S.F. festival under fire over plan to screen Rachel Corrie film

Cindy and Craig Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie, are flanked by anti-war activisit Medea Benjamin, left, and author Alice Walker at an International Women's Day event in Gaza in March 2009.  (Kim Kim / Creative Commons)

Cindy and Craig Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie, are flanked by anti-war activisit Medea Benjamin, left, and author Alice Walker at an International Women’s Day event in Gaza in March 2009. (Kim Kim / Creative Commons)

Cindy Corrie and Peter Stein at the Castro Theatre following the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening of "Rachel" on July 25, 2009. (Stacey Palevsky / J. Weekly)

Cindy Corrie and Peter Stein at the Castro Theatre following the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening of “Rachel” on July 25, 2009. (Stacey Palevsky / J. Weekly)

SAN FRANCISCO (J. Weekly) — 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 the festival’s 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 July 25 screening in San Francisco and as some sponsors criticized the festival’s program. 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 some 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, 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 propaganda events, speakers and organizations. In this case, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival has aligned 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. (Click here to read both the Koret and film festival statements.)

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.”

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, 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 often is 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 until last year was 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 film festival. 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.

Though the film festival 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.”

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