Despite criticism from both county and state officials, the city of Takoma Park showed a controversial pro-Palestine film at its community center Tuesday night, followed by a panel discussion.
Attendees filled the community center’s auditorium and a second room to watch “The Occupation of the American Mind” — a 2016 film that accuses the American media of controlling the narrative about the Israel-Palestine conflict and not presenting an accurate picture of the Palestinian side.
The showing of the film was part of a cultural arts series the city holds, and was opposed by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington for several weeks. Additionally, eight members of the Montgomery County Council and state Sen. Ben Kramer, a Wheaton Democrat, sent letters to Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart opposing the film’s showing.
Stewart responded by stating that neither she nor the city council endorsed the message of the film, but the city wanted to create a forum for a respectful dialogue.
About 250 people attended on Tuesday, according to city spokeswoman Donna Wright. Participants filled the community center’s auditorium. In an overflow second room, the film and panel discussion were streamed.
A panel discussion took place after the film, moderated by professional discussion facilitator Theo Brown, of Washington-based Public Engagement Associates. Brown prefaced the discussion by noting that the film’s controversial nature had drawn sharp rebuke from the council and Kramer.
Panelist Taher Herzallah, of American Muslims for Palestine, said the pushback against the film was “incredibly outrageous” and that “Occupation of the American Mind” was a “high-quality film” that properly frames the Palestinian narrative.
Herzallah’s presence on the panel was a point of controversy due to allegations from the Anti Defamation League that he said Israel should be bombed. Herzallah has denied the allegation.
Panelist Matthew Mayers, of the liberal Middle East organization J Street, said the film is an “advocacy piece” promoting one point of view, but is not anti-Semitic. He said he hopes people realize from the film that Israel is a divided nation.
Mayers, however, disagreed with Herzallah’s endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel. BDS aims to put economic pressure on Israel to withdraw from disputed territories in the Middle East by boycotting Israeli companies.
When the audience had an opportunity to comment, one man said he understands the film isn’t balanced, but it is supposed to have a point of view.
“That’s the point of the film, to give a side you haven’t heard,” he said.
Prior to the event, a number of protesters stood outside the community center with signs that read messages such as “Say NO to conspiracy theories and propaganda!”
Harris Cohen, a Silver Spring resident, said he learned about the film a week and a half ago. He said he wished the panelists at the forum were vetted more thoroughly to make sure all sides were represented fairly.
“I think it’s terrific to have a dialogue. However, the film and the forum that was chosen is very unfortunate,” he said.
Melissa Landa, the founder of the Rockville-based organization Alliance for Israel, said she found out about the film two weeks ago. Landa, who had watched the movie online before Tuesday’s screening, said her organization’s members did not want to be silent.
“We decided that as long as the film was going on, we needed to come here and make a statement,” she said.
Also standing outside the building was state Comptroller Peter Franchot, who lives in Takoma Park. Franchot said in an interview Wednesday that he was surprised the film went forward despite opposition.
“I’ve lived in Takoma Park for 40 years. It’s a very diverse community and liberal community, but putting that kind of controversial documentary up in a public space, when the Jewish people are facing discrimination, as we saw in Pittsburgh, is completely and utterly indefensible and inexplicable,” he said, referring to a synagogue shooting in that city last year that left 11 dead.
Franchot said he watched the film online at home and did not go inside the community center for Tuesday’s screening. He said he wanted to have a presence outside the building to state his opposition, and spoke with several protesters.
“Hats off to them [protesters]. And a big thumbs down to the leadership of the city,” he said. “I love Takoma Park. I love Montgomery County. This movie should not have been shown using taxpayer dollars.”
Stewart said Monday that less than $1,000 was being spent to pay for the discussion moderator.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.email@example.com