Rochester Jews confronted with anti-Israel film festival

There hasn’t been much of a public outcry in this northern city in New York state, home to more than 20,000 Jews. It’s hard to know how to interpret the lack of response.

A view of the skyline of Rochester, N.Y. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A view of the skyline of Rochester, N.Y. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Dexter Van Zile
Dexter Van Zile is Managing Editor at the Middle East Forum.

Rochester, N.Y. was the scene of a lot of anti-Israel propaganda in October, thanks to a group that calls itself “Christian Witness for Palestine,” or CW4P for short.

This organization, which is a local chapter of Friends of Sabeel North America—a well-known anti-Zionist organization—organized a four-week-long film festival that showcased films demonizing Israel. Most of them were shown at the Little Theatre, a nonprofit venue owned by the local NPR station, WXXI. It’s the eighth year of the film festival, which began as a weeklong event in 2011.

This year the festival showcased five movies, four of which were shown at the Little Theatre. The first movie, “The Lobby,” was screened at St. John Fisher College, a nominally Catholic school, on Oct. 14. This film, produced by Al Jazeera, portrays pro-Israel activism as a malign force in American politics.

The next movie, “Firefighters Under Occupation,” documents the difficulties Palestinian firefighters experience while doing their jobs in the West Bank. A full version of the movie, which was screened on Oct. 20, is not available online, but judging from the trailer, it probably doesn’t do much to highlight how the firefighters are starved of resources by the Palestinian Authority, which gives millions of dollars a year to the families of terrorists. It’s the “occupation” that causes Palestinian suffering, not the misdeeds of Palestinian leaders.

The third film, “Soufra,” which aired on Oct. 21, tells the story of a woman living in a refugee camp in Beirut as she tries to raise the funds necessary to buy a food truck that she and other women can use to earn a living. Remarkably enough, this 72-minute gem does not engage in the anti-Israel propagandizing typically associated with documentaries featuring the plight of Palestinian refugees.

In fact, it doesn’t mention Israel once, but instead highlights the obstacles the Lebanese government has put into the way of Palestinian refugees as they try to earn a living.

Sadly, this film was followed by “The Great Book Robbery.” Produced in 2012, it documents how Israeli librarians collected tens of thousands of books taken from homes abandoned by Palestinians in the aftermath of the 1948 War for Independence.

As it turns out, the vast majority of these books were preserved for posterity, and yet Dutch-Israeli filmmaker Benny Brunner, with some help from folks like Ilan Pappé and others, portrays the act of cultural preservation as an act of destruction. Brunner’s own website says the film “tells the unknown story of the destruction of Palestinian culture in 1948.”

To be fair, one Arab lawyer expresses gratitude for Israel’s decision to preserve the books. Another Arab intellectual, however, declares that “you have to be seriously rotten to loot someone’s books.”

What should Israel have done? Let the books rot, or be looted and sold to private collectors?

The last film in the festival, shown on Oct. 28, was “1948: Creation and Catastrophe.” It portrays the establishment of Israel as an act of theft and not an act of Jewish self-defense against enemies who sought Israel’s destruction.

Despite the overall anti-Israel tone to the films shown by CW4P, there hasn’t been much of a public outcry about the festival in the city, which is home to more than 20,000 Jews. It’s hard to know how to interpret this lack of response.

One factor contributing to the silence is that the local pro-Israel organization ROC4Israel, a group established in 2013 to confront anti-Israel propaganda in the greater Rochester area, has been defunct since 2017. Another complicating factor is that the Little Theatre, which shows the Palestinian films, has in recent years also shown the Jewish film festival.

There is a substantial amount of support for Israel in the local political community, reports Meredith Dragon, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester. “Rochester is an incredibly strong Jewish community that is Zionistic,” she reported, “and we enjoy great support of Israel around the entire community.”

Even if the movies were only attended by a few-die hard activists, the issue is not just how many people attend the films, noted Melissa Landa, founder of the Maryland-based Alliance for Israel, who was alerted to the film festival by alliance members in Rochester. The fact is that a well-known institution in Rochester hosted anti-Zionist propaganda, and the subsequent lack of a response from the Jewish community could have a real impact on the self-confidence of young Jews who are already experiencing intimidation and harassment on college campuses, she said.

“The lack of response can be interpreted as passivity, fear or lack of allegiance to Israel,” said Landa. “People have a right to know that the Little Theatre is giving a platform to anti-Zionist propaganda so they can decide whether or not they want to frequent the establishment.”

Dexter Van Zile is a researcher at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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