When I heard the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was holding a celebratory “spotlight” on Tel Aviv, I felt ashamed of Toronto, the city where I live. I thought immediately of Mona Al Shawa, a Palestinian women’s rights activist I met on a recent trip to Gaza. “We had more hope during the attacks,” she told me. “At least then we believed things would change.”
Al Shawa explained that while Israeli bombs rained down last December and January, Gazans were glued to their TVs. What they saw, in addition to the carnage, was a world rising up in outrage: global protests, as many as 100,000 on the streets of London, a group of Jewish women in Toronto occupying the Israeli Consulate. “People called it war crimes,” Al Shawa recalled. “We felt we were not alone in the world.” If Gazans could just survive, it seemed that their suffering could be the catalyst for change.
But today, Al Shawa said, that hope is a bitter memory. The international outrage has evaporated. Gaza has vanished from the news. And it seems that all those deaths–as many as 1,400–were not enough to bring justice. Indeed, Israel is refusing to cooperate even with a UN fact-finding mission headed by respected South African judge Richard Goldstone.
Last spring, while Goldstone’s mission was in Gaza gathering devastating testimony, the Toronto International Film Festival was making the final selections for its Tel Aviv spotlight, timed for the Israeli city’s hundredth birthday. There are many who would have us believe that there is no connection between Israel’s desire to avoid scrutiny for its actions in the occupied territories and the glittering Toronto premieres. I am sure that Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s co-director, believes that himself. He is wrong.
For more than a year, Israeli diplomats have been talking openly about their new strategy to counter growing global anger at Israel’s defiance of international law. It’s no longer enough, they argue, just to invoke Sderot every time someone raises Gaza. The task is also to change the subject to more pleasant topics: film, arts, gay rights–things that underline commonalities between Israel and places like Paris, New York and Toronto. After the Gaza attack, as the protests rose, this strategy went into high gear. “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” Arye Mekel, deputy director-general for cultural affairs for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told the New York Times. “This way, you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” And hip, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, which has been celebrating its centennial with Israeli-sponsored “beach parties” in New York, Vienna and Copenhagen all summer long, is the best ambassador of all.
Toronto got an early taste of this new cultural mission. A year ago, Amir Gissin, Israeli consul-general in Toronto, explained that the “Brand Israel” campaign would include, according to a report in the Canadian Jewish News, “a major Israeli presence at next year’s Toronto International Film Festival, with numerous Israeli, Hollywood and Canadian entertainment luminaries on hand.” Gissin pledged, “I’m confident everything we plan to do will happen.” Indeed it has.
Let’s be clear: no one is claiming the Israeli government is secretly running TIFF’s Tel Aviv spotlight, whispering in Bailey’s ear about which films to program. The point is that the festival’s decision to give Israel pride of place, holding up Tel Aviv as a “young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates its diversity,” matches Israel’s stated propaganda goals to a T. Gal Uchovsky, one of the directors in the spotlight, is quoted in the festival catalog saying that Tel Aviv is “a haven [Israelis] can run away to when they want to forget about wars and the burdens of daily life.”