Hillary Clinton Under Fire From BDS Activists for Involvement in Scottish Film Festival Controversy

Can Clinton’s anti-BDS activities balance her support for Iran deal?

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U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton community forum in New Hampshire. August 11, 2015.
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton community forum in New Hampshire. August 11, 2015.Credit: AP

Hillary Clinton has been coming under fire from BDS proponents for actions she took on behalf of Israel in 2009, when, as secretary of state, she intervened on behalf of an Israeli filmmaker in a controversy surrounding a Scottish film festival.

Clinton’s involvement was revealed in the mass release of her personal emails earlier in the summer following a court order to make them public when it became clear that she had conducted state business on a private server.

A new focus on the incident was sparked by coverage in The Scotsman last week, which highlighted the fact that Clinton had “sought to put pressure” on the Scottish and UK governments in order to convince festival organizers to resist boycott threats regarding the screening of a film that was subsidized by the Israeli government.

The incident surrounded the Edinburgh International Film Festival, to which a young filmmaker, Tali Shalom Ezer had received a government grant to attend for a screening of her film, “Surrogate.” The funding for her trip to Scotland - about $450 - was framed by BDS activists as being a “donation” to the festival from the Israeli government which tainted the event. It sparked a protest, that included prominent filmmaker Ken Loach, that called for a boycott of the festival unless the money was “returned” to Israel.

In order to quell the controversy, the festival gave back the money, essentially cancelling the screening of the film. Clinton’s involvement began when Brian Greenspun, her husband’s former college roommate and the publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, forwarded her a newspaper article that had been sent to him by Bruce Ramer, a powerful Hollywood lawyer that touts Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood on his client list, who is politically active and is a former president of the American Jewish Committee.

The email from Ramer to Greenspun read “I hope you can enlist Hilary’s support (and please give her my personal best). We need, for many reasons, to have the U.S. protest and condemn this outrageous boycott and to oppose the anti-Semitism inherent in it. The organizers of the festival must be convinced to reverse themselves.”

On May 25 2009, Secretary of State Clinton wrote back: “Thanks for the heads up on this. We are working to decide the most effective way forward, and I’ll keep you informed. We have some good ideas as to what our govt can do, but we also want to see pressure from local people brought on the British and Scottish govts.

“Can you and Bruce reach out to the community in London and Edinburgh to urge them to raise this w PM Brown and other govt officials? We’d like to see top down and bottom up pressure. Let me know what you think.”

She then cc’d her deputy chief of staff Jake Sullivan, adviser Andrew J Shapiro, spokesperson Philippe Reines, and sent all three of them an email saying “Pls read Brian’s message and all the email traffic below. What can we do about this? Let me know if you have ideas. Thx.”  Mr Sullivan answered by saying “We will confer in the morning and come up with a plan.”

From the emails, however, there is no sign as to whether or how a plan was formulated.

When asked by The Scotsman if they had been pressured from the U.S. government or Hillary Clinton over the boycott, the Edinburgh International Film Festival refused to comment. The Scottish government told the paper that it had not intervened, with a spokesman saying, “We respect the independence of the festivals and any decisions on funding and other earned income is for the Edinburgh International Film festival. Their reasons for returning this money were well documented at the time.”

The story was quickly picked up by Palestinian advocacy blogs attacking Clinton from the left for being too pro-Israel. The blog Electronic Intifada accused Clinton of “anti-BDS meddling” and BDS proponent Philip Weiss wrote that the evidence that Clinton “stuck her nose” into the matter “ demonstrates the intensity of the Israel lobby when dealing with our highest officials.” The U.S. Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel condemned the “interference” by Clinton and said that “we pledge to continue and escalate our campaigns to boycott and internationally isolate Israel, despite all efforts and threats by the Israeli state and its partner, the U.S. government.”  

The hard evidence of past actions against BDS back up the declaration that Clinton made in a widely publicized letter to entertainment mogul Haim Saban, her staunch Israeli-American supporter and fundraiser on July 2 declaring that “countering BDS” needs to be made “a priority.”

“BDS seeks to punish Israel and dictate how the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve the core issues of their conflict. This is not the path to peace,” she wrote in the letter. “From Congress and state legislatures to boardrooms and classrooms we need to engage all people of good faith, regardless of their political persuasion or their views on policy specifics, in explaining why the BDS campaign is counterproductive to the pursuit of peace and harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

For the Clinton camp, the unearthing of these particular emails is not necessarily a bad thing and can be used to her advantage. They will be helpful when it comes to maintaining the tightrope act that she has had to walk between loyalty to the Democratic Party and sitting president Barack Obama, under whom she served as secretary of state - and delivering the message to the American Jewish community that a Clinton White House would be able to rehabilitate the troubled U.S.-Israel relationship, battered by the terrible personal chemistry between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.

Taking an aggressive stand on BDS helps her balance the fact that Israel’s supporters are likely unhappy with the fact that she is standing by Obama and Kerry in support of the nuclear deal with Iran.

Clinton’s understated support of the deal has become more vocal and public in recent days.  

On Tuesday, during a campaign appearance in New Hampshire, she said that "I'm hoping that the agreement is finally approved and I'm telling you if it's not, all bets are off," and that a U.S. rejection of the deal would be a "very bad signal to send in a quickly moving and oftentimes dangerous world." If it happens, she said, "The Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese, they're gonna say we agreed with the Americans, I guess their president can't make foreign policy. That's a very bad signal to send."

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