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Film festival under fire for scheduling ‘Rachel,’ inviting mom

by amanda pazornik, staff writer

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Of the 37 films with ties to Israel in this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, one in particular has several prominent local Jewish leaders and activists outraged

On July 25 and Aug. 4, the SFJFF will show “Rachel,” a documentary that explores the controversial death of American peace activist Rachel Corrie at age 23. Festival organizers invited Corrie’s mother, Cindy, to a Q&A session following the July 25 screening.
Rachel Corrie burns a mock U.S. flag during a rally in the southern Gaza town of Rafah in February 2003. photo/ap/khalil hamra

Local chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based group that supports Palestinian self-control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the American Friends Service Committee, a social justice organization of Quakers and others who have taken up the cause of the people of Gaza, signed on to help the festival promote “Rachel” to their constituencies

Peter Stein, the film festival’s executive director, said that given his six years of experience with the festival, in addition to its 29-year run, the backlash “certainly didn’t surprise” him.

“I was not naïve that this was a controversial film,” Stein explained, noting that he has received a few phone calls and roughly 15 e-mails from those expressing discontent. “I know there are many members of the community who would prefer if the festival stayed away from programming films on difficult topics or topics of passionate division of opinion

“That being said, if we, as an arts organization, are going to remain relevant in our time, it really is part of our role to catalyze conversation, however uncomfortable it may be.”

Jewish filmmaker Simone Bitton splits the focus of her 2008 documentary between Corrie’s work with the International Solidarity Movement (a Palestinian-led group committed to using nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles) and the investigation that followed her death in March 2003.

Corrie in a scene from the documentary “Rachel.” photo/courtesy sfjff

Corrie, who was from Olympia, Wash., reportedly was killed by an Israel Defense Forces–operated bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian houses in Rafah, a city that shares a border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip.

The film has been shown this year in at least seven festivals, including events in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, New York and Toronto.

While Cindy Corrie, who serves as president of the Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice (founded after Corrie’s death) appears briefly in the 100-minute film, reading an excerpt from a letter written by her daughter, it is her appearance at the film festival that has many up in arms.

“The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival made a serious error in judgment in inviting Mrs. Corrie to the festival,” Israel Consul General Akiva Tor said via e-mail. “She is a propagandist who is immune from responsibility for the causes she supports because it was her daughter, Rachel, who was accidentally killed.

“So her staged presence becomes a kind of emotional grandstanding, rather than pursuit of a deeper insight.”

The decision to include “Rachel” at this year’s festival, which runs July 23 through Aug. 10, was based on several factors, Stein said.

BAcorrie Stein, Peter
Peter Stein

For one, he and SFJFF program director Nancy Fishman saw the documentary when it made its debut at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival and deemed the movie a “worthwhile piece of filmmaking on an important subject matter.”

Second, the pair shares a professional relationship with Bitton, having screened two of her films — “Mahmoud Darwich: As the Land is the Language” in 1998 and “Wall” in 2005 — at previous festivals.

Bitton, who is Jewish and holds dual citizenship in Israel and France, declined Stein’s invitation to speak about “Rachel” at the upcoming festival, citing traveling conflicts.

The film, made available to j. on DVD, attempts to show both sides of Corrie’s mission and her death, weaving excerpts from her journal (read aloud by her fellow members of the International Solidarity Movement) with interview subjects who present varying accounts of her death.

That’s not to say Bitton shies away from controversy. For example, the filmmaker showcases an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman who calls Corrie’s death “a regrettable incident” and claims the bulldozer never touched her, and then a Palestinian doctor who claims to have witnessed the incident, after which he says, “The Jews have killed our friend Rachel Corrie.”

As for Cindy Corrie’s presence and participation at the screening, Stein said it is customary for film festivals to encourage the subjects of documentaries or cast members of fictional films to engage in an open dialogue with the audience.

“Our plan is for me to be in conversation with her, then open it up to a Q&A,” Stein said. “We’re not asking Cindy Corrie to make a speech. She’s viewing this as an opportunity to talk about the issues raised in the film.

