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Emotions ran high at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival over the showing of Rachel, a film that looks at the International Solidarity Movement activist Rachel Corrie and her death in Gaza in March 2003.
The controversy had been brewing for some time, concerning both the showing of the film and the invitation to Rachel's mother, Cindy Corrie, to speak at the festival.
In the wake of protests against the showing of the film last Saturday, Peter Stein, the festival's executive director, invited Dr. Mike Harris, one of the leaders of the local Stand With Us chapter, to speak in order to put across his objections. Stand With Us is a pro-Israel advocacy organization based in Los Angeles.
In his speech Harris, to give some context to the film, talked about the spate of suicide bombings that took place leading up to Rachel's death. He referred to the other "Rachels" who died as a result of terrorist attacks preceding Rachel Corrie's death.
Harris was heckled throughout most of his speech. Cries of "not true" followed his accusation that the ISM had aided terrorists who took over Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity in 2002, and mocking laughter ensued when he said: "That's why the young IDF soldier was operating the bulldozer in Rafah... It was to destroy the tunnels used to smuggle explosives for murdering Israelis."
When Harris criticized the choice of sponsor for the film, saying the "American Friends Service Committee supports boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel," his words were followed by hoots of support for the AFSC.
Harris went on to mention the AFSC's decision to host a dinner for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, which drew more cheers of support from the audience.
In his blog following the incident, Harris wrote that he was not surprised by the responses from the audience. "Stand With Us fully supported [my] appearance, realizing that this was a unique opportunity to present our viewpoint, even knowing that the majority of the audience would be hostile."
On July 20, five days before the screening, the president of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival board, Shana Penn, resigned over the issue. "Healthy differences on how to approach sensitive issues" was her reason for resigning, she said, according to j., a San Francisco area Jewish newsweekly.
Standing by its decision to show the film and to invite Cindy Corrie, the festival released the following statement: "We are presenting the views of the filmmakers and their subjects in what we hope is an atmosphere that encourages free expression and public debate.
"We believe that the best artists, including documentary filmmakers, create work that makes us think and sparks a dialogue both within the Jewish community and the greater community of the Bay Area."
The film's director Simone Bitton has put together interviews with eyewitnesses, IDF soldiers and spokespeople to try to bring new information to the table regarding Corrie's death.
The film was protested for its anti-Israel nature, which was seen as unsuitable for a Jewish film festival. Rachel has already been shown at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.