With controversial flicks like Women for Sale, about Israeli society's legalized prostitution industry, and Channels of Rage, a documentary headlining two rival rappers caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this year's Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) is not the lox-and-bagels of Jewish cinema.
The festival, a 13-year veteran featuring dozens of films from many countries, has among its edgy offerings a movie that has generated particular buzz this year. Not in My Name, a film by Chutzpa Productions' Igal Hecht and co-produced by Talia Klein, looks at the Jewish left and its relationship with Israel. Live footage from protests, interviews with leftist activists and segments with famed academics Norman Finklestein and Alan Dershowitz insulting each other help the filmmakers ask the question, ‘Who today speaks for the Jewish left?'
The answer from the producers is clear: The extremists do.
"This film shows what the left has turned into," filmmaker Hecht tells me. He says that in contemporary Jewish circles, many moderates are being silenced. "We've allowed extremists to take over both political beliefs [left and right]."
The title of the film is one used by many on the Jewish left who object to the state of Israel's policies, as the state of Israel purports to speak for all Jews. Viewers of the film meet non-Zionists and anti-Zionists as well as ardent Zionists who simply reject Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and criticize alleged human rights abuses in the territories.
For better or for worse, the filmmaker says, these activists are still Jews.
"If you are against the state of Israel, it does not mean you are a self-hating Jew," Hecht states.
"They're part of the Jewish community whether we like it or not," adds co-producer Klein. She notes that many activists in the film have family members who disagree with their politics. A chief example is International Solidarity Movement activist Avi Zer Aviv, whose father Shimon Zer Aviv, a right-wing ex-pat Israeli, found out about his son's interview and asked to do a rebuttal. The result is a poignant mix of footage of a son firmly rooted in his convictions and a father trying to make sense of who his son has become.
The film's thesis, extremists are dominating the Jewish left, has angered many, including some of the activists appearing in the film.
Making Not in My Name had Klein and Hecht criss-crossing the map, filming in Brooklyn, Jerusalem, Vancouver and Toronto. They also took a trip up north to Camp Shomria to film the training of the camp staff. The late-teen and twenty-something counsellors in the film come from the Hashomer Hatzair youth group. The leftist Zionists of Hashomer, whose predecessors in the movement helped found the state of Israel and the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, came to the screening expecting to be misrepresented.
Before the film, Northern Secondary student Eli Zeldin was among the Hashomer group who were handing out leaflets that proclaimed "Images in film can be taken out of context."
"We're just here to make sure that our good name is not discredited," he said, adding that his youth group is a "very progressive" movement and stating that he felt a strong Palestinian state alongside a strong Jewish state would ensure peace in the region.
The film's footage of their camp's training was not the whole story, group members say, and they are upset at the suggestion that they can be linked to anti-Israel individuals and groups.
"We felt we were presented very inaccurately," Hashomer Hatzair representative Tom Chervinsky tells me. His point echoes that of Avi Zer Aviv and other interviewees who thought that their interviews were edited in such a way as to make them more extreme than they actually are.
"To say that Hashomer in any way integrates any kind of anti-Zionism is so preposterous, it's almost sad," says Chervinsky, a graduating student from the University of Waterloo and the president of the Waterloo Israel Public Affairs Committee. "You don't have to support the policies, but you have to support the state to be a part of Hashomer."
The screening at the packed Bloor Cinema was host to a score of objections from self-proclaimed members of the moderate left who resented the film's implication that Zionist activists against Israeli government policies "provide a shield of legitimacy" to those who truly hate the Jewish state.
Klein and Hecht contextualized activists' statements by showing footage of the actual situation, complete with shots of Palestinian Arabs crossing checkpoints and interacting with Israeli soldiers. They balance a scene of an activist Passover seder talking about the crimes of occupation with footage of the 2002 Park Hotel massacre in which a Palestinian suicide bomber killed dozens of Jews having their Passover seder.
More than anything else, the film is real. Interviewees say what they think, debate internal conflicts and ponder their own role in the big picture. Hecht and Klein capture shouting matches between protesters and mainstream Zionists. They include grisly footage of the aftermath of bombings in Israeli cafes and on buses seconds after activists mention the Palestinian struggle.
Objections of the moderate left aside, the point made by Hecht and Klein is well taken. In many spheres, the voice of the moderate left is overshadowed and out-shouted by the extreme left. The result is a blurring of lines between the moderates and the extremists, so much so that it becomes difficult to tell who is who.
For all those in the moderate political sphere, whether on the left or the right, the harsh reality is simply that if they haven't been speaking out until now, perhaps they should be.