The controversy begins: AJC protests Julian Schnabel’s ‘Miral’

What began as a deeply personal project because of his Judaism has become an arsenal of controversy for filmmaker Julian Schnabel and his latest film “Miral”. 

Billed as a story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen through Palestinian eyes, tonight’s scheduled screening at the UN in New York is garnering predictable protestation.

The screening has raised the ire of at least one Jewish group, the American Jewish Committee, who yesterday urged the president of the United Nations General Assembly to cancel the screening-for-diplomats before Miral goes into wide theatrical release March 25.

According to a letter penned by AJC director David Harris and posted on Nikki Finke’s, the group is concerned about how the film will resonate in the highly politicized halls of the UN.

“I write on behalf of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) to express profound concern about the planned showing of the film ‘Miral’,” Harris wrote to UN Assembly President Joseph Deiss.

“The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light. Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself—and the prestige of his office—with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

The film, told through the eyes of two Palestinian women and based on the autobiographical book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, spans 40 years in Israeli history, from the creation of the state in 1948 to the failed Oslo Accords in 1993. The movie, starring Frieda Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”), Willem Dafoe and Vanessa Redgrave, is based on Jebreal’s experience as an orphaned Palestinian girl who grows up amidst the conflict.

The Palestinian perspective was certain to ruffle at least a few feathers, despite being under the auspices of a Jewish director (Schnabel) and distributor (Harvey Weinstein) who both immediately defended the film.

According to’s Mike Fleming, Schnabel said:

“I love the State of Israel. I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it. Understanding is part of the Jewish way and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But, if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace. Instead of saying ‘no,’ I ask the AJC to say, ‘yes,’ see Miral and join the discussion.”

Weinstein said:

“As a Jewish American, I can categorically state that I would not be releasing a film that was flagrantly biased towards Israel or Judaism. Miral tells a story about a young Palestinian woman, but that does not make it a polemic. By stifling discussion or pre-judging a work of art, we only perpetuate the prejudice that does so much harm. When I told my daughters, Lili 16 and Emma,13, about the AJC demand, they said, ‘give Mr. Harris a copy of the Constitution and point out the paragraph about free speech.’ I truly hope the AJC will join us for the premiere of Miral and the discussion that follows.”

Last September, Schnabel told The Guardian he felt a personal responsibility to tell the tale of Palestine.

“Coming from my background, as an American Jewish person whose mother was president of Hadassah [the Women’s Zionist Organisation of America] in 1948, I figured I was a pretty good person to try to tell the story of the other side…I felt it was my responsibility to confront this issue because, maybe, I’ve spent most of my life receding from my responsibility as a Jewish person.”

No doubt that last statement will get Schnabel stamped as “self-hating” when it takes great courage to delve into such complicated, personal subject matter. Nevertheless, the filmmaker hopes the film will spark new—dare I say ‘nuanced’—conversations about the conflict, a dream indicative of his artistic idealism. Maybe when the film hits theaters, because so far, it’s sounding like the same old venomous he said/she said, pro-Israel/anti-Israel, right/left wrangling.

“One of the reasons why I made this film,” Schnabel told an audience at the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere last Fall, “is that it was so obvious to me that there are more similarities between these people than differences.” 

Watch the trailer: