Movie by local filmakers draws virulent protest in Marblehead

The film’s topic: US media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

  • Northampton’s Loretta Alper, center, co-director of the film “The Occupation of the American Mind,” talks to people from Jewish Voice for Peace, who were countering protesters at Sunday’s screening of the film in Marblehead. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • A crowd gathers in Marblehead at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, for a screening of the film The Occupation of the American Mind, a production of the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation. Some demonstrators took issue with the film, which they called “anti-Semitic,” though supporters and the films’ creators deny those claims.  —SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 11/8/2017 8:05:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Several local filmmakers found themselves at the center of a political storm in eastern Massachusetts this week, when protesters demonstrated against a screening of their film on U.S. media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The film, titled “The Occupation of the American Mind,” is a production of the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation. The documentary “explores how the Israeli government, the U.S. government, and the pro-Israel lobby have joined forces, often with very different motives, to shape American media coverage of the conflict in Israel’s favor,” according to the film’s website.

Sut Jhally, executive producer of the film and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, said that the divisive subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often draws pushback, but what happened Sunday was different.

“This is the most extreme I’ve seen,” Jhally said of protests in Marblehead, where the local Unitarian Universalist Church screened the film. “It’s not comfortable walking through a crowd of people calling you Nazis, and an anti-Semite.”

The protest against the film was organized by the Salem-based Lappin Foundation, whose mission is “enhancing Jewish identity across generations,” according to the group’s website.

In a letter signed by more than 150 people and published in local newspapers, the group charged that the film is “anti-Semitic,” “anti-Israel” and “hate-filled.” The letter compares protesting the film to protesting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, where in August an alleged Nazi sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring at least 19 others.

The Lappin Foundation did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

The filmmakers reject the notion that the film is anti-Semitic or bigoted, however. Jhally and the documentary’s co-director make a distinction between valid media criticism — or valid criticism of Israeli domestic and foreign policy — and anti-Semitism. Ironically, they say, the movie is about how the Palestinian side of the conflict is often ignored in U.S. media, and about how those who call for increased focus on Palestinian issues are labeled anti-Semites.

“We base this on hundreds and hundreds of hours of news clips we’ve collected. We worked on this for many years — the data is clear,” Jeremy Earp, the film’s co-director, said. “All we’re looking for is balance in the coverage. We made a movie about that.”

That didn’t stop demonstrators from picketing the film’s screening, however. Dozens showed up on Sunday to protest the film, which drew a packed house of more than 200 audience members, according to local news reports. Among those in attendance and interacting with protesters, Earp said, were members of the group Jewish Voice for Peace, who were there in support of the film and its makers.

Despite the protest, the film screening went on without a single disruption, Earp said. The reaction to the film was positive, he added, and the discussion afterward was civil.

“The minister, Wendy, handled the questions very well and gave voice to everyone,” Jhally said. “She made sure critical questions were also asked.”

Earp said the documentary has also seen some pushback at previous screenings, but that this latest protest was uniquely “vicious.”

He said the Lappin Foundation’s criticism comes from a right-wing perspective not shared by all Jews, as evidenced by the Jewish people interviewed in the film and those who showed up and had positive reactions to the film.

“Nowhere did you hear that there are lots of area Jews that agree with the movie, that don’t see their identity tied with Israel, that feel free to criticize Israel,” Earp said of some media coverage of the film screening.

The Lappin Foundation has indeed donated to several far-right groups in recent years, according to the nonprofit’s tax forms. In 2015, the foundation gave $5,000 to the Clarion Fund, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has characterized as an anti-Muslim hate group. That same year, the Lappin Foundation gave $1,000 to Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a group that has claimed that leaders of Boston-area Muslim institutions are terrorist sympathizers and extremists. Former U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has said she finds that group’s claims to be “incredibly racist and unfair,” according to The New York Times.

The Lappin Foundation’s open letter about the documentary includes the claim that the documentary “fails to inform people that Palestinian children are raised from childhood to hate Jews and Christians.”

Earp and Jhally said they are glad they traveled to support the Unitarian Universalist Church in showing the film, together with Northampton’s Loretta Alper, the co-director and co-writer and a Media Education Foundation producer.

“I think a lot of the people who were protesting this movie saw it, and they saw it was about what they were doing,” Earp said. “A lot of the people there who had come to the protest expecting one thing, came to the movie and saw something else.”

The protests, however, did have the effect of driving the conversation away from the topic of the film, Earp added.

“The fact is we didn’t engage in the issue of Palestinian rights like we should,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 9 at 11:30 a.m.


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