist that sadly we’re not rid of.” Barad also said that boycotting the Tel Aviv film program doesn’t make sense because the “most ardent critics of the State of Israel are its own filmmakers.”

Organizers of the initial protest refused to see the films selected for the Tel Aviv spotlight, claiming that they exclude Palestinian perspectives.

Barad’s counter-letter aims to dispel the charges against Israel by examining history.

“The entire world was formed through military victories and defeats,” Barad explained by phone from St. Louis. “Every state since the beginning of nations has been formed this way, but only Israel is continually disclaimed from its legitimate right to exist.”

The upside of the protest, Barad said, is that it will bring the issue to the forefront and force those involved to evaluate where they stand. And, he added, he isn’t intimated by the growing numbers on the other side.

“I don’t think that one letter with a thousand signatures in any way can define how the larger world of filmmakers or entertainment executives feel about the state of Israel.” 

Read Barad’s letter below:

An open response to those who have protested

the Toronto International Film Festival’s spotlight on Tel Aviv.

Dear Friends,

Your talent is greatly admired.  This makes your letter of September 2 all the more distressing.  The letter is offensive, a throwback to tired ideas that continue to pollute the world and prevent progress to tolerance and peace.

Let this be stated clearly:  Israel is not an apartheid state, never has been.  It is a democracy just like Canada or the United States.

Israel, like every other democracy, is not perfect.  However, it strives toward improvement as reflected by the government’s commitment to a peace process that will result in a two-state solution to the dispute with the Palestinians.

Israel is not immune to criticism. Israelis, and especially Israeli filmmakers, often are the government’s most ardent critics.  But their interests lie in making their nation a better place, not making it disappear. Perhaps you don’t realize that your accusation furthers an agenda that seeks to deny Israel its legitimate rights.  Every country in the world, since the beginning of formalized states, has established its nation through military victories and defeats, acquiring and losing land and suffering tragic loss of life. Recognized as a state in 1948 by the United Nations, the new State of Israel survived attack from every one of its neighbors, and remains the only nation continuously singled out and disclaimed for its actions in creating its democratic nation.

If you deny legitimacy to Israel, you will have to deny it to every country in the world, including Canada, which was taken from the French, and the United States, where vast stretches were taken from American Indians, Mexico and England.

It is worth noting that after Israel’s recognition as a state, more than 800,000 Jews were forced to flee the Arab countries where their lineage dated back more than 1,500 years.  Their homes and property were stolen.  And, to this day, the people who are most vocal about compensating Palestinian refugees are silent about the claims of these Jewish refugees.

Since their inception, Arab countries like Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and most of the Arab Emirates states, which were formed by British or French mandate and which handed autocratic power to tribal fiefdoms and war lords, openly pursued racist policies with no free press, or free speech.  They denied rights to vast sectors of their population, including women and Islamic sects.  Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, do not allow Jews to be citizens or allow the practice of Judaism.

Yet, since its founding, the State of Israel has been a democracy, protecting the freedom of the press, of religion, of assembly and women’s rights.  Israeli Arabs enjoy all the benefits of citizenship and can be found in all strata of society, including the Parliament and the Supreme Court.

Your comparison of Tel Aviv to Cape Town is an affront to the decency of the citizens of Israel.  It is an affront to those who suffered the rigid white rule of South Africa and the brown shirt squads who administered their laws of segregation, intimidation, wire-taps and arrests of any who put forward opposing ideas.  Anyone who lived in Cape Town at the time of apartheid will tell you the folly of your comparison.

Tel Aviv was founded by a land purchase in the early 20th century, much like New York City in the 17th century.  When Israel was attacked in 1948, Tel Aviv was a small coastal town bursting with new immigrants.  It has grown to be one of the most exciting, tolerant and cosmopolitan cities in the world.

Your claim about the war in Gaza is a further distortion.  There is no country in the world that would have waited three years before defending itself against a merciless barrage of more than 10,000 rockets and mortars that threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.  The suffering in Gaza is enormous.  And your words of condemnation are aimed at the wrong party.

To be forced to engage in a defense of your claims, gives your accusations a legitimacy and dignity they do not deserve.  The world is upside down.  You are attacking the victim. 

As for your objection that several business men in Canada have launched “a million dollar media and advertising campaign aimed at changing Canadian perceptions of Israel,” this is no different than any other city or country in the world that seeks to improve its visibility and trade.  Obviously, their campaign is going to need more than a million dollars to overcome these kinds of destructive and tired accusations.

For 61 years, the State of Israel has sought to make peace with its neighbors and has been answered with a united Arab voice, “No peace with Israel.”  Only Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and King Hussein of Jordan had the courage to break with the crowd, costing one of them his life.  Their treaties have produced many benefits for all their citizens.

You are gifted artists and thinkers.  Why can you not also break from the crowd? Instead of seeking to sanction Tel Aviv, why are you not supporting the voices of Israeli filmmakers, as they struggle to get films made and seen by world audiences?

Congratulations and not protests are to be made to TIFF on recognizing the beautiful city of Tel Aviv and its filmmakers.  Israel has more film schools per capita than any country in the world, where both Jewish and Arab students can learn and study.  These are the last persons you should want to silence.

Thomas K. Barad, Producer, Los Angeles, CA

Thomas K. Bard is a film producer in Los Angeles.  His last film, OPEN WINDOW, was an official selection at the Sundance, Stockholm, Austin and Jerusalem Film Festivals, among others.  Formerly, he was a Senior Vice President of Paramount Pictures Motion Picture Group.