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Talking Israel, Jews and anti-Semitism at Amsterdam film festival

The largest film festival in the world, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam included a number of films and events related to the Middle East. (Ben Harris)

The largest film festival in the world, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam included a number of films and events related to the Middle East. (Ben Harris)

Matthew Groff, left, and Ami Horowitz are the makers of "U.N. Me," a critical documentary about the United Nations that generated a buzz at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. (Ben Harris)

Matthew Groff, left, and Ami Horowitz are the makers of “U.N. Me,” a critical documentary about the United Nations that generated a buzz at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. (Ben Harris)

Norman Finkelstein protesting Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon in a still from the film "American Radical." (Baraka Productions)

Norman Finkelstein protesting Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon in a still from the film “American Radical.” (Baraka Productions)

Iranian-Canadian filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari, shown meeting with admirers in Amsterdam on Nov. 22, 2009, was released recently from a Tehran jail. (Ben Harris)

Iranian-Canadian filmmaker and journalist Maziar Bahari, shown meeting with admirers in Amsterdam on Nov. 22, 2009, was released recently from a Tehran jail. (Ben Harris)

AMSTERDAM (JTA) — A hushed crowd filed into a standing-room-only space above the Escape Club in Amsterdam last week to hear the Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Maziar Bahari describe the four months he spent in a Tehran jail.

Bahari was arrested without charge in June following the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In tones of compassion and respect for what he had endured — physical abuse, interrogations, solitary confinement — he was peppered with questions: on the prospects for real democracy in Iran, on the fate of his comrades in the struggle for reform, even about his grandmother.

Hours later, no less than 30 people were turned away from a sold-out Nov. 22 screening of "the definitive documentary" about leftist professor Norman Finkelstein, an aggressive critic of Israel who was denied a tenure bid at DePaul University despite the support of much of his department.

And the following day, a similarly large audience was generally respectful in its questioning of several left-leaning Israeli filmmakers who, despite the session’s topic being the media and the Middle East, veered into a wide-ranging and critical discussion of Israeli state policy.

But politeness has its limits at the world’s largest documentary film festival, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, a 10-day cinematic extravaganza that draws filmmakers and enthusiasts from around the globe. The general tendency toward supportive and constructive questioning fell away at a Q&A session following the world premiere of “U.N. Me,” a Michael Moore-ish critique of the world body’s failures, starting with its inability to prevent genocide in Rwanda and condemn genocide in Sudan.

"The first guy got up and yelled out, ‘Bush puppet,’" co-director Ami Horowitz said.

Still, Horowitz insisted, the attendees provided plenty of positive feedback. And at least his film made the cut — it was rejected by three American festivals.

‘U.N. Me’

The film, the creation of Horowitz, a former Wall Street banker, and Matthew Groff, enjoyed something of a buzz at the festival. By any measure it is a scathing indictment of the United Nations. It shows how an organization founded to end the scourge of war abandoned Rwandans in the face of a murderous mob; how U.N. peacekeepers enjoy themselves on the beaches of Coite d’Ivoire; how the supposedly reformed Human Rights Council ignored the recommendations of a panel investigating atrocities in Darfur; and how the Oil for Food program in Iraq became a front-page scandal because of corruption. 

Even more interesting, the film appeared to place the festival audience in an exquisite dilemma: Harsh U.N. critiques often are the domain of Israel supporters and American neocons, a perception typified by Horowitz’s questioner, yet the film’s human rights bona fides are unassailable.

A key interviewee is Jody Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigner against land mines who authored the report on Darfur. And the tone is not one of contempt for the United Nations or its member states but a sort of incredulousness at how an organization could drift so far from its noble founding purpose.

So for every festival attendee who saw Horowitz as a neocon in sheep’s clothing, there was another who saw him as a noble crusader. Brian Brooks, writing in IndieWIRE after seeing the film in Amsterdam, called it "one of those rare moments when a film seriously has challenged my personal view."

The film deliberately steered clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though the issue often is Exhibit A in the conservative case against the U.N. human rights machinery.

"If Israel was in this movie, every question would have been about Israel," Horowitz said. "It would have deflected the film to discussion about Israel. It’s maddening. Every fiber in my body wanted to talk about the disproportionate, insane amount of criticism that Israel gets. But at the end of the day we had to have discipline, and part of the process of having discipline is leaving that out."

"Israel Ltd."

The International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam is much more than a film festival. There are also master classes — radio documentarian Ira Glass gave one over the weekend — debates, discussions and, of course, parties. But while many of the films dealt with the Middle East, only one of the debates did: “Middle East, Media and Me.”

The main protagonist was Eyal Sivan, an Israeli filmmaker who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris. Sivan was a special guest at the festival, which featured a retrospective of his work, screenings of his 10 favorite films and a master class.

