Letter in the New York Review of Books – Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Schnabel, et al

In the New York Review of Books Volume 56, Number 16 · October 22, 2009

Let Israeli FIlms be Shown

By Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Schnabel, Martin Sherman
To the Editors:

A group of prominent filmmakers has protested the Toronto Film Festival’s choice of Tel Aviv, in its “City to City” section showcasing films from and about a particular city, as “a propaganda campaign on behalf of…an apartheid regime.”[*] Their letter declared that the signatories were not protesting against the Israeli filmmakers who were included or their films. Their stand seems to us to be improperly thought out and to have distressing implications.

The protesters use the term “apartheid regime.” We oppose the current Israeli government, but it is a government. Freely elected. Not a regime. Words matter.

In their letter the protesters say that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages.” True. Just as much of America is built on obliterated Indian property. Are they implying that Tel Aviv should not exist? At least not in its present form? Which would mean that the State of Israel (the original State of Israel, not including the occupied territories) should not exist. Thousands of Palestinians have died through the years because the Israeli government, military, and part of the population fervently believe that the Arab states and, indeed, much of the world do not want Israel to exist. How then are we halting this never-ending cycle of violence by promoting the very fears that cause it?

The injustice and cruelty inflicted upon the Palestinians over decades are immense. Many great powers, most notably the Soviet Union and Great Britain, have collaborated in this injustice, just as, if only by their silence, they played havoc with the lives of Jews during the Third Reich and the ensuing Holocaust.

Many Israelis are aware of this history. Many citizens of Tel Aviv are particularly cognizant of the situation of the Palestinians and are concerned about their government’s policies and their country’s future. And none more so than the Tel Aviv creative community. This is exemplified by Israeli films that criticize their government’s behavior, and some startling Israeli theater pieces, such as the Cameri Theatre’s Plonter, seen earlier this year in London. The Israeli peace bloc, Gush Shalom, and many Israeli human rights groups and advocates are based in Tel Aviv. Some 10,000 Israeli citizens demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the military attack on Gaza in January this year, a fact not reported by the BBC World News or CNN.

These citizens of Tel Aviv and their organizations and their cultural outlets should be applauded and encouraged. Their presence and their continued activity is reason alone to celebrate their city. Cultural exchanges almost always involve government channels. This occurs in every country. There is no way around it. We do not agree that this involvement is a reason to shun or protest, picket or boycott, or ban people who are expressing thoughts and confronting grief that, ironically, many of the protesters share.

If attitudes are hardened on both sides, if those who are fighting within their own communities for peace are insulted, where then is the hope? The point finally is not to grandstand but to inch toward a two-state solution and a world in which both nations can exist, perhaps not lovingly, but at least in peace.

The year 2009 is the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Barenboim-Said West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. We hope that those who protest Israeli inclusion in film festivals will take note of this example of the power of art freely expressed and available to all, and reconsider their position.

Vanessa Redgrave
Julian Schnabel
Martin Sherman

18 Responses to “Letter in the New York Review of Books – Vanessa Redgrave, Julian Schnabel, et al”

  1. Harry Goldstein Says:

    A good letter except for: ‘“Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages.” True.’

    Sorry, not true. Tel Aviv was built on uninhabited sand dunes north of Jaffa, and the land was legally purchased. Can anyone provide chapter and verse about the existence of these alleged villages, and when they were supposed to have been destroyed? Tel Aviv was founded during the Ottoman period, then expanded under the British Mandate. At neither period were the Jews in any position to destroy Arab villages even if they had wanted to.

    The frightening thing is that this nonsense appears to have acquired the status of historical fact even among those who might be considered friends.

    • Brian Goldfarb Says:

      Thanks, Harry, for answering my question (below) before I’d even asked it! How’s that for prescience?

      More importantly, it’s good to have my memories confirmed. I’d thought this, not least because Kfar HaMaccabiah, the world headquarters of Maccabi World Union, is built on what was considered worthless sand dunes to the east of Tel Aviv (now the suburb of Ramat Gan). It would now be considered prime building land, were it still sand dunes!

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Facts, please, from someone. I always undersdtood that Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes located to the north of Jafo/Jaffa. What is the empirical truth, please.

  3. Jacob A. Says:

    Harry Goldstein: “A good letter except for: ‘“Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages.” True.’ Sorry, not true”

    Obviously not true.