“In some ways, it’s a credit to her that she may know she’s coming to face, if not a hostile audience, then certainly members who have a strongly different opinion on the events surrounding her daughter’s death, or Israeli and Palestinian affairs.”

Though he hasn’t yet seen “Rachel,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, head of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, said the decision to invite Cindy Corrie is “very problematic,” noting her presence would “increase the likelihood that it will become a political forum.”

Added Kahn: “I called Peter within seconds of learning about the film and her appearance to let him know there would be significant criticism. All in all, it was an ill-advised decision. But it should also be looked at in the context of the overall festival program, which offers a tremendous array of films about Israel.”

To Stein’s knowledge, no protests or boycotts of the documentary have been planned. He added that the festival is taking the appropriate measures to ensure guest safety at the film’s two screenings, in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Stein was quick to point out that this is not the first time the SFJFF has shown controversial films. He recalled receiving criticism in 2005 when two conscientious objectors from the Israeli Army Reserve appeared in conjunction with the documentary “On the Objection Front.”

In 2006, the decision to invite Eva Mozes Kor, the subject of “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” was met with challenges because of her controversial views on forgiveness of Nazi perpetrators.

Pro-Israel activist Natan Nestel of Berkeley voiced his disapproval for this year’s presentation of “Rachel” in a lengthy letter to j., calling on the SFJFF board of directors to “acknowledge the mistake” they made and “cancel the anti-Israel propaganda event.”

“Corrie has become a hero of anti-Israel extremists,” Nestel wrote. “Her story is not really about a young American activist who died of complex circumstances. It’s about promoting a hate-filled and glaringly one-sided anti-Israel agenda.”

While Stein said he realizes some films and guest appearances can be “polarizing,” he hopes audience members will “take a step back to understand what the motivation and intentions are” with regard to the programming.

“Our Jewish community in the Bay Area,” Stein said, “is big enough and strong enough to not only tolerate this difficult conversation and film, but grow stronger by them.”

“Rachel” screens 1:30 p.m. July 25 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F., and 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Cindy Corrie is scheduled to take questions following the July 25 show. Tickets and information:


Posted by Dan Spitzer
07/10/2009  at  03:34 PM
Cindy Corrie an ISM Propagandist

It’s one thing for Peter Stein to screen a film produced by an acknowledged supporter of the Palestinians (Britton’s previous film, “The Wall,” was as one-sided as cinema can be), yet another to invite Cindy Corrie, a woman who has traveled Europe and the US with her husband on behalf of International Solidarity Movement.

No matter how much one feels for a woman who has lost her daughter, the truth is that Cindy Corrie uses her speaking platform to shill for the ISM. Do please Google Mother Jones-Rachel Corrie and you will read an excellent piece on how the ISM hid a prominent Palestinian terrorist teacher of bomb manufacturing in its offices as well as how it met with two Pakistanis of British citizenry in its headquarters the day before they took innocent lives in Israel as suicide bombers.

As for the film’s attempt to present Cindy’s daughter, Rachel, as an innocent, have a look in “J” at Rachel burning an American flag before Palestinian grade school children. It’s bad enough that Palestinian kids learn in their own schools how wonderful it is to grow up to be a “shaheed” (suicide martyr and killer of Jews), yet another to have an outsider like Rachel attempt to further program these chidren to hate.

Peter Stein has acquiesed to the Israel-bashing Jewish Voice for Peace (what a misnomer) and their friends in the ISM for inviting Cindy Corrie to speak at what is now laughingly called a “Jewish” film festival-laughingly because it is now providing a platform to a speaker supporting an organization which shills for Hamas, who in turn support genocide against Jews.

For this, Mr. Stein should either disinvite Cindy Corrie or at least permit an opposing point of view on stage.

In sum, those who financially support the SFJFF should think long and hard about tendering their financial support in the future, so long as the likes of Peter Stein helm the festival…

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Posted by marshall_schwartz
07/10/2009  at  03:55 PM
ISM = Antisemitism

ISM is violently opposed to the existence of the State of Israel.  Criticism of the Israeli government is certainly fair, but ISM demonizes Israel and does not believe Israel has the right to exist—except as a Palestinian Arab state.  This is pure, unmitigated antisemitism. To include the ISM message in a Jewish film festival is so far beyond the pale as to astound even those of us who have been opposing these hate-filled antisemites for years.  The Film Festival board and stafff should be dismissed in toto for allowing their festival to host such gross anti-Israel propaganda.  Presenting ‘Rachel’ is not, by itself, the problem.  Allowing Rachel’s mother, and ONLY Rachel’s mother, to speak, is indeed the problem:  establishing a forum for spewing venomous hatred at Israel.

