Takoma Park residents on Wednesday came to speak for and against the city’s planned screening of the controversial film “The Occupation of the American Mind.”
At a City Council meeting, opponents said that their tax dollars were being spent on what they called an anti-Semitic film. The film argues that Israeli propaganda controls the American media’s depiction of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The film is narrated by musician Roger Waters, an outspoken critic of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians and vocal proponent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.
Opponents also said that the film’s showing had been approved without having gone through the correct procedure.
Supporters said that not showing the film would be censorship and that film was not anti-Semitic, but was legitimate criticism of the state of Israel.
There were eight speakers, most of whom opposed the film. The meeting was lightly attended, with fewer than 20 people attending, in addition to the speakers.
Nancy Illman, a member of the city’s Arts and Humanities Commission which organizes film screenings, said the “The Occupation of the American Mind” had been scheduled without the customary approval of the commission.
Commissioners were “not consulted” and “never voted on the film, she told the council. She said two city employees — one of them Arts Coordinator Brendan Smith — scheduled the film on their own.
Illman read an email that Smith send to arts commissioners: “The screening was approved through the usual channels here before we began promoting the screening. The film was recommended by my former supervisor Sara Daines after she saw an e-newsletter from Progressive Democrats of America about the film.”
(Smith did not respond to several requests for comment.)
Illman said this was not the usual process that films went through. She also derided the city’s decision to screen the film, and said “The Occupation of the American Mind” “galvanized anti-Semitism.”
Mayor Kate Stewart has been criticized for the film’s planned showing. But she said at Wednesday’s meeting that she plays no role in approving which films the city shows.
“I want to make it clear. The City Council never sat to a discussion, [we] did not pick it,” she said.
She added that the council did not necessarily agree with film’s message, but that the film will be shown.
The movie, part of the city’s We Are Takoma series, was originally scheduled to be shown last month. It was postponed after the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington denounced the film as anti-Semitic. The city responded by organizing a panel discussion to follow the film’s screening and scheduling it for July 23.
Activist AJ Campbell, who supports the JCRC’s position, condemned the city’s decision to move forward with the film.
“What were you guys thinking?” she said. “This movie is a disaster.” She asked the council to reconsider and cancel the screening.
Supporters of the film applauded the decision to continue with the screening.
Shelley Cohen-Fudge, of Jewish Voice for Peace, said, “It would be horrible to support censorship like this. This about those who are pro-Israel that are trying to suppress any kind of dialogue on this.”
When the city announced the rescheduling, it listed Jewish Voice for Peace and the Council for American Islamic Relations as panelists. The city website no longer lists them. Instead, named for the after-film panel are Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Friedman of Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue ; Matthew Mayers, D.C. Metro chair of J Street; and Taher Herzallah, associate director of outreach and grassroots organizing of the American Muslims for Palestine.
According to Donna Wright, communications specialist for the city, JCRC’s choice to decline changed the balance of panelists.
“We are moving with a critical group, a supportive group and one group with a mix,” she said in an email. Jewish Voice for Peace was offered a chance to participate in a comment period, but declined, she wrote.
CAIR asked the city to give Herzallah a panelist seat in their stead and has accepted an opportunity to participate during the comment period.
On Thursday, Herzfeld said he will participate on the panel despite his opposition to the film.
“I think it’s outrageous that [this movie] is being shown,” he said. “If they’re giving the option to share on that panel, I want to take advantage of that. But I would much rather the movie not be shown.”
On Wednesday afternoon, hours before the meeting, the JCRC emailed a message calling on its supporters “to urge Takoma Park to cancel the showing of this film and withdraw the City’s sponsorship. If you are a resident of Takoma Park, Maryland, you may attend tonight’s city council meeting at.
“This is not a matter of censorship,” the email continued. “This film is freely available online for anyone wishing to view it. This is a matter of taxpayer dollars and public resources being used to support the screening of a film that promotes hatred of Israel and of Jews, and presents a distorted, one-sided, misleading narrative regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”