    How could the Jews who founded Tel Aviv in 1909 have “destroyed” any villages in Turkish Palestine? They didn’t have an army or even a militia at that time.

    The writers of the letter weren’t just making a mistake; they showed themselves to be as grossly ignorant of Jewish history as the original boycotters of the Toronto film festival.

  4. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    The historical Tel Aviv was built on sand dunes. After 1948 Sarona (a former German settlement) and some Arab villages from where Jews were attacked became part of Tel Aviv.
    Also Jaffo in which many Arab citizens of Israel live became part of Tel Aviv.

    Even if I do not agree with everything they say in their letter, I have to admit that they have changed their attitude.

  5. Martin E Says:

    I think you will find that as Tel Aviv expanded, it did indeed come to build on the sites of former Arab villages — e.g., I believe it is generally that part of the Tel Aviv University campus is built on the site of an Arab village whose residents fled the impending 1948 war. So it is true that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages” (abandoned villages will eventually be “destroyed” by the ravages of time). Of course, while technically correct, the statement gives a decidedly false impression. As the Yiddish proverb goes, “A half-truth is a whole lie.”

    Rather than getting trapped in futile disagreements about the accuracy of the statement and (vs.?) the accuracy of the impression it may have been artfully designed to convey, Redgrave, Schnabel, and Sherman used the statement to address a far more important point in an excellent fashion. All credit to them.

  6. spencer Says:

    and so what of the former city of Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv? is there some great difference that the houses of the Arab residents (who almost completely evacuated the city during the war, but who were not allowed back) were not destroyed, but instead occupied by immigrant Jews, of such distinction? that it was a city and not “villages”?

  7. Will They Boycott Antibiotics? « ModernityBlog Says:

    […] other news, that anti-Israeli fanatic,Vanessa Redgrave, shows just how lazy bigots like her truly are? She […]

  8. Harry Goldstein Says:

    Martin E, thanks for your clarification. I suspected there may have been some such nugget of truth post-1948, although I think we agree that the original statement is so misleading as to constitute a lie.

    However, I don’t accept your description of the argument as futile. I genuinely think there is a danger in letting these statements go by default, and that this hands a victory to the boycotters, who will claim that the imperialist nature of the Israeli state is common ground and the only disagreement is how to oppose it.

    More generally, I suspect that many lefties and liberals genuinely think that zionist settlement equates to the settlement of America or Australia, where settlers with guns arrived in a lawless wilderness and forcibly displaced the indigenous people. The fact is that the Ottoman regime may have been oppressive, corrupt and inefficient, but it wasn’t lawless. Immigration, residence and land purchase all took place within the framework of law, and were answerable to the existing authorities.

    It is important to challenge these misconceptions as they arise, otherwise a false history become accepted as the conventional wisdom.

  9. Lynne T Says:

    I note that the letter writers let “apartheid” stand, and I also have to wonder exactly what the writers were thinking when they penned this sentence:

    “Thousands of Palestinians have died through the years because the Israeli government, military, and part of the population fervently believe that the Arab states and, indeed, much of the world do not want Israel to exist. ”

    Are they suggesting that Israel is a nation of paranoids? Or do the letter writers suggest that the four wars of extermination fought between ’47 and ’73 and following decades of “asymetric warfare” against not only Israeli civillians living in Israel and the occupied territories, but against Jewish civillians living in places as far distant as Argentina are not to be taken seriously as the intentions of the Palestinians and their ostensible supporters?

    The saving grace though comes at the close:

    “If attitudes are hardened on both sides, if those who are fighting within their own communities for peace are insulted, where then is the hope? The point finally is not to grandstand but to inch toward a two-state solution and a world in which both nations can exist, perhaps not lovingly, but at least in peace.”

  10. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    It depends to what you compare their letter. Compared to their earlier statement it is an improvement. But it is still wrong in many parts as has been showed here.
    Reminds me of the old Jewish story. The rabbi is saying the obituary and praising the death. When the ceremony is finished some members of the community ask the rabbi, how could you praise this stingy liar?
    The rabbi: You are right but in comparison to his son he was a Zadik.

  11. Mark2 Says:

    The troubling thing about this is that Ms Redgrave used to be pettty much the “gold standard” of anti Zionism.

    What on earth do the views she expresses here (for all their well noted above faults) imply for those who (remain) boycotters?

