TIFF PROTEST: “A Blizzard of Lies”, Jewish Voices for Peace 13Sep09 September 14, 2009

This fact sheet is a response to the campaign of disinformation being waged against the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) protest letter, “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation,”[1] signed by 1,000 people including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Naomi Klein, Eve Ensler, along with many Israelis and Palestinians. This year, TIFF decided to put a celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv at the festival, in line with the goals of the Israeli Consulate’s “Brand Israel” program. In its own words, the “Brand Israel” program aims to publicize Israeli culture in order to distract public attention from its human rights record. The letter of protest objects to this politicization of the film festival, saying it is inappropriate given Israel’s nearly 42-year occupation of the Palestinian Territories, the recent assault and continuing siege on Gaza, and the history of and ongoing dispossession of Palestinians in Tel Aviv-Jaffa itself.

Since the release of the protest letter, public figures and media outlets have spread false charges and misinformation about the letter, some even going so far as to raise slanderous accusations against some letter signers.

This fact sheet refutes three key false charges:

1) That the protest letter unfairly singles out Israel.

2) That the letter calls for a boycott of the Film Festival and Israeli films.

3) That the letter in any way delegitimizes Tel Aviv.

These charges are all false, as we explain below.


By selecting Tel Aviv for the inauguration of its City to City program, TIFF became a key player in an explicit, openly-stated Israeli effort to divert world opinion from ongoing violations of international law. “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits,” Arye Mekel, deputy director-general for cultural affairs for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told The New York Times. “This way, you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” [2]

In so doing, TIFF violated the trust of festival supporters by politicizing the festival, instead of maintaining political neutrality.

Israel’s flirtation with branding as a solution to the problem of increasing global isolation goes back to 2006 when then Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni announced the new initiative. As Reuters reported in 2006 [3]:

«After decades of battling to win foreign support for its two-fisted policies against Arab foes, Israel is trying a new approach with a campaign aimed at creating a less warlike and more welcoming national image. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has argued that the protracted conflict with the Palestinians is sapping Israel’s international legitimacy, this week convened diplomats and PR executives to come up with ways of “rebranding” the country. ..The campaign is a departure from the government’s long-held practice of “hasbara”, or “explaining” itself to Western audiences that may have little sympathy for crackdowns on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Now Israel wants to create an alternative image abroad, focused exclusively on assets like tourist attractions and business innovations. In the words of one campaigner and ad executive, the aim would be to create “a narrative of normalcy”.

When Anholt Nation Brands Index included Israel for the first time[4] in its annual survey of national brands in 2006, Simon Anholt wrote that “Israel’s brand is, by a considerable margin, the most negative we have ever measured in the NBI, and comes in at the bottom of the ranking on almost every question.” He surmised that the surprisingly low rankings in all areas, including Tourism, and Culture and Heritage, were due to the fact that “if the politics create sufficient disapproval, no area of national interest is safe from contamination.”

While he lauded Israel for recognizing its brand problem, which stemmed largely from disapproval of its harsh treatment of Palestinians, he cautioned that no country had ever successfully changed its brand through through “marketing communications and forms of deliberate propaganda.” “This is surely because,” he wrote, “all countries, at some level, get the reputation they deserve.”

Nonetheless, Israel has continued with the program, as reported in the New York Times [5], treating global opprobrium as a PR problem rather than a human rights problem.

This strategy was explicitly linked to TIFF when Israel consul general Amir Gissin announced the launch of a 10-month branding campaign[6].

“Upon his posting to Canada last year, Gissin made it clear that his mission was to “make Israel relevant” to Canadians and use Toronto as a test market for the Israel brand during his term. The lessons learned from Toronto will inform the worldwide launch of Brand Israel in the coming years, Gissin said.” He also announced that “plans are in the works for a major Israeli presence at next year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand.”


“The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation” clearly does not call for a boycott. “We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City,” it states, “nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF.” In fact, TIFF has a long history of including Israeli filmmakers in the festival without protest. One of the letter’s drafters is Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, whose film Fallen Angel had its premiere at TIFF. One of the protest letter-signers is Palestinian citizen of Israel filmmaker Elia Suleiman whose film, The Time that Remains, is featured in this year’s festival.

What the signers do object to, particularly given Israel’s widely condemned 22-day military assault on Gaza this past winter, “is the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign,” and in particular, the singling out of Israel for special reward through the celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv.

Choosing not to make a specific demand, the letter aims instead to call attention to a more accurate history that reflects the stories of both Jews and Palestinians in the region. The letter’s signers are “disturbed” by the decision to celebrate Tel Aviv in a way that erases the complex history of the city and the ongoing dispossession of and attacks on Palestinians, none of which is even mentioned in festival programs and descriptions of the City to City celebration of Tel Aviv.

Despite the fact that the letter does not contain a specific call to action, many groups and media outlets repeat the same lie over and over again about a so-called call for a boycott. One has to ask, have they actually read the letter? Clearly not.

Alan Dershowitz, “Filmmakers and writers seek to censor Israeli film,” Jerusalem Post http://cgis.jpost.com/Blogs/dershowitz

“A group of hard-Left filmmakers and writers from around the world have been using their celebrity to try to coerce the Toronto International Film Festival into banning Israeli films….That is why they seek to close it to views different than theirs. “Speech for me but not for thee!,” is the age-old mantra of censors.”

Bnai Brith http://blogs.jta.org/politics/article/2009/09/09/1007747/j-street-bnai-brith-rip-toronto-film-festival-protests

“Several prominent names in the film industry, including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, and about 50 others, signed a petition to boycott the Toronto International Film Festival because of the event’s focus on Tel Aviv-based film makers.”