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Posted by Dan Spitzer
07/10/2009  at  04:16 PM
Director Signs Israel-Bashing Petition

Simone Bitton, the Director of the film “Rachel,” signed a petition in January of this year calling on the UN and EU to impose immediate sanctions against Israel, because “that is the only way to stop the insatiable Israeli violence.”

Nonetheless, Peter Stein believes a filmmaker with such manifest biases could make a sufficently “fair-minded” documentary worthy of inclusion in the SFJFF.

Certainly, the above calls into question Peter Stein’s qualifications to choose films for what is deemed a “Jewish” film festival…

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Posted by Hardisty
07/11/2009  at  07:40 AM
Shalom, Iam a strong

  Iam a strong supporter
of the two state solution
and peace.Yet Rachel didn’t,and the ISM does not support a two state
solution.The ISM position
is to push Israel into the sea.My family will
not be attending the film

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Posted by M. Phillips
07/11/2009  at  03:01 PM
What is new here?

Liberal and Lefty Jews have always been oblivious to the killing of innocent Jews; and organizations that promote it.  Liberal Jews opposed Peter Bergson crying help for Holocaust Jews and opposed Israel for 10 years after the founding of Israel.  What is new here?

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Posted by chavera
07/11/2009  at  10:34 PM
JFF Deserves Kudos

Bravo to the Jewish Film Festival for having the courage to promote differing viewpoints within the community.  Jews and Israel are certainly big and broad enough to tolerate this diversity. 
Neither Rachel Corrie nor the Jewish Voice for Peace advocated or practiced violence.  In fact, as the article states, the Jewish Voice for Peace, “promotes Palestinian self-control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip”.  Is this not another name for the two-state solution?
Really, how is peace ever going to come about if we do not attempt to understand the other side’s viewpoint?  And especially, in this case, as the other side is trying to present their case in a non-violent manner?  Really, I am afraid that a portion of our community is actually out to intimidate other Jews into not expressing any criticism of Israel.  This is very sad.  We should all take a deep breath and enjoy the festival.

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Posted by loulai
07/28/2009  at  02:41 PM
JFF and Kudos

There is plenty of criticism of Israel all around us. Far from being suppressed it is glorified while pro Israel opinion is denigrated and demeaned where it is aired at all.
Palestinian leaders openly report their goal as the elimination of Israel. They do not speak of a two state solution except as an interim step towards the destruction of the Jewish State. That is the “other side’s view point”. They say it. They believe it. They act on it.
Jews who fail to recognize the intentions of the anti semites are living in the garden of the Finzi-Continis.

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Posted by Dan Spitzer
07/12/2009  at  08:23 PM
JVP A Fraud

Has Jewish Voice for Peace ever criticized Rachel Corrie’s organization, the ISM, for hiding terrorists in their headquarters? Has JVP ever criticized the ISM for trying to keep intact Rafah homes used for smuggling the munitions which sent 6500 rockets from Gaza into Israel? Has JVP, which attempted to canonize Rachel Corrie in Berkeley, ever criticized her for burning an American flag before Palestinian grade school children—one of the worst forms of child abuse? Has JVP ever criticized Rachel’s parents for shilling for the ISM? Has JVP ever criticized Barbara Lubin for saying that if some of the funds donated for MECA wound up with Hamas, “If it winds up in the hands of freedom fighters it winds up in the hands of freedom fighters?” Has JVP, which “chavera” intimates supports a two state solution ever criticized organizations like ISM, MECA, or Students for Justice in Palestine for advocating a single, Palestinian dominated state (meaning the end of Israel as we know it)?

