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Marblehead film screening prompts anger from local Jewish Community

MARBLEHEAD — The local Jewish community is speaking out against what they call an anti-Semitic film slated to be shown Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead.

A free movie screening of “The Occupation of the American Mind” will be held at the church, located at 28 Mugford St., at 4 p.m., as part of the church’s Meeting House series.

The film, produced by The Media Education Foundation, advertises itself as a documentary addressing Israel’s public relations war in the United States. A flyer for the event reads that the film is about the question of human rights, not anti-Semitism.

“Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory and its settlements have impeded the peace process and fueled condemnation of Israel policies around the world, except in the United States,” reads a description of the film in the church’s event flyer. “The Occupation of the American Mind takes an eye-opening look at the reason why.”

Local rabbis have spoken out against the screening, including Rabbi Michael Ragozin, of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and Rabbi David Meyer, of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.

“The film takes not just a critical view of Israel, but it promotes lies and falsehoods and it’s that tactic of lies and falsehoods that ultimately promotes extremism and are detriments to democracy and detriments to ultimately any peaceful sort of resolution to the conflict in Israel,” said Ragozin. “When you have a film that is motivated by that type of mindset, it only serves that end, which is the elimination of the state of Israel and it doesn’t serve the idea of any peaceable solution.”

In addition, Ragozin said the narrator, Roger Waters, a member of Pink Floyd, has a pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) stance, which he said is really an effort to eliminate the state of Israel.

The BDS movement is described on its website as a Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality, which “upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.” The BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law, according to the website.

But the Rev. Dr. Wendy von Courter, of the Unitarian Universalist Church, said she plans to go ahead with the film screening as scheduled. She said the executive producer of the film will be there, along with some other folks well aware of the complexities of the issue.

Von Courter said the church’s social action committee found the film was a good fit for its continued exploration of the road to justice for all people. She said some members of the committee have firsthand experience in the Middle East and the church’s larger congregation and denomination is quite familiar with the issue.

“This program is not intended to be anti-Semitic, but arises out of a long-standing wish and hope for peace and for the well-being of Israelis, as well as Palestinians,” von Courter said in an email. “The program is not based on hateful intent. Indeed, the hope is that it will lead to heightened awareness and an understanding of different points of view and motivations.”

Meyer said he is in favor of civil dialogue in matters of current events and finding a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worthy of robust conversation. But he said the problem with the film is “it is so terribly one-sided as a documentary” and narrated by an “anti-Semite.”

“I wanted to simply alert the minister and congregation that the film itself is a cause of great dismay to members of the Jewish community,” Meyer said.

Deborah Coltin, executive director of the Lappin Foundation, a Jewish nonprofit based in Salem, said the foundation has been circulating an advertisement protesting the film screening. She said the film’s message demonizes Israel, promotes anti-Semitism and also took issue with the narrator.

In addition, Coltin said the film doesn’t present things in historical context — Israeli-Palestinian issues are complex ones and they are presented in very simplistic terms. She said Israel is pictured in the film as the aggressors committing unprovoked violence on Palestinian civilians, which is troubling.

But Sut Jhally, executive director of the Media Education Foundation and executive producer of the film, said anti-Semitic charges are made on anything that is critical of the policies of the state of Israel and that type of reaction is to make sure there’s no discussion of the issue. He said the film is about the media coverage and the way in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is covered in the United States.

“Millions of Jews hate what Israel is doing supposedly in its name,” Jhally said. “The rest of the world knows the U.S. is supporting this incredible abuse of human rights going on … My advice would be for people to come see the film and judge for themselves whether it’s anti-Semitic.”

Jhally said the accusations of anti-Semitism are essentially a smear campaign to get people to not think about the issue because opponents are scared of people thinking about the issue. About the narrator, he said Waters is one of the bravest artists he knows, who has used his celebrity to speak for a population that is being silenced. He said people are accusing Waters of anti-Semitism because he is critical of the state of Israel.

“While it distresses the members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Marblehead to receive strident criticism of our decision to show “The Occupation of the American Mind,” we are called to listen to and reflect on the criticism,” von Courter said in an email.

“Given the pressure to cancel this showing, it seems ironic that a central message of this film is that U.S. citizens are prevented from hearing more than a single narrative about this conflict. UUCM does not claim a position on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, however, we reject the assertion that any critical inquiry of Israel’s practices and policies must be anti-Semitic … Unitarian Universalism is grounded in a commitment to differing beliefs and ongoing inquiry. Showing this film is in keeping with our faith,” von Courter said.

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