Egypt film festival sparks protests over French director accused of Israel support

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Claude Lelouche, the famed French director will be honored at the film festival in Cairo. (CIFF)
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Claude Lelouche, the famed French director will be honored at the film festival in Cairo. (CIFF)
Updated 18 October 2018
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Egypt film festival sparks protests over French director accused of Israel support

  • The Cairo Cinema Festival said this week that Claude Lelouche, 80, would be feted at the event next month
  • Decision has sparked a backlash from some Egyptian actors, directors and critics

CAIRO: The decision by an Egyptian film festival to honor an acclaimed French director accused of supporting Israel has sparked controversy in the country.

The Cairo International Film Festival said this week that Claude Lelouche, 80, would be feted at the event next month.

But the decision has sparked a backlash from some Egyptian actors, directors and critics, with some even threatening to boycott the event.

They claim that Lelouche, an Oscar winner who has made more than 50 films, is overly sympathetic to Israel. But the festival organizers said that just because he travels to Israel, does not mean he can not be honored by Egypt.

“He is known for his intransigence of the Israeli Zionist entity, and has made this clear hundreds of times,” Ahmed Kamal, the Egyptian actor and director, said.

He said he would boycott the festival and called on the event’s president, Professor Mohamed Hafsi, to reverse the decision.

While Kamal acknowledged the director’s great achievements, he said standing up against Israel was more important.

“He is part of the history of French and international cinema, but our position on the Zionist entity is not only in defense of the state of Palestine but also in defense of the state of Egypt.”

Kamal said Lelouche has repeatedly declared that he considers Israel an example in resisting fear and hatred in the region. 

Malik Khoury, head of the film department at the American University in Cairo, said even fellow French director Jean-Luc Goddard has referred to Lelouche as a “Zionist.”

"Are we now at the stage of ‘love Israel’, while hundreds of artists from all over the world are united with the Palestinians and refuse to go or deal with the Zionist entity?" 

Egypt is one of the only Arab counties with full diplomatic relations with Israel after the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979.

But in recent years Palestinians have adopted a peaceful boycott movement to try and pressure Israel over its decades long occupation of Palestinian land. The boycott has included artistic figures and events.

Egyptian film critic Yacoub El-Deeb described the decision to honor Lelouche as dangerous.  

“It may be the beginning leading to Israel itself participating later in the festival,” he said.

The festival organisers said they had checked through the interviews Lelouche had given to Israeli media on a recent visit and “that all come within the usual courtesy of artists when visiting any country.”

“Since the members of the Advisory Committee as individuals and the Cairo Festival as a cultural institution have stood throughout its history with the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people, the Committee calls upon everyone to provide them with any document containing a political position declaring Claude Lelouche against the Palestinian cause or the rights of the Arab people, a signed statement, or any other form of political solidarity with the Israeli position,” the organizers said.

Their position was backed by the famous Egyptian producer Mohamed Al-Adl.

“Who knows his views on Zionism? Let’s not take a stand. The man is a famous director, and like many others it’s normal for him to go to Israel,” he said.

Egyptian film critic Youssef Sharif Rizkallah agreed.

“Claude is a great French filmmaker, has a real passion for movies,” he said. “He is unprecedented in French cinema, preferring to follow his own aspirations rather than to catch up with Hollywood cinema through simple stories whose love is repeated and multiplied.”

Lelouche was born in Paris in 1937 to an Algerian jewish father and a mother who converted to Judaism. His film  "A Man and a Woman" won the Palme d'Or at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival, and two Oscars 

The Cairo International Film Festivalruns from Nov. 20 to Nov. 29.


Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

Updated 19 February 2019
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Future rabbis plant with Palestinians, sow rift with Israel

  • The gap between American and Israeli Jews seems to be widening
  • American rabbinical students plant olive trees in a Palestinian village