In fact, most members of JVP I know support a single state, so clearly they don’t give a fig about Israel. This is the sort of organization Peter Stein has let sponsor a biased film making once again a martyr out of “Saint Rachel” and providing the Castro stage for a speech by ISM propagandist Cindy Corrie.

How sad for a “Jewish” event like the SFJFF to allow incessant Israel-bashers like the JVP (a misnomer if there ever was one) to give a platform to a woman who, like her daughter, wishes to see the destruction of Israel…

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Posted by Hofshi
07/14/2009  at  01:39 PM
Who needs a Guardian Council?

It’s hardly remarkable that the JCRC believes Jews need to be protected from controversial, information, ideas and opinions. This is an historic role JCRC has played. The multiple ironies here are that, first, JCRC director Rabbi Doug Kahn is willing to bash the film without ever having seen it. This reminds me of a certain deeply unfortunate events in Iran regarding a controversial Booker-prize winning author that most readers will remember. Secondly, the criticism of the Jewish Film Festival seems to continue despite the fact that in this case the filmmaker, Simone Bitton, is Jewish (and indeed raised in Israel). So, what is the role of a Jewish film festival? Certainly the JCRC’s crticism suggests that the premier national Jewish film festival should pander to “community taste” rather than grappling with a complex reality. Then there are the commentators on this page who feel that this incident once again confirms their biases by demonstrating that the activists in Jewish Voice for Peace promoting the film are “anti-Israel.” Based on the scantyist of evidence, such critics act like the JCRC in trying to defend the Jewish community and Jews from people whose views they oppose. How very, very un-Jewish.

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Posted by sfwarrior
07/15/2009  at  03:05 PM
The Jewish Left is killing us

Under the guise of open mindedness and looking at all points of view the Jewish Film Festival is showing a film honoring the anti-Isreal polemic starring the deceased Ms. Corrie.  Would the Jewish film festival invited a Nazi film maker to show his work during WWII?  Unlikely.

The the international Solidarity Movement with whom Corrie marched wants Israel destroyed.  They’ve harbored Palistinan terrorists while calling Israel the terrorist state. 
It’ll be the cabal of Liberal, anti-Israel Jews in concert with the radical left that will be our undoing- not the redneck skinheads.

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Posted by Boris
07/16/2009  at  11:55 AM
I am strongly opposing the

I am strongly opposing the selection of films in San Francisco Jewish Festival. The organizers while pretending their objectivity selected no one film which could support the existence of Jewish State and its achevement, but rather selected everything which could questioned the right of Israel to exist and defend their people. It is a shame.

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Posted by grf
07/17/2009  at  02:04 AM
Akiva Tor should butt out . . .

What I find most disturbing is Israel Consul General Akiva Tor chiding Americans for inviting someone of whom he does not approve to a film festival in San Francisco. I have never once heard or read of any American diplomat telling Israelis who should be invited to any such event in Israeli. Nor have I ever encountered such chutzpah by any other foreign diplomat toward the private affairs of any other country. This is an outrageous intrusion and San Francisco should resent it.

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Posted by loulai
07/28/2009  at  02:30 PM
re Akive Tor by grf

How about an American President who presumes to tell Israelis that Jews may not own property nor reside in certain sections of Jerusalem.
Akiva Tor expresses an opinion. But the anti-semites, inlcuding the left wing Jews, insist that only negative propaganda about Jews and Israel should be permitted. Just as they reject Israel’s right of self- defense against her enemies.

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Posted by Parity
07/17/2009  at  02:09 PM
Jews like JVP will save Judaism

Ultimately, Jews like those who belong to JVP will preserve the good image of Jews as people who care about justice. Jews who put Israel first, no matter what it does, make non-Jews think that the only people Jews care about are themselves. Bravo to those brave Jews who put themselves at risk for standing for justice first and foremost.

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Posted by jontal
12/08/2009  at  04:21 PM
Rachel Corrie: A Tragic Death

I saw the Rachel Corrie documentary and it’s to bad that Rachel Corrie had died but how she died by protecting a doctor’s house in Gaza is not smart especially when Gaza is an Occupied Territory.
Two other issue that are important and that is one of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival Members is no longer a member because of the Rachel Corrie documentary being shown and one of it’s Sponsors had dropped off also.

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