It was incredibly difficult to understand Sivan, and not because of his accent. He spoke of the Israeli-Zionist contradiction that is "so clear today" — so clear, in fact, he felt no compulsion to say what it is.

Far easier to understand was Sivan’s partner for part of the debate, Mor Loushy, who directed "Israel Ltd." The film tracks a group of North American teens on a four-week Israel trip sponsored by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Loushy was clearly outraged by what she found: impressionable youngsters being taught that Israel is surrounded by enemies who seek to destroy her; the vicarious thrill of a week of mock army training, during which some of the boys took to the shooting range with alarming enthusiasm; the veneration of Israel’s fallen in a visit to a military cemetery; and an introduction to the Jewish state in which, as far as the film tells us, Palestinians were scarcely mentioned at all.

Depending on one’s outlook, this image of Israel’s booming teen tour industry is either an effective means of Jewish identity-building or an exercise in state-sponsored indoctrination. The fact that audience members at an afternoon screening reacted with both outrage and shrugged shoulders indicated that Loushy — her personal views notwithstanding — treated a potentially explosive issue with fair-minded objectivity.

‘Defamation’
Another Israeli film screening was "Defamation" by Yoav Shamir, who explains at the start that as an Israeli, he has never experienced anti-Semitism. So he set out to figure out what this demonic force is all about.

He starts in a logical enough spot: the New York offices of Abraham Foxman at the Anti-Defamation League. Shamir wanted examples of anti-Semitism cases he could film and follow; the league presented mostly instances of people unable to take time off for Jewish holidays or overhearing someone using an anti-Jewish slur (or what appears to be one). He also follows the story of a group of Israeli teens on a death camp tour of Poland, where they are taught to see the world as an invariably hostile place.

The film, which opened last week in the United States, encourages us to consider the costs of the Jewish fixation with fighting anti-Semitism. To Shamir’s credit, he doesn’t deny that anti-Semitism exists, though he arguably downplays it.

Shamir ably depicts how for some Jews, fighting anti-Semitism is a secular religion, their means of expressing Jewish identity, and how the ADL can be seen as catering to such people.

But he falls into the "silencing" trap with his discussion of Finkelstein, Walt and Mearsheimer, and the whole Israel lobby thing. Also, at a conference in Israel about the new anti-Semitism, no one mentions Israel’s occupation of the West Bank except for one British guy, and he gets a lecture from some fellow participants about how awful he is.

Shamir then has a eureka moment — the ADL and the lobby are silencing Israel’s critics.

The problem is that the people he mentions are tenured professors, authors of books and articles, and invited to speak around the world. Even Finkelstein, who failed in his tenure bid at DePaul, gives hundreds of lectures each year.

Asked about this disconnect, Shamir replies that what he means is that these men are considered radicals who aren’t given the time of day by the establishment, which prefers not to hear them. Hence, he says, they are "silenced."

‘American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein’
The first thing to be said about the documentary "American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein" is that it is not as bad as it could have been. Given the politics of festivals like the one in Amsterdam, one could understandably have expected a fawning look at a man reviled by the American Jewish establishment and venerated by the left.

But Finkelstein’s critics, most notably Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz, get plenty of face time. That’s not to say the film isn’t sympathetic to its subject — Finkelstein generally has the last word — but there is much to make any fair-minded observer stop and think.

The filmmakers achieve this by largely sidestepping the content of Finkelstein’s views and focusing on the man — why is he the way he is, what costs he has paid for his beliefs. These are actually the most interesting questions about Finkelstein; nothing would be more plodding than a film that seeks to figure out which narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is actually right.

Appropriately enough, the filmmakers look deeply at Finkelstein’s family, whose history as Holocaust survivors he regularly invokes both to deflect criticism that his views are anti-Semitic and as justification for his intense concern with the plight of the Palestinians.

Finkelstein acknowledges that his was a "very peculiar household," and even his friends talk about his obsession with his parents and their Holocaust experience. One childhood acquaintance, who says Finkelstein was influenced by his mother "to an unhealthy extent," says he’s intent on effecting his own destruction and wonders aloud whether he’s a self-hating Jew.

Finkelstein remains resolute in speaking his mind on the Middle East despite the ever mounting personal costs. Nearing 60, he has no job and lives alone in the small Brooklyn apartment that once belonged to his father. Either he has tremendous courage and conviction, or a pathological and destructive fixation.

All of which results in a portrait more sad than indignant.

In the end, Finkelstein comes off as sad, disturbed, strange and pathetic — more worthy as an object of compassion than of anger. That’s not a bad thing to keep in mind the next time he publishes something inflammatory, which given the modicum of pressures on his time these days is surely right around the corner.

This article was adapted from Ben Harris’ blog (blogs.jta.org/wanderingjew).

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