As it promised, Takoma Park on Tuesday screened the controversial film “The Occupation of the American Mind,” to pre-show protests and a heated after-film panel discussion that dissected the meaning of Zionism and anti-Semitism. Also in question was whether Israel deserved to be recognized by the Palestinians, an issue supposedly settled on the White House lawn in 1993 in the famous handshake between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
“The Occupation of the American Mind,” narrated by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and an avid supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, argues that Israeli propaganda controls the American media’s depiction of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
According to the film, Israel manipulates American media into making the conflict about “terror and not territory” —meaning that focus is on Palestinian violence while ignoring Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank —and purposely ensures that information about its occupation of the Palestinians never gets to the American public.
Posted by Washington Jewish Week on Tuesday, July 23, 2019
As the spillover crowd filled the auditorium of the Takoma Park Community Center, Herbert Grossman was among a few protesters on the street. He carried a sign reading “Only Anti-Semites and Jewish cowards support anti-Israel films.” Critics like Grossman who called the film anti-Semitic, included the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, which had launched a campaign to get the film cancelled. They saw the films depiction of Jews manipulating the media as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
Two panelists weighed in on the content of the movie and the criticisms it faced in the weeks before the showing: Matthew Mayers, of the liberal pro-Israel J Street, and Taher Herzallah, of American Muslims for Palestine.
A third panelist, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue, withdrew on Monday after the JCRC publicized two incendiary remarks by Herzallah. The ADL reported that Herzallah said in 2014: “Israelis have to be bombed. They are a threat to the legitimacy of Palestine.” Herzallah denied the claim.
In an Al-Jazeera video, 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.”
About the only thing Herzallah and Mayers agreed on was their opposition to the occupation. Mayers said he supported screening the film, but wasn’t taken in by it.
“The film is obviously an advocacy piece,” he said. “It is a one-sided view. But there is an occupation and it is brutal.”
Mayers told the audience that supporting Israel’s right to exist doesn’t mean necessarily supporting everything the country did.
“You can still love Israel and still think Palestinians aren’t evil, and but people with their own rights and needs for a homeland of their own,” he said. “I do want people to realize that Israel is divided over these issues just as America is divided with its administration right now.”
Herzallah saw no divisions and dismissed the idea of two states, two narratives and another side of the story.
“I don’t regret that those who opposed this film couldn’t come,” he said. “What’s ironic about this response to the film is that it proves exactly the point of the film: That any time there is a discussion on Palestine. There has to be this aura of objectivity by including an opposing voice. How ludicrous and ridiculous is that?”
Asked if he believed in Israel’s right to exist, Herzallah said: “States don’t have a right to exist. Just like the United States does not have a right to exist on native lands.”
The discussion was soon handed off to the audience. Many who spoke praised the praised the city for showing the film. Some, who identified themselves as Palestinian said the film represented their experience. Other speakers condemned it.
One man, wearing a keffiyeh, said, “I think it is fair to say the film is one-sided. Not that it’s anti-Semitic because it’s in no way against Jews. It is one-sided against Zionism. That’s the point of the film.”
Several in the audience identified themselves as Zionists. One was Jonathan Levy, “Zionism in a sense is the national liberation of the Jewish people,” he said, and condemned the film as a “piece of propaganda.”
“I want to ask the panel to acknowledge that there is a public relations war against Israel going on,” he continued. “The goal of the attackers, including the partisans here tonight, is to destroy the state of Israel and deny its people their right to self-determination.”
To this, several people said, “No. That’s not right.”
Saul Ludlow said, “After watching the moving, after listening to Taher, after going back to what was said at the beginning of the event that this would be a community of learning — I have to share with everyone that I am frightened to my core by what I have seen in the movie and what I have experienced by being part of this event.”
Asked if he believes Jews have a right to a homeland, Herzallah said, “Not at my expense. It’s funny for a Palestinian to answer if a colonizer has a right to colonize his homeland.”