Thursday, July 23, 2009 | return to: news & features, local


‘Rachel’ inferno gets even hotter for S.F. festival

by dan pine, staff writer

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If the Academy handed out an Oscar for community turmoil, the Rachel Corrie flap at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival would win handily.

Dissension in the local Jewish community continued unabated over the festival’s upcoming screenings of “Rachel,” a film that investigates the death of anti-Israel activist Rachel Corrie, and its invitation to her mother, Cindy Corrie, to speak afterward.

On July 20, festival board president Shana Penn resigned from her post, citing “healthy differences on how to approach sensitive issues,” with five months left on a two-year term.

This came as a pro-Israel speaker was hastily added to the Saturday, July 25 screening in San Francisco and as some sponsors criticized the festival’s program.

Craig and Cindy Corrie participate in a March 2008 rally in the West Bank city of Nablus to commemorate the death of their daughter, Rachel Corrie, seen in picture behind, and to support Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. photo/ap/nasser ishtayeh
Penn will continue to serve on the board. Vice president Dana Doron, a marketing and product development executive, has assumed the post of president.

“Rachel” is a sympathetic portrait of the American pro-Palestinian activist who was killed in 2003 in Gaza while protesting a home demolition in front of an Israeli bulldozer.

Booking the film and Cindy Corrie for the festival has struck a nerve with detractors in the Jewish community, who believe the festival crossed a line into overtly anti-Israel propaganda. Some have called for a boycott of the festival, saying Corrie, and now her parents, have worked to ostracize and delegitimize Israel.

In a statement released July 21, festival Executive Director Peter Stein apologized “for not fully considering how upsetting this program might be,” though he added that the festival stands by its decision to screen the film.

The apology was not good enough for many, who flooded local Jewish leaders and this newspaper with protest letters.

Sponsors of the festival also voiced their concerns.

The Koret Foundation and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, each headed by philanthropist Tad Taube and self-described as “sister philanthropies,” issued a joint statement July 21.

Koret and Taube, among dozens of sponsors of the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, criticized the festival for working with the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace — “two virulently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic groups” — in co-presenting the film, for inviting Cindy Corrie to speak and for booking “Rachel” in the first place.

The statement read in part: “Those who cavalierly fling Israel’s future into the grasp of those who would destroy it betray a mainstay of the mainstream Jewish community to support Israel and to counteract anti-Israel propagand a events, speakers and organizations. In this case, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival hasaligned itself with the wrong side.”

Penn, the festival board member who resigned her presidency, is the executive director of Taube Philanthropies. But the foundation said she made the decision to step down as festival president on her own.

To read both the Koret and film festival statements in full, go online to

Another festival funder raising objections is the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. CEO Daniel Sokatch disagreed with the decision to invite Corrie to speak but otherwise supported the festival and its showing of “Rachel.”

Activist Rachel Corrie at the Burning Man festival in Nevada in September 2002, roughly six months before her death. photo/ap/denny sternstein

Sokatch reported receiving numerous calls and e-mails criticizing his organization for supporting the film festival.

In a response to one donor who threatened to pull his federation support over the “Rachel” flap, Sokatch wrote that the festival “made a mistake in inviting Cindy Corrie to speak without offering a range of perspectives on the film’s controversial subject.”

Festival director Stein said no funder has withdrawn or threatened to drop their financial support. Walter and Elise Haas Fund executive director Pam David told j. her organization will “continue to support the S.F. Jewish Film Festival financially,” though she would not comment on the “Rachel” controversy. Koret Foundation and Taube Philanthropies in their statement said, “We have made no decision regarding future funding.”

One issue upsetting both funders and writers of protest letters is the involvement of Jewish Voice for Peace as one of the co-presenters of film’s two screenings, Saturday, July 25 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and Aug. 4 at the Berkeley Repertory’s Roda Theater.

Mainstream Jewish organizations consider JVP to be a left-leaning group that is often harshly critical of Israel over the country’s dealings with the Palestinians. Rachel Pfeffer, a film festival board member, is also a member of JVP and was until last year its interim national director. In a letter published in j. last week, Pfeffer strongly supported the festival’s decision to screen “Rachel.” In that letter, she identified herself as a festival board member, though she did not mention her affiliation with JVP.

Meanwhile, festival organizers have taken steps to address accusations that the program was not fair and balanced. Stein invited pro-Israel activist Michael Harris to speak just before the Castro Theatre screening. No speakers are scheduled to appear before or after the Aug. 4 showing in Berkeley.

Harris, who spearheads the group S.F. Voice for Israel, was brought in as a counterweight to Cindy Corrie, who will address the audience after the screening.

Stein hopes Harris’ appearance will help turn down the heat. “I wanted to be certain that our large and diverse community understands we are listening, we are responsive,” Stein said.

Harris commended the festival for inviting him to offer an alternative view of events, saying organizers “indeed responded to the outcry.”

