AJFF: ‘Berlin,’ Boycotts and Emma Thompson

AJFF: ‘Berlin,’ Boycotts and Emma Thompson

Michael Jacobs

Atlanta Jewish Times Editor Michael Jacobs is on his second stint leading the AJT's editorial operations. He previously served as managing editor from 2005 to 2008.

"Alone in Berlin" stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson.
"Alone in Berlin" stars Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson.

By the time you read this, opening night for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will have come and gone. We’ll have to see whether the same is true about the controversy surrounding the opening film, “Alone in Berlin,” and star Emma Thompson.

The schedule had been made and the program guides distributed by the time concerns about Thompson reached festival staff (and echoed to the AJT) in the second week of January.

Thompson, it turns out, has a reputation in some circles as a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activist.

Festival Executive Director Kenny Blank said Thompson’s politics never came up when the film evaluation committee reviewed “Alone in Berlin” or when festival staff and board members discussed opening with the movie.

Similarly, when the film was presented to the programming committee, which suggests presenters and panelists for discussions at the festival, no one said anything about Thompson’s views on Israel. The same was true when Blank announced to that committee, of which I was one of more than 50 members, that “Alone in Berlin” would open the festival.

Michael Jacobs
Michael Jacobs

I’m not a fan of the film, which has little Jewish content and not much plot. But Blank said the movie represents Jewish values in its theme of everyday people doing what they can to protest oppression, and amid political tumult in the United States, its message is meaningful beyond the Jewish community.

Part of the festival’s mission is to connect such films and messages to a diverse audience, and that’s particularly important for opening night, which not only is the biggest crowd of the festival, but also has the largest non-Jewish audience, Blank said. With the cast, production values and English language, as well as the protest theme, “Alone” ticked off the right boxes for opening night.

Blank emphasized that it wasn’t his decision alone, just as the lineup overall doesn’t reflect his personal taste. “The great thing about the film festival is we open up our curatorial process to the larger community,” he said. “It’s not the voice of any one individual.”

I had no idea about Thompson’s Palestinian activism, but she’s not a leader in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. As near as I can tell, she’s someone who revels in liberal activism, and on two occasions she spoke out when the Palestinian cause crossed her left-wing radar.

In January 2007 she promoted the launch of Enough!, an English coalition to end the occupation 40 years after the Six-Day War. But there’s no evidence she was active in the group, which in any case wasn’t extreme in seeking Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Far worse was her support in 2012 for a boycott of Israel’s Habima theater, which had been invited to perform “The Merchant of Venice” in Hebrew at London’s Globe Theatre for a festival staging Shakespeare’s 37 plays in 37 languages.

China, an oppressor of human rights and occupier of Tibet, participated in the festival without a peep of protest, but Thompson and about 30 other artistic types signed a letter demanding the ouster of Habima because it had performed in the settlement of Ariel and thus was complicit in Israel’s crimes.

Thompson and her co-signers crossed the line between art and politics; it’s only fair if that conflation of interests comes back to haunt her.

But I couldn’t find evidence of any sustained BDS activism by Thompson. Even during the Gaza war in 2014, when it was Euro-chic to attack Israel and proclaim solidarity with the Palestinians, Thompson either was silent or was drowned out by louder-mouthed celebrities.

In an interview last year with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Amir Kaminer, Thompson said she did extensive reading after calling for the Habima boycott and realized that she didn’t understand the Middle East’s complexity. It wasn’t an apology, but it was an acknowledgment that she made a mistake.

Thompson’s not Roger Waters, incorporating anti-Israel activism into every performance, berating those who refuse to boycott Israel and never missing a chance to promote Palestinian propaganda.

She’s not Vanessa Redgrave, using the Academy Awards as a platform to present a twisted version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the world.

She’s not Mel Gibson, spewing anti-Semitic venom when he’s drunk enough to let his guard down.

Her worst offense of late is fervent support for Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is anti-Israel and has protected if not encouraged anti-Semitism within his party. But it would be tragic if all of us were forced to make entertainment decisions based on politics.

Blank noted the irony of boycotts of Israeli films and other forms of artistic expression: They tend to be at the forefront of questioning and criticizing Israeli policies and actions.

He added that as a nonprofit arts and cultural organization, the film festival does not have the role or responsibility of applying a political litmus test or judging the nonartistic actions of people involved in movies.

That’s not to say the festival is dismissing boycott concerns. American Jewish Committee materials about BDS will be available throughout the festival, and audience members were free to ask questions about BDS and Thompson’s role during the discussion with director Vincent Perez on opening night (which happened after we went to press but before you’re reading this).

The festival board and staff created and posted a policy on BDS and cultural boycotts at ajff.org/policies#boycotts: “The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival opposes any attempt to suppress free speech, including through the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. As an arts organization whose mission is to spark dialogue and debate through film, we stand with Israel in opposing cultural boycotts of all kinds. Such boycotts only serve to repress the very exchange of ideas required to educate and engage around challenging issues.

“As a champion of freedom of expression, AJFF does not take a position as it relates to the personal politics of individual filmmakers, actors or other artists; nor is it our role to dictate what is acceptable subject matter for artistic exploration.”

Any controversy involving the film festival puts the AJT in a tough position because we are AJFF sponsors and partners, but I don’t think Blank and the festival staff and volunteers did anything wrong. They chose a polished film with big stars for opening night and had bad luck that one of those stars crossed an important line once.

They could have searched the backgrounds of all the main players in the film before selecting it, but with more than 500 movies considered for the festival, that’s an unreasonable expectation. Hundreds of people active in the Jewish community knew that “Alone in Berlin” might be in the lineup, and if none of those people had concerns, that’s a good indication about the obscurity of Thompson’s anti-Israel activities.

While I appreciate the disappointment and even anger that Thompson is playing such a prominent role in our Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the presentation of her art doesn’t represent an endorsement of her politics, which doesn’t seem coherent regarding Israel and the Palestinians anyway.

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