Monday, September 07, 2009


As a former festival director (Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, 1997-2004), I truly appreciate the complex challenge in programming films and events at film festivals. As such, I want to commend Toronto International Film Festival for this year's decision to acknowledge Tel Aviv as an important artistic centre. The result of that brave decision, sadly, has been a thuggish smear and boycott campaign against the festival.

Tel Aviv is a brilliant, loud, brash, and diverse beast of a city. It's also arguably one of the most artistic, open-minded places I've ever visited. Despite - or perhaps due to - the city's history, diverse artistic expression is celebrated, even when specific artists or pieces are derided. That's the nature of art.

Like many great cities, Tel Aviv's past haunts it. Jaffa, its ancient neighbour, shares a history with Tel Aviv that is sad and unfortunate. But, it's a complex history. Those who see only one chapter in Jaffa's life ignore, perhaps willfully, the experiences of the city's Jewish population, once a majority in this place. Jaffa (the name comes from the Hebrew word yaffe which mean beautiful) is mentioned serveral times in the Bible and in many historical documents. The population was Jewish, and then mixed Jewish/Christian until the Arab invasion in the 7th century. The Crusades and Turkish occupation both affected demographics.

Nevertheless, Jaffa remained an important Jewish centre for centuries. In 1909, upon purchasing beachfront properties near Jaffa, the city of Tel Aviv was established. Many of Jaffa's Jewish residents chose to resettle in the new city; and Jews still represented a large percentage of Jaffa's population, despite riots in the 1920's (the worst of which in May 1921) which drove out many Jews. Following the successful UN partition vote of November 29, 1947, Jaffa and Tel Aviv came into more immediate conflict. Arab snipers and mortar squads in Jaffa began targeting Jewish neighbourhoods in Tel Aviv. Dozens were killed and several hundred injured in these attacks. Thousands of Jewish residents were forced to flee the area. And Haganah reprisals were taking lives in Jaffa. The situation was quickly deteriorating. “As long as mortar bombs are fired from Jaffa at Tel-Aviv, life in that city is...precarious," wrote Palestine's British High Commissioner General Sir Alan Cunningham. ('An Analysis of the Palestine Situation, April 1948', Cunningham Papers, IV/5/33)

By April 1948, the country was engaged in civil war, with many Jewish and Arab communities caught up in the conflict. It was feared that the strategically important port of Jaffa might fall to Egyptian troops who would use the city as a base from which to destroy Tel Aviv. This was an untenable risk, and the decision was made to surround and control Jaffa. Irgun fighters, followed by the Haganah, succeeded in taking the city, despite British intervention. On May 12, a deputation of Arab notables from Jaffa arrived at Haganah headquarters in Tel Aviv and, after negotiations, signed a surrender agreement.

Both Haganah and Irgun made it clear that civilians were not to be harmed. Irgun leader (and future PM) Menachem Begin spoke to his fighters before the attacks: “Strike at the foe! Aim well! Spare ammunition! In this battle, show no mercy to the enemy, as he knows none towards our people [but] Spare women and children. Spare the life of anyone who raises his hands in surrender. He is your captive. Do not harm him...”

Nevertheless, civilians panicked and fled once Jewish forces had captured the Arab suburb of Manshiyeh. “Ninety percent of the population of Jaffa have just run away," Sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary to the Palestine Mandate Government and no friend of Zionism or Jews, recorded in his diary on May 5, 1948, "... The mayor has gone, without even saying goodbye, and the remnants of the [Arab irregular] Liberation Army are looting and robbing. This is what the Palestine Arabs get from the assistance provided by the Arab states.”

It is fair to say the Jewish takeover of the city precipitated the exodus, an attack which was necessitated by relentless Arab attacks against Tel Aviv. But, according to even Arab sources,"the Arab Exodus ...was not caused by the actual battle, but by the exaggerated description spread by the Arab leaders to incite them to fight the Jews ... By spreading rumors of Jewish atrocities, killings of women and children etc., they instilled fear and terror in the hearts of the Arabs in Palestine, until they fled leaving their homes and properties to the enemy."
(Jordanian daily newspaper, Al Urdun, April 9, 1953.)

And it is equally true that Arab forces were attacking and destroying Jewish settlements in both Judea and Samaria (in particular Kfar Etzion) and land designated to be part of a Jewish state. Such is war.

In June 1948, the new Israeli cabinet met to discuss the refugee issue. All agreed that Arabs who fled the fighting to other parts of Israel should return to their homes. As Moshe Sharrett put it: "These (Arabs) should be returned to their places, with full ownership of their lands etc., and with full [citizenship] rights. We should not, as a matter of principle, discriminate against an Arab who had stayed inside [Israel] and thereby accepted its rule. He should enjoy full rights, including his property [rights]—unless there are decisive emergency considerations, security-wise. This should be the instruction to governors, commanders, etc.(Shimoni, "Tamtsit," pg. 3)

Indeed, The Palestine Post reported that several days after the battle for Jaffa, the Haganah invited representatives of Magen David Adom to visit Arab women, children and seniors who had fled to Tel Aviv. Those who wanted to return to Jaffa and other Arab areas were turned over to the Red Cross which escorted them back.

But the others, those who fled to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan would not be permitted back. Ben-Gurion was clearly angry when he proclaimed, "Jaffa will become a Jewish city. War is war; it is not us who wanted war. Tel-Aviv did not wage war on Jaffa, Jaffa waged war on Tel-Aviv. And this should not happen again. We will not be "foolish hasidim." Bringing back the Arabs to Jaffa is not just but rather is foolish. Those who had gone to war against us — let them carry the responsibility after having lost." (Ben-Gurion, Be-hilahem Israel, pp. 130-131.)

And so, here we are. While the political ramifications of that decision are still being felt today, the issue at hand is artistic boycotts. I don't think I can put this any better than Bruce Kirkland, film critic for the Toronto Sun, who writes,

"Art should encourage debate -- including on the complex Israeli-Palestinian question that so vexes the protesters -- and not repress it through bully tactics and censorship."

I highly recommend his whole response which can be read here.

UPDATE: The National Post's Charles Lewis jumps into the fray:


Jay said...

Well written, Morey.

However, you wouldn't have to write as much if you simply saw the world as black and white like those you write about. :)

Rona Michelson said...

Well done! I sometimes call it the tyranny of liberalism when people are selectively tolerant and open-minded.

Morey Altman said...

Thank you.

'Tyranny of liberalism', eh? I have another word for it, but you're obviously more polite than me. Happy Birthday, btw :)

Alissa said...

Having just seen the update, with new names added - Julie Christie, Viggo Mortensen and Noam-may his name be blotted out-Chomsky (the only surprise here is that I thought he was already on the list) - I'm at a loss. I truly don't understand how artists can support this protest.

I'm also really pissed at Viggo. This will affect my LOR viewing forever.

Lirun said...

i agree with you that boycotting us is stupid.. but your report is not entirely complete.. im not self hating.. nor am i a hippie or a communist :) but there is more to it.. add layers of complexity that perhaps would make you rethink your views..

i wish our hands were cleaner.. unfortunately those stains are not wine.. and it doesnt help me that "those im working against" are not sterile either.. on the contrary - it makes it all the sadder..