The audience at the Castro Theater greeted Cindy Corrie with cheers after the documentary screening of “Rachel,” a 100-minute film about her daughter’s death in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
They reserved hisses, boos and catcalls for the evening’s other guest speaker, Dr. Michael Harris, a pro-Israel activist who addressed the crowd before the screening. The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival added him to the schedule a week ago in an effort to temper the community debate over the film’s screening and the invitation to Corrie.
Peter Stein, SFJFF director, said days following the screening that “Rachel” marked a beginning — and not an end – to a community dialogue.
“The challenge that’s posed here is that people want a strict definition of what a Jew is and what a Jew believes, but there is a broad and constantly shifting set of elements of what constructs contemporary Jewish identity,” Stein said.
“As long as that remains a conversation then we can’t draw a tight circle that defines the Jewish experience,” he added.
The SFJFF screened “Rachel” Saturday, July 25 in San Francisco, giving the film its first ever screening in a Jewish film festival. Directed by French-Israeli filmmaker Simone Bitton, it focuses on the circumstances surrounding the death of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old from Olympia, Wash., who in 2003 traveled to Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement, an organization that advocates for Palestinian rights through nonviolent resistance.
On March 16, 2003, Corrie and five other ISM activists attempted to stop one of the bulldozers that were being used to destroy Palestinian homes. According to witnesses in the film, Corrie was killed by an Israeli bulldozer. Some claimed the killing was deliberate, but an Israeli inquiry ruled it was an accident.
When Harris — a leader of San Francisco Voice for Israel, the Bay Area chapter of the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us — called Corrie’s death an accident during his five-minute speech before the film, a collective hiss snaked through the crowd.
A few shouted “Lies!” One man said, “Get off the stage, you’re not welcome.” A woman yelled back, “Let him speak.”
In contrast, when Corrie came onstage after the screening, people clapped and cheered.
“What happened to two Jews, three opinions?” asked Laynie Tzena of San Francisco. “What bothered me was not the movie, though I didn’t like it, but the audience — there was no respect for the speaker before the film, and offensive comments were made during the movie. You cannot shout people down because you don’t agree [with them].”
Cindy Corrie smiled as she sat down across from SFJFF director Peter Stein for what would be a nearly one-hour question-and-answer session.
“Your being here has been a real lightning rod,” Stein said. “Do you get why the story or your appearance exercises so much pain among some members of the Jewish community?”
“I think some of it may be due to lack of education about the International Solidarity Movement and Rachel’s story,” Corrie said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there … I have been surprised by the controversy … I think it has less to do with me and Rachel than the discourse within the Jewish community, which I think is a very healthy discourse.”
All of the questions she fielded were specific to the aftermath of Rachel’s death and the making of the documentary. After answering Stein’s handful of questions, Corrie took four more questions from the audience. Her responses were long and detailed.
She talked about her legal efforts to get the U.S. judicial system to pressure Israel to re-examine the case. She also spoke about her four visits to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, and what it was like in each place to meet Israeli and Palestinian parents who had lost their children to suicide bombings or various war-related incidents.
The final question was about the autopsy of her daughter. Corrie and her husband, Craig, had requested that an American official be present during the autopsy, but staff at the U.S. Embassy in Israel declined to send anyone — and the autopsy proceeded anyway because the Corries were told the body would not be released to the United States without one. The Corries believe the official autopsy results are inaccurate and are still trying to resolve these issues.
During the Q&A, one man addressed his question to Stein: Isn’t it time for the festival to admit it made a mistake showing this film and inviting Cindy Corrie?
“I will not apologize for screening this film,” Stein said. “I will apologize for opening up a very painful moment in our community that reveals much about the distance we have to go in addressing that.”
Stein concluded the discussion because it had exceeded the time allotted, bumping into the next film’s start time.
People exited the theater peacefully, though many were conflicted after seeing the film and hearing Corrie.
Rachel Masters was eager to see the movie and learn more about Rachel Corrie and the circumstances of her death. But she was stunned by the audience reaction to Harris’ speech and to the movie, which surprised the self-described “liberal Jew.” Masters, who lives in Palo Alto, is a member of Berkeley’s Beyt Tikkun Synagogue and a supporter of the New Israel Fund.
