There were so many things wrong with how the city of Takoma Park handled the screening of “The Occupation of the American Mind” that we find little basis to excuse the mistakes as naïve, innocent or unintended. Given how the screening and its related programming played out, and the multiple opportunities the city of Takoma Park had (and either ignored or rejected) to handle things more carefully and sensitively, we can’t help but conclude that the entire program was intentionally insensitive to the state of Israel, and knowingly bordered on being anti-Semitic. And we don’t make these observations lightly.
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is fraught with tension and deep political and emotional differences. Anyone presenting a program on the topic — particularly around a film that is controversial — knows that every aspect of the exercise is fraught with significant communal risk. So what did Takoma Park think would happen when it decided to screen a decidedly anti-Israel film that blames the Jewish state for everything that has gone wrong for the Palestinians, and accuses Israel of spinning a “Protocols of Zion”-like web to ensnare the American media into unquestioning support?
As reported in our pages over the past several weeks, there were many questions about how the screening was approved, as well as alarm regarding a hate-mongering panelist chosen to present at the program. Given the poor choices made by Takoma Park, it is not at all surprising that the panel “presentation” was pathetically short on “dialogue” and distressingly long on negativity, stridency and anti-Israel sophistry that was remarkably uninformed and insulting.
The event panel did not include participants from the Israeli government or the PLO. Washington’s well-respected JCRC was invited to attend, but refused to participate since it found the film anti-Semitic. For a brief moment, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of the District’s Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue, agreed to participate on the panel, only to withdraw upon learning that panelist Taher Herzallah, of the American Muslims for Palestine, had publicly called for violence against Israel and accused Jewish Birthright participants of being involved in ethnic cleansing.
That left professional facilitator Theo Brown and Matthew Mayers of J Street to round out the panel with Herzallah. It wasn’t pretty. Mayers — who deferentially kept pushing that there are two sides to every story and two narratives in every conflict — was simply no match for the uncontrolled and deliberately offensive Herzallah, who wouldn’t even recognize the existence of the State of Israel, saying, “Why should the colonized be asked to recognize the colonizer?”
It’s tiresome. And it couldn’t have been good for anyone. So what was the leadership of the city of Takoma Park thinking when they approved the plan? Clearly, they weren’t thinking very much. And that may account for why they acted so foolishly in allowing the offensive screening and program to go forward.