Tonight, Wednesday, December 12, in keeping with its image as a progressive leader in social policy, the City of West Hollywood was to have hosted a film screening and panel discussion on the painful birth of Israel and the Palestinian refugee crisis. Instead, the city is playing censor, “postponing” the event until further notice.
The screening and panel, which I was invited to join, was part of West Hollywood’s Human Rights Speaker Series and co-sponsored by PBS SoCal. It was to feature the new documentary, “1948: Creation and Catastrophe.” But after spurious allegations of anti-Semitism by a local rabbi, the city pulled the plug. City Councilmember Lindsey Horvath said she didn’t want West Hollywood to become a “refuge for hate.”
But the real issue here, as it is increasingly in public forums and the media across America, is who gets to tell the story. West Hollywood is taking the word of a constituent with a keenly vested interest — Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami, a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its efforts to lobby Congress and silence critics of Israel, often by accusing them of anti-Semitism. Rabbi Eger appears to have cut and pasted such accusations against one of the film’s producers, Dr. Ahlam Muhtaseb, communications professor at Cal State-San Bernardino, directly from Canary Mission, a shadowy blacklist that targets critics of Israel. As The Forward reported in August, the anonymously-funded Canary Mission “is now being used as an intelligence source on thousands of students and academics by Israeli officials with immense power over people’s lives.”
And so the West Hollywood City Council appears to be playing directly into a specific, AIPAC-driven political agenda that conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Calling someone an anti-Semite is often a club to shut down open discussion. It’s often effective. But it is a direct threat to free speech. It’s long past time to stand up to this anti-democratic agenda.
The disingenuous claim that the “1948” film is anti-Semitic or promotes hatred is part of a broader effort to narrow the boundaries of “acceptable” discussion of Israel and Palestine. Recently the commentator Marc Lamont Hill was fired by CNN for daring to suggest, in a speech at the U.N. depicted in the video below, that the Holy Land would eventually become a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Provocative, yes, and troubling to many, but after decades of Israeli settler colonization of the West Bank finally undermined the “two state solution,” a single, democratic state of Israelis and Palestinians is hardly an idea to be muzzled by the thought police.
Even more troubling are the broad efforts to slap the anti-Semitic label on non-violent, constitutionally protected calls to boycott Israeli institutions. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has gained momentum in recent years, has prompted dozens of state laws and bills in Congress to impose civil and even criminal sanctions against groups that boycott Israeli products or institutions.
Some say the fears provoked by the recent wave of anti-Semitism, including the murder of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, is reason enough to curtail criticism of Israel. As someone who has spent years working in Israel, and many hours interviewing Holocaust survivors for an oral history project of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I have long known those fears to be real and legitimate. But exploiting that fear can be cynical. It is not legitimate to label critics as anti-Semites when they advocate a boycott of, say, Caterpiller, whose Israeli military D-9 bulldozers have demolished many of the 48,000 Palestinian homes and other buildings reduced to rubble since 1967.
As for “1948”: It is not clear whether those involved in West Hollywood’s “indefinite delay,” as one organizer calls it, have even have seen the film. I have. It is fair and even-handed in telling a wrenching, difficult history both from the perspective of Israelis who saw the 1948 war as their War of Independence, and from Palestinians who experienced it as their Nakba, or Catastrophe. The film includes stories of expulsions of Palestinians, which have been well-documented by Israeli historians. I did much the same in my 2006 book, “The Lemon Tree.” What the “1948” film does not do is simply repeat the triumphal narrative conveyed in a book many Americans grew up on: “Exodus” by Leon Uris, which describes the birth of Israel in exclusively heroic terms, with consequences to “the Arabs” (i.e. Palestinians) missing from the story.
For some who grew up with the “Leon Uris history,” the deeper, more inclusive narrative can be difficult to accept. Yet isn’t the role of a democracy to promote open, difficult debate, and to help us face our collective history? The Dec. 12 forum was an opportunity, especially in West Hollywood, which takes pride in its “impact on the national progressive public policy agenda.” Instead the city has placed itself, unwittingly or not, on one side of the debate, electing to stifle free speech and open discussion, which should be at the heart of our democracy.