The following press release was issued by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on 27 August 2009:
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) is gravely concerned that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2009 has decided to spotlight Tel Aviv for its inaugural City-to-City program. We encourage filmmakers and audiences to boycott the Spotlight as it extends a gesture of “goodwill” to a colonial and apartheid regime which is violating Palestinian human rights with utter impunity.
According to program notes by Festival co-director and City-to-City programmer Cameron Bailey, the City-to-City program “will showcase the complex currents running through today’s Tel Aviv. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, Tel Aviv is a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity.”
The “diversity” celebrated by the Spotlight is in fact based on the erasure of the physical presence of the Palestinians, their culture, heritage and memory. The adjacent Palestinian city of Jaffa and numerous villages were emptied of their indigenous inhabitants to make way for Tel Aviv. Many refugees from Jaffa and other destroyed villages that Tel Aviv replaced reside in Toronto today, denied the right to return to their homes.
To celebrate Tel Aviv or any Israeli city for that matter is indefensible, particularly after this year’s lethal assault on Gaza, while Israel continues building its illegal Apartheid wall and settlements and extends its network of checkpoints that suffocate the Palestinian population. Most recently, in the Israeli war of aggression on the occupied Gaza Strip, Palestinian civilians were massacred by Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, condemned by UN experts and leading human rights organizations as war crimes. This assault left over 1,440 Palestinians dead, predominantly civilians, of whom 431 were children, and injured another 5,380. The 1.5 million Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip, the overwhelming majority of whom are refugees who were violently expelled from their homes by Zionist forces in 1948, were subjected to three weeks of relentless Israeli state terror, whereby Israeli warplanes systematically targeted civilian areas, reduced whole neighborhoods and vital civilian infrastructure to rubble and partially destroyed scores of schools, including several run by the UN, where civilians were taking shelter. This came after 18 months of an ongoing, crippling Israeli siege of Gaza, a severe form of collective punishment described by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights as “a prelude to genocide.”
Such a celebration at this time, therefore, can only be seen by Palestinians and supporters of a just peace around the world as an act of complicity in whitewashing Israel’s war crimes and other grave violations of international law. It is a cynical and immoral politicization of the TIFF.
TIFF has argued that the Festival’s focus is on cities and not nation-states. Tel Aviv is the seat of Israeli political and economic power. It houses the masterminds of Israel’s longstanding policies of ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination and military subjugation. It is more emblematic of apartheid and colonial rule than any other Israeli city. The Spotlight on Tel Aviv is akin to celebrating Sun City during apartheid-era South Africa.
This inaugural City-to-City program is receiving funding for filmmaker participation through the Israel Film Fund, an Israeli public body that receives state funding and support, and which is part and parcel of the Israeli effort to normalize Israel’s presence in the global cultural arena.
In 2008, Toronto was selected as a “test market” for a year-long public relations campaign launched by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to improve Israel’s image. Israel’s consul general, Amir Gissin, announced then that the culmination of this “Brand Israel” campaign would be at the TIFF.
TIFF has claimed that the Spotlight on Tel Aviv has no relationship to the rebranding campaign but have not issued a public statement to that effect. Whether the City-to-City program is officially connected to the “Brand Israel” campaign or not, it is rebranding to the core: it serves to normalize Israel’s international image, an image tarnished by decades of military brutality and violations of international law.
TIFF has a proud history of supporting independent and progressive filmmakers. It must not become yet another tool for Israel’s apartheid public relations machine.