The 18th annual Israeli Film Festival, which is being sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel, is currently screening films at the International House in Philadelphia. The film festival, which runs from March 8th until April 6th, claims to be a celebration of Israeli culture aimed at enriching the American vision of Israeli society. Despite its self-portrayal as a purely cultural event, however, the Film Festival—which receives financial support from Israel—is helping to whitewash Israel’s appalling human rights record towards the Palestinian people.
On March 9th, the festival screened Sharon—An Inner Journey from War to Peace. This film, which focuses on Ariel Sharon’s ostensible journey from a military man to a peacemaker, transforms the late leader into a likeable and relatable Israeli nationalist hero. For many Palestinians, however, Sharon is remembered as a war criminal. During his long tenure in the Israeli military and government, he oversaw the bulldozing of homes and the massacre of Palestinian civilians in Jordan, Lebanon, and the occupied territories; helped to instigate the second Intifada; and spearheaded the Israeli settlement drive and the construction of the apartheid wall in Gaza and the West Bank. To counter the Israeli Film Festival’s attempt to rewrite history, the Philadelphia Coalition for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and their allies held a demonstration outside of International House on the day of the Sharon film’s screening. Protesters held signs that read “Free Palestine,” “Sabra,” “Shatila,” and “We will never forget,” and a banner that read “Boycott Israeli Apartheid.” Information was distributed enumerating Ariel Sharon’s history of war crimes against Palestinians.
Prior to the protest, Philly BDS sent a letter to the International House asking them not to screen Sharon, for which we received no response. The International House, however, did not advertise for the film festival nor did International House organizers attend the film screening.
The protest was met by hostility by the film attendees, who were a largely non-diverse group who supported a Zionist Israeli state and the maintenance of the current status quo in Israel. A Palestinian member of Philly BDS, Noor, lamented: “I wish they would just talk to me. So that we could have a conversation.” Another supporter of BDS spoke with one of the organizers of the film festival—who reported not supporting the selection of the film Sharon for inclusion in the festival, but who had been outvoted.
Along with efforts like “Brand Israel,” films of this nature help to deflect blame and steer the conversation away from the pressing political issues standing in the way of a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The goal of the protest was to highlight this form of whitewashing and to focus on the importance of never forgetting events such as the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
Sharon’s complicity in these massacres solidified his image as the “Butcher of Beirut.” On the night of September 16, 1982—at the height of the polarizing Lebanese civil war—Israel’s Phalangist allies massacred unarmed Palestinian and Lebanese civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. The Israeli Defense Forces, which had earlier violated a ceasefire agreement between the various forces, facilitated the massacre by surrounding the camps, stationing troops at the exits of Sabra and Shatila to prevent camp residents from fleeing, and illuminating the area with flares. An Israeli Commission later concluded that the then Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, bore personal responsibility for the massacres, which a United Nations Commission referred to as a form of genocide.
In August 2005, Sharon oversaw the forcible eviction of some 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip—a decision that some welcomed as a surprising move for the elder statesman and a step towards reconciliation. Yet focusing on the late Prime Minister’s piecemeal decision to disengage from Gaza obscures the reality on the ground. The region—which some have called the world’s largest open-air prison—remains under the effective occupation of the Israeli government, which still controls its airspace, land passages, and coastline.
Many experts also believe that Sharon’s ultimate goal was to derail the roadmap towards peace and foreclose the possibility for a Palestinian state through this relatively small concession to the Palestinian and international communities. By painting an overly rosy picture of the late political and military leader, the Israeli film festival is helping to conceal Sharon’s human rights record and is obscuring the ongoing, lived reality for millions of Palestinians suffering in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Philadelphia Coalition for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is calling on all those who stand in solidarity with Palestine not to attend the Israeli Film Festival. Due to its support from the Consulate General of Israel and its decision to screen Sharon—An Inner Journey from War to Peace, the Israeli Film Festival cannot be conceptualized as a wholly neutral, apolitical space of cultural expression. In fact, festivals and documentaries of this nature help shift the conversation away from the ongoing plight of the Palestinian people, the need for significant reforms of Israeli state policies, and the U.S. government’s complicity in these actions.