AT-TUWANI, West Bank: Young American rabbinical students are doing more than visiting holy sites, learning Hebrew and poring over religious texts during their year abroad in Israel.
In a stark departure from past programs focused on strengthening ties with Israel and Judaism, the new crop of rabbinical students is reaching out to the Palestinians. The change reflects a divide between Israeli and American Jews that appears to be widening.
On a recent winter morning, Tyler Dratch, a 26-year-old rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, was among some two dozen Jewish students planting olive trees in the Palestinian village of At-Tuwani in the southern West Bank. The only Jews that locals typically see are either Israeli soldiers or ultranationalist settlers.
“Before coming here and doing this, I couldn’t speak intelligently about Israel,” Dratch said. “We’re saying that we can take the same religion settlers use to commit violence in order to commit justice, to make peace.”
Dratch, not wanting to be mistaken for a settler, covered his Jewish skullcap with a baseball cap. He followed the group down a rocky slope to see marks that villagers say settlers left last month: “Death to Arabs” and “Revenge” spray-painted in Hebrew on boulders and several uprooted olive trees, their stems severed from clumps of dirt.
This year’s student program also includes a tour of the flashpoint West Bank city of Hebron, a visit to an Israeli military court that prosecutes Palestinians and a meeting with an activist from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel.
The program is run by “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” a US-based network of rabbis and cantors.
Most of T’ruah’s membership, and all students in the Israel program, are affiliated with the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements — liberal streams of Judaism that represent the majority of American Jews. These movements are marginalized in Israel, where rabbis from the stricter Orthodox stream dominate religious life.
The T’ruah program, now in its seventh year, is meant to supplement students’ standard curricular fare: Hebrew courses, religious text study, field trips and introductions to Jewish Israeli society. Though the program is optional, T’ruah says some 70 percent of the visiting American rabbinical students from the liberal branches of Judaism choose to participate.
The year-long program is split into one semester, focused on Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, and another, on alleged human rights abuses inside Israel.
T’ruah claims its West Bank encounters aren’t one-off acts of community service, but experiences meant to be carried home and disseminated to future congregations.
“We want to propel them to action, so they invite their future rabbinates to work toward ending the occupation,” said Rabbi Ian Chesir-Teran, T’ruah’s rabbinic educator in Israel.
The group began its trip in the most Jewish of ways, a discussion about the weekly Torah portion that turned into a spirited debate about the Ten Commandments.
“The Torah says don’t covet your neighbor’s fields, and we’re going to a Palestinian village whose private land has been confiscated for the sake of covetous Jews building settlements,” Chesir-Teran said.
As their bus trundled through the terraced hills south of Hebron, students listened to a local activist’s condensed history of the combustible West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
As part of interim peace deals in the 1990s, the West Bank was carved up into autonomous and semi-autonomous Palestinian areas, along with a section called Area C that remains under exclusive Israeli control.
The destinations of the day — the Palestinian villages of At-Tuwani and Ar-Rakkes — sit in Area C, also home to around 450,000 Israeli settlers. Palestinians seek all of the West Bank as the heartland of a hoped-for independent state.
The group was guided by villagers to their olive trees — an age-old Palestinian symbol and a more recent casualty of the struggle for land with Israeli settlers.
Israeli security officials reported a dramatic spike last year in settler violence against Palestinians.
Yishai Fleisher, a settler spokesman, blamed the attacks on the “atmosphere of tension” in the West Bank. “We’re against vigilantism, unequivocally,” he said.
As Israeli soldiers watched from the hilltop, Palestinians and Jews dug their fingers into the crumbling soil, setting down roots where holes torn out of the field hinted at recent vandalism.
Dratch said he came of age in Pennsylvania during the violent years of the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s. “My religious education was steeped in fear of Palestinians,” he said.
But in college, Dratch’s ideas about Israel changed. Dratch says he still supports Israel, while opposing its policies in the West Bank. “I realized I could be Zionist without turning my back on my neighbor, on Palestinians,” he said.
With hundreds of young American rabbis sharing such sentiments, some in Israel find the trend alarming.
“I worry about a passion for social justice becoming co-opted by far-left politics among future American Jewish leaders,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish research center in Jerusalem.
“Future rabbis are marginalizing themselves from the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews,” he added.
As Israel heads toward elections in April, opinion polls point to another victory for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious, nationalist allies.
In the US, meanwhile, surveys show American Jews, particularly the younger generation, holding far more dovish views toward Palestinians and religious pluralism. Netanyahu’s close friendship with President Donald Trump has further alienated many American Jews, who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
Two weeks after visiting At-Tuwani, the group received disheartening news: half of the 50 trees they’d planted had been uprooted, apparently by settlers. The students scrambled to make plans to replant.
Dratch said that while his time in Israel has provided him with plenty of reasons to despair, he still harbors hope for change.
“We’ll be sharing these stories to give people a full picture of what it means to care about this place,” he said.