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Theater caves to anti-Israel pressure, is forced to keep its word

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(A7) In  one of the more dizzying episodes of controversy surrounding Jewish cultural events since the Israel-Hamas war, a court ordered a Philadelphia-area movie theater Tuesday to move forward with screening an Israeli film less than a day after the theater’s Jewish director tried to call it off.

The injunction issued by Montgomery County Court instructed the Bryn Mawr Film Institute to move forward with its planned screening of “The Child Within Me,” a documentary about the Israeli musician Yehuda Poliker. The Israeli Film Festival of Philadelphia had reportedly filed a last-minute lawsuit against the theater, alleging breach of contract after it announced Monday night that it was no longer planning on screening the film owing to what its director called the “current climate.”

Local Jewish groups, enraged by the cancellation, had planned to stage a protest against the nonprofit theater Tuesday evening. The protest was still moving forward, organizers told Haaretz, in a show of support for the festival.

“This is not the way I wanted to do it,” Karnit Biran, the festival’s incoming chair, told the Israeli newspaper. Neither the festival nor the theater responded to Jewish Telegraphic Agency requests for comment Tuesday.

The legal director of the Deborah Project, a legal nonprofit that frequently litigates on behalf of pro-Israel causes, told JTA they represented the festival in court in order to compel the film center “to fulfill its obligations under the contract it signed with the Israeli Film Institute and show the Israeli movie it agreed to screen tonight.”

In his Monday letter to his board and in a public statement by the theater, Bryn Mawr Film Institute director Samuel Scott said the theater decided to cancel the showing with only a day’s notice. He described a perception that showing the movie was tantamount to endorsing Israel’s conduct during its ongoing war in Gaza.

“Although BMFI has always strived to be apolitical in selecting the films that we show, public sentiment lately has escalated to the point that continuing with the IFF screening is being widely taken among individuals and institutions in our community as an endorsement of Israel’s recent and ongoing actions,” Scott wrote.

He added, “This is not a statement we intended or wish to make,” but said he felt it was in the theater’s “best interests in light of the current climate.” Local anti-Israel college student groups, including a chapter of the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace, had planned to protest the screening, citing the festival’s inclusion of Israel Bonds and the Israeli Consulate General as sponsors.

The blowback from the Jewish community was severe. A local rabbi denounced the move as antisemitic, while at least one Jewish board member of the theater resigned after learning of the director’s decision. The local Jewish federation and Anti-Defamation League office published a joint statement condemning the decision and urging the theater to reverse course. An online petition pushing the theater to reverse its cancellation has amassed more than 3,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, and a state Senator who serves as a special representative on the theater’s board also criticized the decision.

 

The Bryn Mawr blowup offers the latest example of how deepening divisions over the war have affected Jewish and Israeli cultural events that bear little direct connection to it. A movie theater in Hamilton, Ontario, similarly backed out of an agreement to host a local Jewish film festival in recent weeks, while concert halls across the U.S. have cancelled tour dates by Jewish pro-Israel singer Matisyahu and multiple art institutions in the Bay Area — including the Contemporary Jewish Museum — have also been affected by anti-Zionist protests.

It is also the latest flare-up in especially sharp tensions over Israel in the Philadelphia area, where the Philly Palestine Coalition has targeted a wide array of Jewish and Israeli businesses and organizations over months of activity. The group rallied against the Goldie falafel shop run by Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov, for example, and now is pressing for the remainder of the Israeli Film Festival screenings to be canceled.

Yet the film whose screening was briefly scrapped — part of festival programming that began Saturday and continues through this coming Sunday at various venues in the city — has nothing to do with Gaza or the war. “The Child Within Me” is instead an experimental biography of Poliker, the son of Greek Jewish Holocaust survivors who became a rock star in Israel by drawing on his Mediterranean roots in his music. The film also explores Poliker’s gay identity.

Despite the film’s content, the theater’s director noted that, through conversations with “key staff,” he believed that showing the film would indicate to certain parties that he was taking a political stance. Scott has also served on the board of a local Reform synagogue.

The Bryn Mawr Film Institute is also currently screening “One Life,” a biopic about a non-Jewish man who saved Jewish children during the Holocaust.

Online, the institute issued a slightly different statement than Scott’s email to his board of directors that emphasized its years-long partnership with the festival. “In past years, we have not regarded hosting a screening from the Israeli Film Festival as a political partnership or taking a stance on any issues,” the theater wrote in a statement posted to its website and Instagram. “However, as the situation in Israel and Gaza has developed, it has become clear that our showing this movie is being widely taken among individuals and institutions in our community as an endorsement of Israel’s recent and ongoing actions.”

It was in stark contrast to a statement in defense of its participation in the festival that the film center had issued just days earlier. In that earlier statement, published Friday, the theater categorized the documentary as “nonpolitical” and about “one of Israel’s most popular entertainers.” The center added, “Art expresses and exposes universal humanity when governments foreign and domestic may overshadow it. At BMFI, we strive to present diverse, independent cinema from around the world to bring our community together, not divide it.”

While Scott did not specify which “individuals and institutions” objected to the Israeli film in the second statement, he did mention “a demonstration by local college students” that he said was being planned in protest of the screening. This correlates to social media statements made by local college pro-Palestinian groups, in which they discussed organizing to oppose the screening and meeting with the film center to encourage them not to host it.

On Instagram prior to the court ruling, the local JVP called off a protest they had planned for Tuesday evening and added, “We are grateful that they listened and our pressure worked.”

In an earlier post, the group wrote, “This festival is funding Israeli apartheid and genocide. Stop watching, take action.”

In a letter to Scott viewed by JTA, local rabbi Eric Yanoff of the Conservative congregation Adath Israel compared the move to recent incidents of antisemitism in the region, saying it was “arguably more insidious” than the recent targeting of another synagogue with a swastika.

“In the stated interest of avoiding conflict, you have aligned yourself, purposefully or not, with purveyors of the world’s oldest hatred,” Yanoff wrote. “Your silencing of this film speaks volumes, and even if it is not as bald-faced as a swastika on a synagogue, it gives mainstream credence and standing to those who would sympathize with such overt hatred.”

In a joint statement, the local federation and ADL office decried the cancellation, saying it “only serves to blacklist Israeli culture, playing into the hands of antisemites who try to deny the Jewish people their voice and existence.”

“We will not stand by as the normalization of such hate becomes commonplace,” the statement continued, praising the Israeli film festival as offering “a multifaceted view of Israeli society” and calling on the film center to reinstate the program.

On the same day Scott announced the film’s cancellation, several Jewish institutions throughout the state — including the Philadelphia federation and the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History, also based in Philadelphia — received bomb threats that authorities later determined were hoaxes. At least one target, the Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Center of Allentown, evacuated over the threat.

Misha Galperin, CEO of the Weitzman, told JTA the threat to the museum came in the form of a physical letter that referenced both Israel and the Nazis, and also named him personally. It followed several acts of vandalism at the museum, including two instances of Israeli hostage posters in its windows being defaced. He called the threat “pure, unadulterated antisemitism” and said he had been in contact with both local authorities and Pennsylvania’s Jewish governor, Josh Shapiro.

While Galperin hadn’t known about the Israeli Film Festival controversy, he said it all collectively pointed to a need for the broader community to show more visible support for Jewish institutions.

“With the cancellation, with the threats against the synagogues, with what happened with us, the community [and] the authorities really have to stand up,” he told JTA. “And we really have to have our allies do the right thing.”

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