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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood Jews: Toronto film fest protest against Israel a 'blacklist'

September 16, 2009 |  5:39 pm

Someone always causes a ruckus at the Toronto film festival. But this year even the reliably controversy-stirring Michael Moore has had to take a back seat to the uproar over a protest letter, signed by a variety of showbiz dignitaries, claiming that Toronto's embrace of a sister city program with Tel Aviv was a "celebration" of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, charging the festival with being complicit "in the Israeli propaganda machine." The letter was signed by such prominent artists as David Byrne, Julie Christie, Ken Loach, Wallace Shawn and Jane Fonda (who's now taking some baby steps backing away from some of the letter's more heated accusations).  

Tiff2009 The protest was sparked by the Canadian documentary filmmaker John Greyson, who pulled his film from the festival, decrying the festival's spotlight on Tel Aviv, which he called -- quoting Naomi Klein -- "the smiling face of Israeli apartheid." There have been a variety of counter-protests, but the biggest one arrives Thursday in the form of a full-page ad in Variety, signed by more than a hundred, mostly Jewish Hollywood filmmakers, actors, writers, producers and executives.

Titled "We Don't Need Another Blacklist," the ad applauds the festival for including the Israeli film community in its City to City program. It says the filmmakers of Israel represent the best of open and uncensored artistic expression that are "in no way a propaganda arm" for government policy. It goes on to add: "Blacklisting them only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect. Those who refuse to see these films for themselves or prevent them from being seen by others are violating a cherished right shared by Canada and all democratic countries."

The group of signatures supporting the ad's declaration include a who's who of Hollywood, including Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Rogen, Robert Duvall, Halle Berry, Sacha Baron Cohen, Lisa Kudrow, Lenny Kravitz, Ed Zwick, Jason Alexander, Chazz Palminteri and David Cronenberg, along with a host of top producers and executives like Ron Meyer, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Sherry Lansing, Neal Moritz, Jonathan Glickman, Nina Jacobson, Darron Star, Nathan Kahane and Gail Berman. (Writer-director signatory Michael Tolkin gets credit for a polish on the shaping of the ad's language.)

Dan Adler, an L.A. based entrepreneur and former CAA executive, was one of the driving forces behind the ad, which is officially sponsored by Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the UJA Federation of Toronto. "We all spent a lot of time talking about the original protest letter, in the sense that it seemed to be going after the wrong target by attacking Israel and its film artists," said Adler. "When I sat down at my computer and started asking for people to sign on, all I got was passion and enthusiasm. Everyone said, 'I'm in,' and then, even better, added, 'Can I get you someone else?' "

I'm not a big fan of political action letter writing and protest ads, since as Fonda proves in her painfully awkward "restatement" of her position, too many celebrities either go whichever direction the wind is blowing or have no real grasp of the complexity of political issues in the first place. Israel's role in the mess in the Middle East is, for example, far too endlessly complicated to be accurately captured in a protest letter or counter-protest ad. But I think this ad strikes the right chord, since as Adler puts it: "This was a cut and dried issue -- it's important to stand up for the rights of artists, wherever they are, especially in the film community of Israel which has been a beacon of open, often critical free expression." 

Previously: Israel gets a punch in the schnoz from Toronto film fest protesters

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