Despite Opposition, Pro-Israel Film Premieres in Seattle To Large Crowd

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Amidst a flurry of excitement and controversy rarely seen surrounding a pro-Israel film, The J Street Challenge had its Seattle premiere this past Wednesday evening at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. While plans to screen the film, a documentary about Israel advocacy in the 21st century, provoked a strong reaction from certain quarters of Seattle’s Jewish community, the screening itself was well attended and the response to the film by those who have seen it has ranged from positive to enthusiastic.

Our goal in bringing out the film was to start an  honest, respectful discussion.

Ari Hoffman, one of the organizers of the Seattle screening of the J Street Challenge told The Mike Report that “our goal in bringing out the film was to start an  honest, respectful discussion with Jews who have diverse viewpoints, in a supportive environment. We want to use the conversation surrounding this film and future programs to explore how can we, as Jews in the United States, respond ethically and effectively to the Israeli-Arab conflict.”

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Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl Ner Tamid

Start a conversation it did, beginning with a sermon critical of the screening of the movie delivered the Sabbath before the Seattle premiere by Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Herzl Ner Tamid, a local Conservative congregation. While not challenging any of the points of the film, Rosenbaum explained his opposition to the screening was one of sensitivity, noting that “a congregation that had even ten J-Street supporters out of two hundred would never show a film with the title “The J-Street Challenge” without showing at least some respect for the other point of view. Because, you wouldn’t want to alienate people who are important to you. You just wouldn’t do it. It doesn’t mean you can’t disagree. If you disagreed with J-Street, but you had friends who were J-Street members, you might argue with them. You might challenge them to debate. You might speak as passionately as Abraham spoke to God. But, you wouldn’t treat them as if they are the enemy. You wouldn’t act as if ‘these are not my people.”

WCRLogoFollowing in short order came an unprecedented condemnation of the film’s screening by the Washington Coalition of Rabbis (WCR), a federation of Conservative and Reform clergy in the Greater Seattle area. The letter distributed the day prior to the film’s premiere expressed grave concern that the mere viewing of this particular film could turn the community against one another. The WCR condemnation letter read in part…

“It is our understanding that screenings of the J Street Challenge have sown dissension and mistrust in the communities in which the film has been shown, and we are concerned about the potential for the same to happen here.  Many of the rabbis and Jewish communal leaders throughout the Seattle area are either supportive of J Street as an organization or respect the right of their position to be heard in the multifaceted, pluralistic world in which we live, and fear the screening of this film – divorced from direct dialogue and respectful exchange with those of differing views – will lead am Yisrael to further division.”

To accuse the film, which most of the Rabbis have not seen, of sowing dissension and mistrust in some far off communities is a bit strange.

Avi Goldwasser, Producer of The J Street Challenge

Commenting on the WCR letter, Avi Goldwasser, the producer of the J Street Challenge told The Mike Report. “To accuse the film, which most of the Rabbis have not seen, of sowing dissension and mistrust in some far off communities is a bit strange. In screening the film in over fifty cities it is quite common for J Street supporters in the Jewish Federations and in Jewish institutions to try to deny us access to community venues.  Despite this we have been successful in screening the film in dozens of Synagogues and JCC’s because of strong efforts by genuinely open-minded leaders in the community.”

Added Goldwasser “It is quite disingenuous for the Rabbis to preach ‘mutual respect and tolerance’ as they demonstrate disrespect and intolerance to the views of a significant minority within the Jewish community in Seattle.  And it is very disheartening to see Rabbis write about a “multifaceted pluralistic world” and “the need to hear different voices” in the same letter in which they attempt to deny such voices from being heard.”

We specifically designed the event to facilitate open and free discussion.

Local youth leader Ari Hoffman, one of those who helped bring the J Street challenge to Seattle told The Mike Report he was puzzled by the WCR’s accusations. “We specifically designed the event to facilitate open and free discussion. We brought the producer of the film to the premiere via live-stream and gave priority to those with differing views to express their concerns. This was in contrast to the J Street sponsored Peter Beinart lecture held at UW Hillel a few weeks ago. At that event questions were screened and direct dialogue was forbidden. I do not recall seeing a WCR letter condemning that event”.

Ari Hoffman

Ari Hoffman

Hoffman has been subjected to a barrage of “less than civil” remarks by those sympathetic with J Street. “I have received angry emails and phone calls” said Hoffman.  One Rabbi of a prominent congregation directed Hoffman to remove children of his congregation from Hoffman’s Jewish youth group mailing lists. “They are suddenly circling the wagons around “their” youth to protect them from what? A message of love of Israel, unconditional love of our fellow Jews?”

Many people told me they came to the event specifically because of the remarks their community leaders had made.

Hoffman attributes the unexpectedly strong attendance at the film premiere at least  in part to the controversy stirred up by opponents of the film. “There is no such thing as bad PR” said Hoffman  “and many people told me they came to the event specifically because of the remarks their community leaders had made.”

