Five board members of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival quit this week. Their resignations came on the heels of the festival’s open letter addressing concerns about its handling of the July screening of the controversial film “Rachel” and invitation to Rachel Corrie’s mother to speak at the event.
Nancy Goldberg, Iris Metz and Shana Penn signed a Sept. 29 resignation letter addressed to Executive Director Peter Stein, the executive committee and the 19-member board. Board members Zehava Itelman and Noa Eliasaf-Shoham also submitted letters of resignation Sept. 29, but declined to share them with j. Stein declined to comment on the resignations.
Their departures followed a Sept. 25 open letter to the community from Stein and the board, posted on the festival’s Web site (it can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/y9vvs5n). It reads in part:
“Our hope is that we can draw constructive lessons, calm some troubled waters, repair some painful rifts, and move together towards our celebration of the SFJFF’s 30th anniversary in a spirit of understanding and engagement.”
Most of the letter dwells on the continuing controversy surrounding “Rachel.”
“We underestimated how this screening would expose and so painfully exacerbate existing divisions in the Jewish community around discussions of Israel. It was a mistake not to anticipate the full range of responses to the program, and we apologize for it.”
The letter went on to state: “We were dismayed at the lack of civility in the discussions about this film, both inside and outside the theatre. We are committed to creating forums in which the exchange of ideas and opinions, even those that are heatedly in opposition to each other, can be heard and debated respectfully.”
Stein, who has been singled out for criticism for the manner in which he handled the “Rachel” affair, said the open letter was part of an effort to move beyond divisiveness.
“It was clear that all the events of the summer had been tremendously polarizing,” Stein told j. “The events and response to them had opened up a kind of chasm, and we felt it would behoove us to reach out and repair some of the misunderstandings, to move forward after a very rancorous debate.”
Among those misunderstandings, according to Stein, is the perception that the festival had any political agenda in booking the film “Rachel” and Rachel Corrie’s mother, Cindy Corrie. He emphasized that the SFJFF is strictly an arts and culture organization that has often co-presented with mainstream organizations like Hadassah and the ADL.
But he stressed that the festival is “a platform for free expression. That means unpopular, even offensive and distasteful, ideas may be expressed in art.”
Still, the joint letter of resignation by Goldberg, Metz
and Penn states, “We are increasingly uncomfortable with the direction in which the SFJFF is moving. We have a fundamentally different view about what best serves the interests of the SFJFF.”
Speaking on behalf of the three signatories to the resignation letter, Penn told j. she felt Stein and the board
should have apologized for “feeding divisiveness. It was a communications crisis that was unprecedented.”
She specifically criticized the festival’s “handling of the event at the Castro [Theatre]”, where the film was sandwiched between speakers, noting that Stein had admonished the audience to be “civil and courteous and if they didn’t they would be asked to leave.”
That did not happen at the July 25 event, during which hecklers shouted down SF Voice for Israel activist Dr. Mike Harris, who spoke before the screening.
Stein said he was “very disappointed our audience did not show courtesy. You’re in an age where you have a congressman shouting ‘You lie’ at a joint session of Congress. There’s a cultural atmosphere working against civility.”
Penn would not say whether she condoned the festival booking the film and Cindy Corrie, but did say she thought “there should have been a different kind of public programming.” She did not elaborate.
Nevertheless, Penn, who stepped down as board president on July 20 as the “Rachel” controversy heated up, said she will “continue to strongly support the festival and believe it’s an important cultural institution.”
This follows the release of a 14-minute YouTube clip recounting the uproar over the “Rachel” incident. The clip, narrated by KGO talk show host John Rothmann, excoriates the festival and criticizes the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for continuing to fund the SFJFF.
Rachel Corrie died in 2005 while protesting the Israeli presence in Gaza.
Critics within the Bay Area Jewish community feel Rachel and Cindy Corrie, the film “Rachel” and the screening’s co-presenters, Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee, represented an intolerably anti-Israel point of view.
Stein criticized the YouTube clip for failing to note his personal efforts to promote civility during the “Rachel” screening. He added that the clip did not mention that Rothmann had been invited to give some pro-Israel perspective at the Castro Theatre the night of the screening, but had declined due to a scheduling conflict.
The SFJFF board’s open letter announced the formation of a new, yet-to-be-named festival committee that will “advise the staff on communications and programming strategies, and help build deeper relationships in the Jewish community.”
That doesn’t mean Stein will shy away from presenting what he calls “difficult work.”
“Part of our mission is to present all kinds of viewpoints and foster conversation for those viewpoints,” Stein said. “We need to have all kinds of ideas, and then have civil discussion.”
Stein added that the festival has never or will never “knowingly promote any kind of hatred, anti-Semitism or anti-Israelism in its programming. That is not part of its mission. We do need to be open to the multiplicity of ways people express themselves Jewishly.”
Natan Nestel of Berkeley doesn’t think the festival has gone far enough to make amends. He is one of several pro-Israel activists pressuring the federation to cease funding the SFJFF, with the goal of making sure the festival “will never again be used as a platform for anti-Israel propaganda” and that “extreme groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee won’t be legitimized by the festival.”
Stein said he does not want the festival “to be a thorn in the side of any partners.
“I’m deeply sorry that the federation has been used as a cudgel to promote a certain kind of funding philosophy. I’m deeply grateful for [federation] support even though it has come with their critique.”
Stein was referring to a federation statement noting it “objected to the recent Film Festival event that featured Rachel Corrie’s mother as a speaker. The Federation expects its grantees to exercise responsibility and respect with regard to sensitive program choices.”
Though the federation has not announced any cut in its festival funding, Stein says a number of individual donors and institutions are “evaluating their financial commitments. It’s fair to say there is and will be some financial impact on the [festival] because some people are angry.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would Stein still book “Rachel” and Cindy Corrie?
“Would we want to repeat what we just went through?” he asked. “That’s an unqualified ‘No.’ How to successfully screen, talk about and create a forum for encountering difficult work: That clearly is a work in progress.”