Julian Schnabel must have known that screening a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the United Nations General Assembly would be scene-stealing. To set the town talking, the event would unite all the trappings -- provocative subject matter, prestigious venue, Hollywood glamour.
In fact, the March 14 screening of Miral in New York drew a crowd of movie stars, diplomats, artists and intellectuals -- Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Ambassadors Jean Kennedy Smith and Qazi Shaukut Fareed, and Dan Rather, among them -- raising the profile of an event that openly merged artistic prominence and political power. But when mixed, art and politics -- while not exactly strange bedfellows -- can stir into a complicated brew. And, sure enough, Schnabel's screening spawned a flurry of protest from some of the most powerful and prominent voices in the Jewish establishment, who accused the film of being "one-sided" and "anti-Israel."
The next day, a Los Angeles Times headline declared: "Screening of 'Miral' at the United Nations draws protests from Jewish groups."
The wave of controversy that ensued called into question whether a high-profile film written by a Palestinian and sympathetic to "the other side" was simply too much for some Jews to handle. That the filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish and presenting a perspective counter to the dominant Jewish paradigm was considered a tribal and national betrayal. That the film's distributor, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is a New York Jew, and a vocal supporter of Israel, was even more unsettling. Haven't the Jews and their State of Israel had it hard enough?
First to object was David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who, the night before the screening, sent out an open letter to United Nations General Assembly President Joseph Deiss. "The film has a clear political message which portrays Israel in a highly negative light," Harris wrote. "Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself -- and the prestige of his office -- with such a blatantly one-sided event."
Next, Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier sounded off: "Last night, when the General Assembly Hall was used for the first time to screen a pro-Palestinian film, marked another sad day in the 63-year-old history of the U.N.'s bias against the State of Israel," he said in a widely released statement. "It's bad enough that the 55 Moslem countries in the General Assembly have a virtual lock on the political resolutions there. Now the U.N. wants to extend that anti-Israel bias to the cultural and arts world as well."
That the screening became cause for Jewish opprobrium seems to reflect deeper issues. Was this a protest of the film itself? Neither Harris nor Hier had yet seen it. Was it, rather, a legitimate complaint about bias against Israel at the world's preeminent political assembly? Or was it, perhaps, a knee-jerk reaction from the old Jewish guard to anything sympathetic to the Palestinian perspective? Whatever the answers, the conversation surrounding Miral is raising serious and important questions about the Jewish response to Palestinian narratives -- and, perhaps ironically, perhaps not -- that's exactly what the filmmakers want.
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