Academic & cultural boycotts: Selective, sordid and plain silly

Mature democracy breeds liberal artistic output. Why would anybody want to push those artists away?

ADL anti boycott ad 224 (photo credit: Anti-Defamation League)
ADL anti boycott ad 224
(photo credit: Anti-Defamation League)
John Greyson's decision to pull his film, "Covered" out of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a shameful example of the appalling double-standards being used to single-out and vilify Israel and Israeli film-makers. Firstly, the Toronto International Film Festival should be praised for standing by its decision to go ahead as planned with a program of films dedicated to Tel Aviv. TIFF was thrown into an uncomfortable situation and in the face of aggression and an awkward kind of publicity, the festival's directors have shown strength and great integrity. John Greyson argues that his decision to withdraw his film is because of Israeli government and Israeli businesses' financial contributions to this year's festival. On this basis shouldn't he also boycott going to see Israeli films themselves? Waltz with Bashir, for instance, could not have been made without the state funding provided by the Israeli Film Council. Screened at TIFF this time last year, that film was a challenging, highly critical portrayal of the IDF's role in Lebanon. Israel is the only country in the region where the government provides state funding for film, and other artistic output that sometimes rigorously criticizes the state. Yet that point seems lost on Greyson. THE IDEA that Israel's film community is a mouthpiece for the Israeli government is laughable. As in many countries, Israel's film industry is liberal, diverse, and offers an outlet to voices which challenge the status quo. And, as in many counties, including Greyson's (Canada) and mine (UK), the film output would be substantially weaker without the much needed state support. Greyson's desired effect (I imagine) is that his absence, or at least the announcement of his absence, will make the organizers of TIFF feel uncomfortable, regretful and intimidated. This is not an isolated case. We have already seen Ken Loach abuse his status to intimidate both the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival on this very issue. Perhaps Greyson hoped that by taking an equally intimidating approach as Loach, his films would ultimately be awarded greater prominence and acclaim. Sadly, the only likely outcome of this course of action is the alienation and discomfort of Israeli filmmakers on the sole basis of their nationality. That's a horrible side-effect and couldn't be more counterproductive. Those who work in the arts in Israel, and indeed in other troubled regions, are precisely the people who need to be made to feel included, not excluded. Of course, the same is true across academic communities. Boycotts of this nature do not affect government policy, they just reduce the number of people with whom important discussion can take place. It undermines the search for peaceful solutions by deliberately excluding important advocates of progress. JOHN GREYSON is aware that there are many fearlessly independent films produced by Israeli filmmakers, often with the support of Israeli state money, and that Israel's finest directors are able to say exactly what they wish with no fear of repercussions. A mature democracy breeds a liberal artistic output. Why would anybody want to push those artists away? Sadly, I fear, John Greyson's decision is more about John Greyson than anything else. Dressed up as a political and ethical statement, it is in fact merely a publicity stunt. Presumably for maximum effect (he is kindly still exhibiting his film online), he waited until just before TIFF commenced to withdraw his film, although for months it seems he has known (and objected to) the sponsorship from Israeli sources. It isn't too late for him to change his mind, take his work to TIFF and engage with the issues. I won't hold my breath though. Some seem all too committed to the intellectually negligent, blanket demonization of one particular country, even if that means singling out for condemnation its most liberal, creative and progressive elements. The writer is the managing director of RISE films, a boutique Television, Film and New Media production company and the co-chairman of RISE foundation, a charity set up to run education programs for underprivileged children in South Africa.