Israel Today http://www.israeltoday.co.il/default.aspx?tabid=178&nid=19533

Hollywood stars boycott film festival for focusing on Tel Aviv: «Hollywood heavyweights Jane Fonda and Danny Glover have joined a very vocal boycott of the 2009 Toronto Film Festival, which will focus this year on Tel Aviv and its film industry.»

Talk show host Dennis Prager: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Er3qMyGFqVI

«They have a Toronto film festival and some of the people who have made films that are there have pulled out because they are showing Israeli films… and they have asked them not to… a group of actors, authors, musicians and activists is circulating a letter of protest about a special program at the Toronto Film festival  focusing on Tel Aviv and Israeli culture. The letter which has been endorsed by the likes of, ready?… Naomi Klein, Jane Fonda, and Danny Glover … Of all the countries in the world that should not be allowed to show a film at a festival. It’s Israel.»

Gossip Blogger Perez Hilton http://perezhilton.com/2009-09-04-stars-boycott-toronto-film-festival-due-to-israeli-palestinian-conflict

“Stars Boycott Toronto Film Festival Due To Israeli-Palestinian Conflict!” (Perez column is source for Ha’aretz coverage)

These reports fail to mention, of course, that the letter has been signed by Israeli filmmakers like Udi Aloni, Elia Suleiman, Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, Rachel Leah Jones, Osnat Trabelsi, Eyal Sivan, Shai Carmeli Pollak, Eran Torbiner, Guy Davidi, Avi Hershkovitz, and Eyal Eithcowich. These filmmakers obviously are not advocating that they be boycotted. They are speaking out against their government’s use of art to cleanse its international image.


Nothing in the letter can, in any way, be understood as saying or even suggesting that Tel Aviv should not exist as a city. The festival programmers have described Tel Aviv as “a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates diversity.” In response, the letter points to facts left out of this description, including the well-documented fact that Palestinians lived on the land that is now Tel Aviv before it was founded.

What the letter does talk about is Tel Aviv’s history, and referring to established history no more challenges Tel Aviv’s legitimacy than the telling of history of any city or state. What it does is ask is that we recognize that the story of Tel Aviv, like that of Israel itself, is complicated by the fact that Palestinians lost their homes, villages and land to make way for the modern Israeli city, and that the loss of homes continues in Jaffa today.

Further, many of the false charges against the letter stem from the claim that it refers to Tel Aviv as “contested.” This is pure fabrication. Read the letter[7]. The word “contested” does not appear.

As Naomi Klein, one of the drafters of the declaration said, “Asserting historical facts in no way argues that Israel should not exist or calls for its destruction. That is an absurd claim that is being circulated with the express purpose of discrediting the letter and changing the topic from what is at hand: is this really the right year for TIFF to celebrate Tel Aviv? The reason we object to the spotlight is not past events but present day ones — for instance, the fact that Tel Aviv, far from being outside the conflict, is the military center of Israel, a place from which fighter jets departed on their missions to Gaza last December/January.”

Finally, many of the false charges against the letter stem from a statement made not by the letter-writers but rather by TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey, who, as TIFF co-director, is most decidedly not a co-signer of the protest letter. Indeed, Cameron Bailey was lauded by Stand With Us for standing by the City to City program. He who used the term “contested” to describe Tel Aviv, saying in an open letter, http://www.tiff.net/livefromthefestival/openlettercitytocity, that spotlighting Tel Aviv was “not a simple choice and that the city remains contested ground.”

Yet once again, numerous sources have continued to repeat the outright fabrication that the TIFF protest letter questioned Tel Aviv’s legitimacy. It did not. Rabbi Marvin Hier went so far as to absurdly charge all signers of the letter with seeking the destruction of the Jewish state. Further, though the letter says people like Archbishop Tutu have called Israel an apartheid state, it does not use the language directly.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, Simon Wiesenthal Center http://www.wiesenthal.com/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=lsKWLbPJLnF&b=4441467&ct=7459569

“… this is nothing less than a call for the complete destruction of the Jewish State. There can be no other interpretation when the legitimacy of Tel Aviv is called into question.”

Rabbi Hier’s statement is the most egregious use of this misinformation, but the advocacy group StandWithUs and the news outlet the Jewish Telegraphic Agency repeated it, too.

Stand With Us Fact sheet on “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation,” http://www.standwithus.com/app/iNews/view_n.asp?ID=1162

«Tel Aviv is not “contested” ground. No proposed peace agreements ever envisioned including Tel Aviv, Israel’s second largest city, in a future Palestinian state.»

Jewish Telegraphic Agency http://blogs.jta.org/telegraph/article/2009/09/03/1007626/toronto-tel-aviv-and-apartheid

“Danny Glover, Jane Fonda and Alice Walker have a problem with a Toronto film festival celebrating Tel Aviv, which they call “contested ground” governed by an “apartheid regime”


About Jewish Voice for Peace

Founded in 1996, Jewish Voice for Peace is a national grassroots peace organization dedicated to promoting a US foreign policy in the Middle East based on peace, democracy, human rights and respect for international law. With some 85,000 supporters and members, JVP’s board of Jewish American and Israeli advisors includes Pulitzer and Tony award winner Tony Kushner, actor Ed Asner, poet Adrienne Rich, historian Howard Zinn, singer Ronnie Gilbert as well as other respected rabbis, artists, scholars and activists.

[1] “The Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation.” http://torontodeclaration.blogspot.com/

[3] Dan Williams, “Don’t mention the war: Israel seeks image makeover,” Reuters, October 26, 2006, http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L26119191.htm

[4] News agencies, “A country with a bad reputation,” Ynet, November 22, 2006, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3331279,00.html

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