“I’m going to set a context for what was going on in Israel around that time,” Harris said of his intended remarks, “so people understand the events that led to Rachel Corrie being in Gaza did not happen in a vacuum. It’s important that people understand that Israeli civilians were getting blown up on buses and in restaurants at the time [Corrie] was in Gaza.”

The scheduling of “Rachel” prompted a flood of letters and online comments to j. from supporters and opponents of the SFJFF. Even the blogs got into the act, with a posting on the left-of-center DailyKos blasting the film’s critics and j. for its editorial last week, linked on j.’s homepage at

Though the SFJFF has faced controversy before, the “Rachel” debate might mark a new level of vitriol among opposing factions in the Bay Area Jewish community.

Why did this situation elicit more of an outcry than anything else at the festival in recent years? Stein said that is “the $64,000 question.”

“This is far beyond the question of one film and one speaker at a festival,” Stein added. “Many people feel Israel is under siege, and that’s the elephant in the room. This is an indicator of the passion around this issue, and is reflective of a deep divide in our community that we want to be a part of addressing.”


Posted by jabo
07/23/2009  at  12:15 PM
It's time for Peter Stein to go!

This is an absolute outrage!  No Jewish film festival should support Israel-bashing.  SFJFF head Peter Stein has betrayed the trust of his donors and of the community.  If he doesn’t have the good sense to resign after presiding over this debacle, he should be fired.

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Posted by jabo
07/23/2009  at  12:27 PM
For in-depth coverage of this scandal

check out the SFJFF Watch blog:

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Posted by Dan Spitzer
07/26/2009  at  07:15 PM
Storm Troppers at SFJFF

What transpired at the screening of “Rachel” on Saturday gives lie to the contention by Peter Stein, the SFJFF directors who preceeded him, along with JVP and ISM members and their supporters that the festival champions diversity and freedom of expression. Dr. Michael Harris was given all of 5 minutes to offer a counter perspective to “Rachel” and the later lecture by Cindy Corrie. But that was too much time for JVP and ISM affiliates and sympathizers in the audience who, reminiscent of the vilest Storm Troopers, incessantly interrupted and shouted down Dr. Harris. Anyone who doubts this should watch a video of this debacle on youtube:

Note the thunderous applause by the audience in support of the American Friends Service Committee’s dinner given for Iranian anti-Semite dictator Amadinejad. When you listen to this, can any of you still maintain the fiction that JVP, ISM and AFSC members and sympathizers don’t support Islamofascism. Amadinejad is the very embodiment of this—just ask any Iranian amongst the courageous pro-democracy protesters here and in Persia.

Moreover, Stein only permitted three questions to follow Cindy Corrie’s litany of lies. How was the sole critical questioner greeted by our fine, freedom and diversity loving audience? You guessed it—screamed at with the most repugnant slurs and interrupted non-stop.

The saving grace of this debacle: anyone who watches actions by these anti-democratic thugs can no longer remotely believe that JVP, ISM, and the AFSC truly care about freedom of expression. The video doesn’t lie. These people are Storm Troopers in action and an anathema to the Jewish community.

In sum, it is crystalline that SFJFF Director Peter Stein and members of the board such as JVP leader Rebecca Pfeffer should resign posthaste for facilitating this hatefest. They are responsible and should thus show some dignity and resign. Barring that, festival sponsors and the Jewish community should take the appropriate action…

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Posted by DeborahG
07/29/2009  at  03:39 PM
Free Speech is at stake

It’s amazing to me that anyone can call the American Friends Service Committee (a Nobel Peace laureate) anti-Israel.  What they are is pro-peace and against violence, in the great Quaker tradition.  That means they are against ALL violence by anyone.  It is firmly within that tradition to meet and talk with those who hold opinions with which Quakers disagree.

I deplore the booing of Dr. Harris, who should have been heard with complete politeness, but I found the film moving and fair-minded.  The discourse about Israel and about Palestine is rarely fair-minded, often descending into name-calling and holier than thou posturing.  Dr. Harris’ comments sounded to me like he considers Jewish Israeli lives more valuable than other lives.  That is hardly in accord with Jewish tradition of valuing all life.

It’s high time that the Bay Area Jewish community come out fully in support of free speech, in the US and in Israel.  I commend the Jewish Film Festival and Peter Stein for contributing to that commendable purpose.

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Posted by i-care
07/30/2009  at  08:30 PM
Dr. Harris' comments

I strongly disagree with DeborahG’s comment that Dr. Harris sounded like he considered Jewish Israeli lives more valuable. Dr. Harris didn’t make any comparison. He just presented the fact that there are many Israeli “Rachel” that were killed by terrorists acts. Indeed this is not what a pro-Palestinian audience likes to hear, but violence in the Middle East cuts in both directions. While expressing sorrow at Ms. Corrie’s death Dr. Harris made the huge faux pas of stating the obvious - the Israeli Rachels were riding a bus innocently and did find themselves willingly in a dangerous situation.

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