Prizewinning filmmaker Yair Hochner, a Tel Aviv left-winger straight out of central casting — complete with the mandatory black T-shirt and jeans,wire-rim glasses and visceral dislike for the Likud-ledgovernment — has a problem with the BDS movement.
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As the co-founder and artistic director of TLVFest, or the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival, what he wants, basically, are great LGBT films to show.What he gets, increasingly, are emails — all of thempolite, he notes — explaining that this director or that producer isn’tinterested in showing their work in Israel.
Although typing in English is a painstaking business for the Kfar Sava-born andbred Hochner, he used to respond individually to each email. Butthese days, he admitted, there are so many of them that he has given up.
“I used to argue that those LGBT filmmakers angry at Israel’s policiesshould make us, their natural allies, stronger, so we can go on to fightfor equal rights, not only for our LGBT community, but for all. But I also understand them — we can’t pretend we don’t have big problemshere. I am angry at my country, too,” Hochner said.
He was speaking on Thursday at a panel on the intersection ofIsraeli and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. The discussion was part of 40 Years of Pride, a global leadership conference that is itself part of Pride Week Tel Aviv 2015. The three-dayconference was organized by the San Francisco based pro-Israel LGBTQ group AWider Bridge and the Aguda, the Israeli national LGBT task force.
“I want to talk movies and film festivals and LGBT issues,” continuedHochner. “My colleagues and friends from abroad, more and more, just wantto talk politics. It’s very painful, especially when you getemails from filmmakers whose work you admire.”
Not that this is news. International efforts to isolate and boycottIsrael as punishment for its treatment of the Palestinians has been goingon for years, before Hochner’s film festival launched almost a decade agoand even before Tel Aviv’s first pride parade, nearly decades ago.
“But these days the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is far more institutionalized andorganized,” stressed Hochner, echoing a theme that has been repeated byIsrael’s leadership and has been playing out daily in Israel media outlet in recentweeks. “It has spread more than you can imagine.”
One big change in evidence this year, he said, is that several filmmakers have asked their distributors to add a clause to their contracts specifying that they refuse to have their work shown in Israel.
“Thistakes out the need for any personal confrontation or debate. A distributorwill just say, ‘Sorry, it’s in the contract,’” Hochner said.
Visiting LGBT activist Jamie Kirchick, a fellow at the Foreign PolicyInitiative in Washington, D.C. and a columnist for The Daily Beast (one of the two relative right-wingers in the panel; the other was Amir Ohana, who narrowly missed being voted into the Knesset in March, representing Likud), argued that the BDS movement within the LGBT communitywas small, if vocal. It was led, he said, by a minority that is“obsessed,” with Israel, and that is, in many cases, anti-Semitic.
“I just don’t understand how a gay activist, faced with all the horriblemistreatment of LGBT people around the world, would choose boycotting Israelas an action priority. I have got to question their motives,” Kirchick said.
Arthur Slepian, the founder and executive director of A Wider Bridge, agreedthat the BDS movement within the LGBT community was a minority, but headded that it was growing and that its concerns must be heard, and addressed.
None ofthe speakers or participants from abroad who were invited to this year’s conference declined because of calls for a boycott, but several toldSlepian that friends and their home communities had pressured themto do so. In addition, he said, a handful of Israeli Arabs who were scheduled to take part in the confab had canceled out.
Anat Nir, one of Tel Aviv’s best-known LGBT activists and promoters of LGBTarts and culture events, said there were no easy answers. The only way forward, she suggested, was to engage those within theLGBT community calling for BDS. “In any case, to portray BDS as beingdriven by an obsessive group undermines the phenomenon,” she argued. “It’sa complex and layered issue, and I lose sleep at night over it and whetherI am doing the right thing as a promoter of events here. As anLGBT community we cannot only fight for our own human rights. That’s almostracist,” she said. “We have to listen carefully to those calling ourcountry out on other human rights abuses.”
Filmmaker and writer Gal Uchovsky, another outspoken LGBT activist inIsrael, added his voice to those dismissing the idea that BDS was a group of anti-Semites. But still, he seemed to be less understandingthan Hochner and Nir when it came to the BDS movement within the LGBTcommunity. He is also tired, he said, of the chorus of Israel critics whodismiss anything positive that Israel does or says about LGBT rights as “pinkwashing.”
“If you look at Israel and think you should boycott it because of theoccupation, go ahead,” Uchovsky said. “But don’t confuse issues. Israel is anLGBT heaven, and that should be appreciated on its own merits.”
Uchovsky had a suggestion for those wanting to boycott Israel: “Why notfight the big boys?” he said, throwing out names of billion-dollar Israelicompanies that are on the Nasdaq-100 index and popular tech startups founded by Israelis. “TheLGBT community in Israel, as elsewhere in the world, is a vulnerable one.We are fighting hard to do the right thing in our country, and we aredoing a good job,” Uchovsky said. “We are really not the enemy here”