Hamilton Jewish Federation pulling film festival out of the Westdale to protest showing of ‘Israelism’

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Published December 6, 2023 at 9:31 am

Gaza evacuation
Photo Hatem Moussa Canadian Press

The show will certainly go on at the Westdale Theatre tonight, but next spring’s Jewish Film Festival – a success story at the west end theatre for the last two years – will not, as a reprisal for the Westdale’s decision to show ‘Israelism,’ a documentary critical of Israel’s treatments of the residents of war-torn Gaza.

“We will no longer be hosting the Jewish Film Festival at The Westdale Theatre, nor any future programs,” was the terse message from the Hamilton Jewish Federation after the theatre’s board of directors backtracked on an earlier decision to not show the film, citing “significant changes” in the social and political landscape since the rental booking was made in August.

Last Friday, Westdale board president Fred Fuchs admitted they made a mistake in cancelling the screening, scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

“Our decision was wrong,” Fuchs wrote in a statement. “We determined there was no credible evidence the screening would cause harm to anyone in our community.”

That prompted a response from the Hamilton Jewish Federation, who said the involvement of the “anti-Israeli lobby group” Independent Jewish Voices Hamilton, which is organizing the screening, “does not contribute positively to our community,” adding that the group “perpetuates division and fosters animosity in a situation that already deeply impacts Jews and Israelis here in Hamilton.”

“This decision is rooted in our commitment to fostering a space that promotes inclusivity and constructive dialogue,” the statement continued. “We understand the importance of cultural events in bringing communities together, but we must prioritize an environment that upholds values of unity and understanding. We remain open to future collaborations that align with these principles and aim to bring people together rather than drive them apart.”

Rabbi David Mivasair, a member of IJV-Hamilton and an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and Zionism, said the Hamilton Jewish Federation’s response to the Westdale Theatre’s decision to screen Israelism is about “circling the wagons ever tighter” in suppressing open dialogue about the war in Gaza, which has led to thousands of deaths and a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia in Canada, as well as demonstrations here and around the world.

“They’re using Orwellian language to explain its boycott of a community theatre for daring to allow us Jews to see and discuss Israelism, a film made by Jews, about Jews and for Jews to tell our story about ourselves.”

‘Israelism’ is a documentary on the quickly changing North American Jewish relationship with Israel. Featuring interviews with several prominent Jews such as Noam Chomsky, the film follows two young American Jews – Simone and Eitan – who are raised to defend the state of Israel at all costs. Eitan joins the Israeli military while Simone supports Israel on ‘the other battlefield’ of America’s college campuses.

As the film description notes, when they witness Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinian people with their own eyes, “they are horrified and heartbroken – the Jewish institutions that raised them not only lied but built their Jewish identity around that lie.”

Several dozen people showed up at the theatre last Thursday to protest the original Westdale decision to ‘postpone’ the screening and the Hamilton Coalition To Stop the War called it “another small victory for Palestine” after the reversal by the Westdale board the following day.

The Hamilton Jewish Federation said it would be exploring alternate venues for next year’s film festival, which moved to the newly renovated 342-seat Westdale Theatre in 2022 after more than a decade of showing the films at local synagogues.

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