Protesters of Toronto festival’s Tel Aviv spotlight saluted

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) salutes the filmmakers, artists and cultural workers who drafted and endorsed the Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation protesting the Toronto International Film Festival’s City to City Spotlight on Tel Aviv. The impressive list of signatories includes long-time supporters of a just peace and Palestinian rights and newer friends, all of whom we sincerely thank. It has been heartening to see the efforts of many tireless activists in assuring that Tel Aviv is not celebrated while Palestinians continue to suffer, sometimes invisibly, under Israeli apartheid and military occupation.

Support for the declaration has continued to grow in the face of unfounded denunciation campaigns. Celebrities of the calibre of Jane Fonda, Danny Glover and John Berger, have refused to be bullied by these tactics. We understand the exceptional moral courage and clarity such a stance demands; we deeply appreciate it.

On 27 August 2009, PACBI issued a public statement calling for a targeted boycott of the Spotlight on Tel Aviv. Whether intentionally or not, such a “Spotlight” serves to “Rebrand Israel,” whitewashing Israel’s human rights violations against the Palestinian people, including recent atrocities like in Gaza and presenting Tel Aviv as a normal, “Western” city, not the hub of colonial and apartheid Israeli policies that it actually is. For the record, PACBI’s call to protest and boycott was specific to the Spotlight on Tel Aviv; we have not called for a general boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival.

As usual, instead of rational argumentation and cool-headed debate, Israeli apartheid supporters have reacted by resorting to intimidation, vilification, threats and ugly personal attacks against many of those who signed the Toronto Declaration. Rather than engaging with the well-argued and justified criticisms of the Spotlight, the attacks regurgitated the tired, false and patently misleading mantra that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” One of the most preposterous characterizations of Israel in defence of TIFF’s celebration of Tel Aviv was: “Israel stands tall as the nation where … fundamental liberties are protected and held sacred.” This statement’s intentional omission of Israel’s occupation, colonization and apartheid against the Palestinian people makes it equivalent to describing South Africa at the height of apartheid as a liberal democracy.

Since several Israel apologists are singling out in their ad hominem attacks the prominent Canadian filmmaker John Greyson, who pulled out his film in protest of this Spotlight, PACBI would like to especially thank Greyson for his principled stance against oppression and in defence of freedom and human rights. The attacks on Greyson have ignored his expressed reasons and sought to silence him by saying he would be unwelcome in other countries of the Middle East, including the occupied Palestinian territory, because of his activism around LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights. Smearing Israel’s victims as homophobic is not just a racist tactic calculated to create fear; it is a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from the facts and compelling arguments raised by PACBI, Greyson, Naomi Klein, Ken Loach and many others justifying diverse forms of institutional boycott against Israel.

Spin aside, TIFF is still obliged to answer the obvious questions: Why has it allowed itself to be used to celebrate Tel Aviv merely months after Israel’s well-documented war crimes in Gaza and despite its ongoing colonization and gradual ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank? Why hasn’t TIFF explicitly explained its relationship with the “Brand Israel” official propaganda campaign? How and why was Tel Aviv chosen as the first city for this Spotlight, while 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza were being subjected to massacres and relentless bombing in their open air prison?
Again, we thank all who have signed the Toronto Declaration to date. As in the struggle to end South African apartheid, this Declaration shows that people of conscience around the world are again mobilizing against the other apartheid — Israel’s.

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