NEW YORK (JTA) — When Amir Gissin helped come up with an idea to remake Israel’s international image several years ago, it’s unlikely he imagined that the showcasing of Israeli films in Toronto would spark a star-studded Hollywood brouhaha over artistic expression and cultural boycotts.
But that’s what happened as Israel became the major flashpoint at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
In an interview last year with the Canadian Jews News, Gissin boasted that his new marketing idea, known as Brand Israel, would help reshape public perceptions of the Jewish state and culminate in a major presence at the 2009 festival.
The presence turned out to be the focus on Tel Aviv as part of the festival’s new City to City program, which included an appearance by the city’s mayor and VIP receptions in addition to the screening of 10 Israeli films.
“The way to fix negative images of Israel is to present Israel in a positive light elsewhere,” Gissin told the paper.
But the effort appears to have backfired as a string of celebrities, including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen and Harry Belafonte, signed on to the so-called Toronto Declaration claiming that the Tel Aviv spotlight is merely an attempt by the Israeli government to divert attention from its treatment of the Palestinians.
So rather than talking about Israel’s rich cinematic culture, the buzz this week in Toronto has centered on the one thing Israeli officials had sought to avoid: the conflict with the Palestinians.
Israel has long sought to divert the focus from its conflict with the Palestinians out of concern that in the eyes of many, the country is a Middle East backwater engaged in an interminable tribal conflict.
The 2007 "Girls of the IDF" photo shoot for Maxim magazine and the recent transformation of a spit of land in Manhattan’s Central Park into a replica of the Tel Aviv beach were of a piece with the Foreign Ministry’s efforts to broaden public perceptions of Israel and, in effect, tell the Western world, "Hey, we’re just like you."
Last year, the Israeli government dedicated $10.6 million to the effort, according to Joel Lion, Israel’s current consul for media affairs in New York, who in an earlier post in Germany arranged for the prime minister of Saxony to cook falafel and couscous with an Israeli chef.
Increasingly, cultural events featuring Israeli artists have been the focus of protests in North America. But the debacle in Toronto appears to have drawn a much higher level of attention, raising questions about the rebranding strategy.
The trouble began when filmmaker John Greyson pulled his short film from the festival. That spurred a group of filmmakers and activists — among them Fonda, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and the historian Howard Zinn — to sign a declaration titled "No Celebration of Occupation."
"We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF," the statement said. "However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and U.N. General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime."
Within days, the Jewish federations in Toronto and Los Angeles had organized a group of Hollywood stars to sign a statement protesting the Toronto Declaration. The statement — its signatories include Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman and Sacha Baron Cohen — ran as a full-page advertisement in the Tuesday edition of the Toronto Star.
"Anyone who has actually seen recent Israeli cinema, movies that are political and personal, comic and tragic, often critical, knows they are in no way a propaganda arm for any government policy," the statement said. "Blacklisting them only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect. Those who refuse to see these films for themselves or prevent them from being seen by others are violating a cherished right shared by Canada and all democratic countries."
Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center argued in an opinion piece for the Toronto Star that those backing the declaration criticizing the focus on Tel Aviv had signed on to something that was "intentionally or unintentionally nothing more than a recipe for Israel’s destruction."
Fonda took it personally, responding with a statement in which she described her support for various Israeli causes and stressed that the declaration did not call for a boycott of Israeli films. Several Atlanta Jewish leaders, including rabbis and a former federation president, issued their own statement defending her.
However, Fonda then issued a second statement standing by her opposition to the official focus on Tel Aviv, but saying that the declaration was one-sided and poorly worded.
In interviews Tuesday, those involved in Brand Israel disputed the notion that the festival controversy rendered their strategy inoperable. Several compared the effort to New York City’s campaign to rebrand itself the Big Apple in the 1970s after years in which the city was seen as a hotbed of crime and ineffective government.
"You’re always going to have people imbued with politics and seeing things through that lens," said Barak Orenstein, a brand manager in Toronto who gave the keynote address at a Brand Israel conference last year. "But there’s definitely a need to share Israel’s contributions with the world. And I think the country has to be proactive about the wonderful things that it’s sharing."
Lion was even more dismissive, saying that the protesters were a small group and "nothing new." He noted, as did several others, that the festival stood by its decision to highlight the Israeli films and festival-goers would still have a chance to see them.
"People see that films from Israel are coming to an international film festival," Lion said. "They see that the films are there. So it’s also a part of the branding effort, even if there’s controversy. Controversy only helps."