“I think it’s fantastic the festival showed this movie, and it’s great that we’re having this conversation,” she said. But she “never expected such an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel atmosphere. That really tainted my ability to take in the movie.”
“Rachel” drew a big crowd, filling most of the 800 seats in the main theater. People began lining up more than an hour before the film began. Eventually, the line went up the street and around the block.
About 20 pro-Palestinian activists, many from Women in Black, stood in front of the theater in support of the film. Just one pro-Israel activist countered that by waving an Israeli flag.
Before the film, Stein welcomed the audience and acknowledged the firestorm surrounding the festival’s decisions to screen the documentary and invite the subject’s mother to answer questions.
“This has become a lightning rod for a tremendous controversy: Is it appropriate for a Jewish film festival to screen a movie critical of the Israeli government?” he asked. “We’re trying to be a model for civic discourse … But what makes for acceptable discourse will not be solved with one movie or one speaker.”
Stein then introduced Harris, who spoke about eight other “Rachels” who also died young — at the hands of Islamic and Palestinian suicide bombers.
He also argued that the film lacked context and comprehensive information about Israel’s presence in Gaza and how the ISM operates there.
“You will hear they are a peace group; you won’t hear that they defined peace at a 2003 press conference as the destruction of Zionism within the Jewish state,” Harris said.
He also charged the ISM of using “Rachel’s accidental death to accuse of Israel of intentionally murdering innocents.” At that, the crowd booed and shouted.
The audience quieted down during the film. The movie features interviews with ISM activists who worked with Corrie in Gaza, Palestinians who hosted the activists, soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces, military police investigators, Corrie’s college professors and parents, and the director of Israel’s National Forensic Center who conducted Corrie’s autopsy.
Much of the film examines how and why Corrie died. The director shows Israeli soldiers reading the transcripts of their testimonies from that day, and the five ISM activists on site when Corrie died sharing their memories.
Photos and videos of Rachel in Gaza pepper the film, but what really moves the story forward is the narration, taken from Corrie’s idealistic and heartfelt journal entries and correspondence and read by her fellow ISM activists. She wrote often of the violent and inhumane conditions of life in Gaza and about her deep commitment to the people there.
Several sponsors of the annual event criticized the festival for showing the film and inviting Corrie to speak, and in particular for letting Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that is often harshly critical of Israel, be an official co-presenter of the film.
Festival board president Shana Penn resigned her post on July 20 because of differences over “how to approach sensitive issues.”
Steve Katz of San Francisco said inviting Harris to speak before the film was inadequate and failed to provide the balance festival staffers intended.
“[Cindy’s] daughter was killed, so her point of view is far from objective,” Katz said. “Why not invite a panel of diverse opinions? Why not give equal time to all points of view? It was set up to be a hostile situation.”
Faith Meltzer, a member of S.F. Voice for Israel, surmised the large number of anti-Israel audience members were alerted to the film by an online notice posted by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. The announcement asked people to come and “oppose the Zionists who are trying to shut the movie down and prevent Cindy Corrie from speaking.”
“That’s ridiculous — the Zionists are in the audience,” Meltzer said.
Tzena, the San Francisco filmgoer, was disheartened by the dismissive audience. She likes to call the Jewish Film Festival “Jewish Pride Week.” Yet such a scene gave her little to feel proud of.
“The issue for me is not whether or not to show the film, but how do we treat different points of view, on any side?” she asked. “As a Jew, respect for diverse opinions is vital.”
Several days after the screening, Stein said he never imagined that the Jewish community would uniformly agree or disagree with the choice to show the film.
“We don’t expect people to agree with every film and every speaker — that’s so un-Jewish,” he said.
The SFJFF director added that it’s increasingly important to create a space for the entire spectrum of Jewish opinions to talk about Israel.
“We need to continue to overcome our ideological differences to the point where we can at least be in the same room and converse with one another,” he said. “Passions are high on this issue, and [the film festival] wants to be part of an ongoing dialogue, not to shut the dialogue down.”
A second screening of “Rachel” will take place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4 at the Roda Theater, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. No speakers or Q&A sessions are scheduled. For more information, check www.sfjff.org.