  12. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    spencer: “and so what of the former city of Jaffa, now part of Tel Aviv? is there some great difference that the houses of the Arab residents (who almost completely evacuated the city during the war, but who were not allowed back) were not destroyed, but instead occupied by immigrant Jews, of such distinction? that it was a city and not “villages”?”

    I take it that spencer hasn’t visited Jaffa lately. Last time I was there, in late ’07, much of the place was _still_ inhabited by Arab-Israelis, and any changes are lawful: ie, properties get _sold_ – you know, just like you would buy and sell a property here, spencer – to whoever.

    It was the case in 1988 and every time I’ve been since.

    Of course, if spencer has _evidence_ (as opposed to assertion) that it is other than this, perhaps he would care to enlighten us…

    Go on, we’re waiting.

  13. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I should have added the question: is he mistaking Jaffa for Haifa? It’s an easy mistake to make: largeish towns, mainly inhabited by Moslems, seriously affected by the 1948-49 war of independence. Only thing is, in Haifa (at least 20 miles north of Tal Aviv-Joppa) the bigwigs did efugee out, but to a far lesser extent in Jaffa.

    The question remains, spencer.

  14. spencer Says:

    Benny Morris, in ‘The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited’ (Cambridge University Press, 2004), describes the situation in detail. In 1942, the population of Jaffa (not Haifa) is 70,000, mostly Arabs. (page 27) After the war breaks out, the population starts to flee, which is acerbated when Irgun shells civilian areas of the city for 3 days, just after Deir Yassein. (213-14) The British try to intervene to avoid a repeat of Haifa, but “nothing could have prevented the complete evacuation of the town.” (216-17) By May 8, 1948, there are only 5,000 residents left. (218) After the (soon-to-be) Israeli forces occupy the town, there is widespread looting, executions and at least one rape. (220) Outside of Tel Aviv, parts of Abu Kabir village (and all of Manshiya) are destroyed, and in mid-1949, a plan to demolish “the whole of the old city” of Jaffa was started, but halted; however, piecemeal destruction continued in the following years. (359) The settlement of Jewish immigrants – as well as government officials, soldiers and their families – started almost immediately. (384-89). Ben-Gurion declared that Jaffa was to become a “Jewish city.” By the end of September, 2,400 Jewish families had settled in Jaffa. (385) Almost all of the remaining Arabs were evicted and moved into specific neighborhoods. (386) “In April-August 1950, Jaffa ceased to exist as a separate municipal entity and Tel Aviv officially changed its name to ‘Tel Aviv-Jaffa’. ” (389)

    To the best of my knowledge, the 60,000+ refugees who fled Jaffa were not allowed to return.

  15. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    What Spencer is a repet of Haifa? Benny Morris writes in “1948” about the truce negotiatings (British mediation) the Arabs “stated that they were not in a position to sign the truce, as they had no control over the Arab military elements in the town and that, in all sincerity, they could not fulfill the terms of the truce, even if they were to sign. They then said as an alternative that the Arab population wished to evacuate Haifa… man, woman and child.”
    Jewish and British officials were flabbergasted. Haifa mayor Shabtai Levy appealed “very passionately… and begged [the Arabs] to reconsider”.
    Arabs could stay in Haifa and a few thousands remained in the city and are well integrated in Haifa.
    Spencer never forget. Arabs wanted to drive the Jews into the sea. So when you look at population exchanges in India/Pakistan. Nobody ever asks, to recreate the situation as before.

  16. Comrade T Says:

    Perhaps Spencer could tell us the history of the Jews of Gaza circa 1929 – 1948? Or Jews in many Middle East countires after 1948 and 1967? Whoops, that would mean tracing the history of Jews being forced to move for fear of their life.

    Of course, whilst the movements of populations at times of crisis, war and national indepence are an accurate picture of historical reality (and one to be bemoaned), the idea that the conflict in Israel and Palestine and its history is all one-sided many not fit the narrative Spencer may want to impose upon it. (But, I guess that would mean “Spencer’s” research going beyond those few books that appear to be the common currency of those who know little, but, having read them, think they know it all).

  17. Karl Pfeifer Says:

    Comrade T right on the spot. We say in German, the fellow is behind with one brochure. I was in April 1948 in the Negev when weapons and munition arrived by plane from Prague.
    So Spencer never forget the help the Soviet Union and the “socialist” countries gave Israel right at the beginning. Withou that aid, we probably could not survive the attack of the Arab Armies a few weeks later.


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