The Montgomery County Council and a state senator have rebuked Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart and the city council following outcry from the Jewish community over the screening of a pro-Palestine film.
The Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Commission is scheduled to screen “The Occupation of the American Mind” Tuesday night as part of a cultural arts series.
The film, available for free online, is narrated by musician Roger Waters. It is highly critical of Israel and, according to its description, accuses the Jewish state of “slaughter of unarmed Palestinian civilians” and states the American media “dehumanizes the Palestinian people,” among other criticisms.
In a letter eight county council members signed Friday, they state that the film depicts a “hateful and destructive premise of Jewish control and propaganda” that “has been weaponized to persecute Jews and justify the destruction of the Jewish people.”
“By sponsoring the film, the City of Takoma Park appears to be legitimatizing a premise that American Jews control the media and national politics, which is extremely offensive and hurtful to Takoma Park’s many Jewish residents, the entire Montgomery County Jewish community, and to all those who oppose bigotry,” the council members wrote.
Only Council member Tom Hucker did not sign. He said in an interview on Monday that he was notified of the letter Friday afternoon while at an event. He said he didn’t feel comfortable signing it because he and his staff were given only an hour and a half to decide whether to sign the letter.
“This came up suddenly. I usually don’t put my name on things I don’t know anything about,” he said.
Hucker added that he hasn’t seen the movie and wants to do so first before commenting.
Stewart, in an interview Monday, said she understands the controversy over the film, but a community forum will help foster dialogue about the difficult issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Given the rise of anti-Semitism around the world, I think it’s important for us to understand why some members of our community feel this is anti-Semitic and others don’t,” she said.
Ben Kramer, a Jewish state senator from Wheaton, wrote in a letter to Stewart Monday that a government showing a film like this “crosses the line.”
“What is next on the agenda …. Should we reflect on 1933 Germany for just a little guidance? Perhaps soon you will require your Jewish business owners to place Stars of David on their storefronts so that later it will be easier to identify them and smash their windows, or perhaps just a government promoted synagogue burning or two … after all, it’s just the Jews,” he wrote.
Stewart said that she had not seen Kramer’s letter and asked for time to look at it before commenting.
The County Council wrote its letter following several weeks of protest from the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC).
The Takoma Park Arts and Humanities Commission had scheduled the film for a June 13 screening, but after the JCRC wrote to Stewart with concern about the city showing it at taxpayers’ expense, the city postponed it to July 23 and invited a panel consisting of representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace (a different set of panelists was ultimately selected). The JCRC was also invited to be on the panel.
In response, JCRC Executive Director Ron Halber and Meredith Weisel, the group’s director of Maryland government and community relations, wrote to Stewart that they were “dismayed” that the film would be shown.
“It was Meredith’s understanding from her conversation with you that the film screening would be postponed perhaps until even next year and that you and members of the arts commission would engage in further conversations with our staff regarding strategies for presenting a more balanced approach to this difficult but important topic, that would not involve this film. Since that conversation, we have not heard anything further from your office or the staff person for the arts commission,” Halber and Weisel wrote on July 10.
In an interview Monday, Halber said the film’s screening was an “abdication of leadership” by city leaders, and that the controversy over showing the film wasn’t a matter of free speech, but the use of taxpayer dollars by the city to show an anti-Semitic film.
“Why are they wasting money on this? Can’t their money be used on fixing potholes? Don’t they need money for other things? This shows a clear lack of professionalism for Takoma Park,” he said.
Halber said the JCRC wasn’t willing to accept an invitation to a discussion on a film that rehashed anti-Semitic tropes.
“The idea that I would sit on a panel representing the Jewish community to discuss an anti-Semitic film is ridiculous. It’s beneath the Jewish community,” he said.
Among the panelists scheduled to participate on Tuesday night are Taher Herzallah, of American Muslims for Palestine.
The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that works to fight hate groups, alleged that Herzallah has advocated bombing Israel. Halber said this is a clear sign that Takoma Park officials have not done the right thing.
“What is it telling you about the leadership of Takoma Park if eight of the nine council members have come to the conclusion that this wrong?” he said.
But Herzallah released a statement posted to Takoma Park’s website Monday that he did not advocate bombing Israel, as the ADL alleged.
“This is not an accurate statement and does not reflect my nuanced views on the subject of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the Palestinian people,” he wrote.
Stewart noted that the screening will cost the city less than $1,000. The money will pay for a moderator for the discussion.
“There’s not that much money being spent. … It’s not about showing the film. It’s about creating a space and having people learn from each other. I’ve had such strong emotional reactions to this film for people who want it shown and who don’t want it shown,” she said.
Stewart added that she and the city council do not select the films for the arts series. Halber said he found that “incredibly unconvincing.”
“If she [Stewart] has no control, how is she able to postpone the film? And every member of the board is appointed by the mayor and the council,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org.