About 250 people from across the spectrum of Seattle’s Jewish community sat in hushed silence through the entirety of the hour-long film, the only interruptions being the occasional collective gasp, such as when J Street founder Daniel Levy is shown declaring “Maybe Israel really ain’t such a good idea”

The film presents a series of sober thinkers, such as Ruth Wisse  and Alan Dershowitz of Harvard University along with Rabbi Daniel Gordis of the Shalem institute and several other A list Jewish intellectuals, all sharing their concerns regarding the gaping chasm between J Street’s stated benevolent goals versus their perplexing real life actions. A full review of the film by Varda Epstein may be viewed here.

At the film’s conclusion, the producer, Avi Goldwasser appeared on the large screen in the Ezra Bessaroth social hall via a live stream feed. Rabbi Meyers invited J Street supporters and critics of the film to be the first to ask questions. There was no pre-screening of questions and all present had ready access to the microphone. Perhaps the only disappointment of the evening was that none of the J Street supporters in the audience, and there were some, took advantage of the opportunity to challenge the premises or facts of the film. Most of the questions offered surrounded most effective methods to support Israel in a community like Seattle where Israel critics have acquired leadership positions in many of our central institutions.

J Street Challenge producer taking questions from the audience.

J Street Challenge producer taking questions from the audience.

We spoke to members of the audience following the Seattle screening of The J Street Challenge to share their impressions.

I thought a lot of what was presented in the film is not widely known and is very important information.

Zelle Rettman chatting after the film with Erez Younker.

Zelle Rettman chatting after the film with Erez Younker.

Zelle Rettman a recent graduate of Brandeis and now employed in non-profit media viewed The J Street Challenge at Ezra Bessaroth. “As somebody who never investigated what J Street is all about, I’ve heard overall they want a two state solution and that’s what they are all about, but I really didn’t know past that” said Rettman. “I didn’t know what their agenda was and who was funding the organization. I thought a lot of what was presented in the film is not widely known and is very important information.

Is there a way to be vocal that you care about the Palestinians and their struggle while also being pro-Israel? Because J Street doesn’t seem to meet that standard.

The question that I wanted to ask at the end of the film but I didn’t ask is, is there a way to be vocal that you care about the Palestinians and their struggle while also being pro-Israel, because J Street doesn’t seem to meet that standard.”

Yocheved Rotenberg concurred “It was such a great film. The production values really blew me away, it was so well produced. The content, pacing, visuals, and contrasts were all excellent, and a good deal of time was given to J Street’s side of the story in their own words.”

One young woman pondered “If our local community is so against the screening of this film, if they so believe that J Street is correct in what they are doing and so pro-Israel and so pro-peace, so pro-everything, so great for Israel, why are they against it being screened? If everything in the movie is false than why aren’t they here to support J Street? Why are they running away from talking about it? Them not being here, by them not talking about it they are proving that it is correct and they are scared and they don’t know what to say, because whoops, it’s exposed now.”

I was saddened that our leaders would think that this would divide our community.

Belinda (no last name given) echoed that sentiment “I was saddened that our leaders would think that this would divide our community, the truth never divides the community, the truth is the truth.” She added that  “I thought itwas really honest, a breath of fresh air, because I think it was exposing the naïveté, and the idealistic viewpoint. What I saw here was that there was a real huge danger created  by the leaders of this movement that is very corrosive to the Jewish people”.

Julie Varon

Julie Varon

“It’s all about shared dialogue and from what I can see the J Street community seems to not want the whole picture or to be open to discussion” said Julie Heller Varon. “So disappointing to see our own community divided. I must be naive but am shocked to know other Jews who claim the goal of peace will boycott Israeli products and events like this. It’s happening on a local level too. Many of the Seattle area synagogues and organizations weren’t promoting the film. On the other hand our own Federation endorsed a J Street speaker, Peter Beinart to talk to students at the Hillel.”

People have different views, people are entitled to different views.

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Rabbi Meyers (left) addresses the audience at the Seattle screening of the J Street Challenge.

Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers, of the host congregation, Ezra Bessaroth concluded “It was good to see people from across the community here, from different synagogues, despite pressure perhaps not to attend.”

We asked Rabbi Meyers to comment on the rifts that have developed in our community since J Street brought their controversial agenda  to Seattle. “People have different views, people are entitled to different views. Tonight’s screening showed that there is a real core group of people that may have a different view than J Street on the Israel issue.” As to the event Rabbi Meyers noted “The film drew a larger than expected crowd and we appreciate the support of our friends and co-sponsors and  look forward to putting forth more programming that gives chizuk, strength to Eretz Yisrael and the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.”

 The J Street Challenge was the  first in the “Love of Israel” film series at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. The next film, Body and Soul; The State of the Jewish Nation, counters the growing narrative contesting the Jewish people’s historic and religious connection to the land of Israel. The Seattle premiere will be held on Wednesday, December 10th, 7:30 pm at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth.

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