A panelist on Tuesday night’s planed discussion in Takoma Park of the controversial film “The Occupation of the American Mind” has been accused of advocating violence against Israel.
In a statement Monday, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington claimed that Taher Herzallah of American Muslims for Palestine in 2014 said “Israelis have to be bombed. They are a threat to the legitimacy of Palestine.”
Herzallah denied the claim. “I don’t recall ever making that statement at all,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s a libel statement against me.”
The JCRC statement included a link to an Al-Jazeera video, during which Herzallah said that “when young Jews participate in Birthright and erase the existence of Palestinians and do not demand the right to return for Palestinians, they are effectively engaged in the process of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, erasing the Palestinian people and their history from that land.”
“Engaging in so-called Birthright is very offensive to me,” he told WJW. “It would be like claiming a right to Saudi land just because I’m a Muslim. No religious book or canon should supersede the rights of indigenous people.”
The JCRC’s statement said that the agency “welcomes productive dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and supports a two state solution, but we maintain that this film, which plays on centuries old antisemitic tropes, is not an appropriate avenue for that discussion.”
Ron Halber, JCRC executive director, said that Herzallah’s denial “rings hollow when he says that the 700,000 Jews who were on Birthright committed ethnic cleansing.”
Another panelist, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom—The National Synagogue, said Herzallah’s inclusion on the panel was “incredibly irresponsible on behalf of Takoma Park.”
Contacted by WJW on Monday, Mayor Kate Stewart and panel moderator Theo Brown said they will keep Herzallah on the panel, until the accusations can be sorted out. “When we looked into possible panelists, he was suggested, and we didn’t find anything suggesting any kind of violence,” Brown said.
On Friday, the Montgomery County Council sent a letter to Stewart, signed by eight of the nine members, expressing their concern about Takoma Park showing the film, which 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.
“While we strongly believe in the value of respectful discussion, this particular film does not promote that, as it uses centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes about the Jewish people controlling and manipulating media and government,” the letter said.
The letter also called the premise of the movie to be “extremely offensive and hurtful.”
Council member Andrew Friedson said that he signed the letter because he was concerned that City of Takoma Park, located in Montgomery County, was using taxpayer dollars to screen the film.
“The issue is whether or not it is appropriate for a local government to sponsor and endorse it, particularly given the hurtful nature it has for so many residents.”
Stewart said that the city was continuing with the film because Takoma Park wanted to “create a space to critique this film and create a dialogue among members of the community.”
She said that she has heard from people for and against showing the film. She believes that “coming together and understanding why people feel strongly [about the film] and having that conversation will actually [counter] anti-Semitism in our community.”
The film is scheduled for 7 p.m. on July 23 in the Takoma Park Community Center.