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The Toronto International Film Festival will this year feature a film from Malaysia. Nobody will picket or denounce this movie on the grounds that a Malaysian judge last month sentenced a woman to a public caning for drinking beer in a hotel bar.
Nor can we expect protests against films from Iran, even though the Iranian regime raped and murdered an arrested Canadian photographer–and continues to use rape to terrorize imprisoned protesters.
There is one country that is always a target of protest, and it is the target at this year’s film festival: the state of Israel. To give the protesters their due, they know what they’re doing. Protests aimed Malaysian or Iranian films would achieve nothing. These regimes are hardly going to alter their behaviour because some Westerners harass their independent filmmakers.
Anti-Israel protests, however, are not aimed at altering Israel’s behaviour. Singling out Israel is a goal in itself. Throughout the ages, anti-Jewish persecution has proceeded through familiar stages. The first stage is to denounce and defame Jews as uniquely villainous creatures–as murderers of Christ, as stiff-necked enemies of Muhammad, as bloodsucking money-lenders, as racial enemies.
The second stage is to define Jews as a distinctive category of humanity or subhumanity, demarked from the rest of humanity in some visibly distinctive way.
The third is to banish these Jews from the rest of society, to exclude them from certain pursuits, especially the arts and sciences. In Germany in the 1930s, for example, writers, musicians and, yes, filmmakers lost their livelihoods first; doctors and lawyers only later.
Physical attack comes last, after the mind has been prepared for it by a long process of de-legitimation and dehumanization.
Today’s anti-Israel movements follow the ancient scripts precisely. In Britain, academic associations now boycott Israeli universities. In Los Angeles in 2007, protesters sought to silence the Israel Philharmonic. Now in Toronto, the Israeli film industry is targeted.
The organizers of the Toronto protests explain: “We object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and UN General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.”
This is an inversion of reality as breathtaking as North Korea’s self-description as a “people’s republic.” The complained-of apartheid is nothing more (and nothing less) than the measures Israel adopts to protect its people from the campaign of random murder that claimed over 1,000 Israeli lives between 2000 and 2006: walls and other devices of physical separation.
But notice something else: Unlike in the hypothetical but non-existent protests against Malaysia and Iran, Israel is denounced not for what it does, but for what it is. The only way for Israel to escape these denunciations is to cease to be.
Israel is not going to oblige anytime soon of course. But those who organize these boycott campaigns hope that the reappearance of the ancient practice of separation and exclusion will so demoralize Israel’s Jews that they will submit to their own dispossession. And indeed, some Jews and some Israelis have submitted. They sign these petitions in hope, perhaps, of finding some personal escape for themselves from the vilification of Jews in general.
This too is an ancient pattern. In 15th century Spain, some of the most bloodthirsty persecutors of the Jewish population were the children and grandchildren of Jewish converts to Christianity. They may have hoped by their zeal against their kin to prove themselves to their menacing neighbours. I think of them when I see the sprinkling of Israeli names among the long roster of signatories to the Toronto declaration against the film festival.
But history does not repeat itself. This time the would-be persecutors are few and marginal, and most North Americans see their animus for what it is. Toronto’s festival will proceed untroubled–and will include a tribute to the dazzling city of Tel Aviv on its 100th anniversary, a city built from sand dunes by the children and grandchildren of survivors of the last attempt to banish Jews from the arts and from life.
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.
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