Documentary screening sparks controversy in Takoma Park

A documentary critical of how U.S. media portrays the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was shown in Montgomery County, Maryland, Tuesday after being postponed amid concerns about its message.

“Occupation of the American Mind” was originally scheduled to be shown at the Takoma Park Community Center on June 13, but the city postponed the screening after “expressions of concern, as well as support, from a number of organizations and individuals,” City of Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart said in a statement.

The documentary claims the Israeli government, the U.S. government and a pro-Israel lobby have joined to “shape American media coverage of the conflict in Israel’s favor,” calling it an “effective public relations war” that has been waged in the U.S. for decades.

As viewers started to stream into the community center, some people stood outside the building to show their support or opposition to the film’s screening.

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Herbert Grossman protests the showing of a documentary at the Takoma Park Community Center on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

Herbert Grossman, of Silver Spring, said he was protesting because he is a Zionist and he believes in Jews defending their rights and “not appeasing all the anti-Semites,” referring to some organizations also present.

“Everyone is entitled to free speech, but if people think they are going to come here to learn about Israel and Palestine from this movie, they’re mistaken,” said Grossman, who has not seen the movie.

Benjamin Douglas, of Jewish Voice for Peace, said that his group is against censorship. He said there is a need to challenge how Palestinians are portrayed in U.S. politics and culture.

“A lot of people who oppose the movie haven’t seen it,” Douglas said.

Another person who objected to the screening is Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, who said in a Facebook post that he is fine with freedom of speech and political expression but he is opposed to local tax dollars being used to “peddle some bigoted dog whistles that have been used to rationalize hatred, discrimination and violence against the Jewish people for generations.”

Franchot attended the screening on Tuesday and said he is “very disappointed in the city government.”

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Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot attends a screening of “Occupation of the American Mind” at the Takoma Park Community Center on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

A discussion panel and a Q&A followed the screening, part of the request from Stewart and City of Takoma Park Council to include a space for conversation about the film.

Before the panel discussion began, statements opposing the film’s showing were read out loud, including a letter expressing “grave concern” with the decision to show the film signed by eight of the nine Montgomery County Council members.

The letter said that by showing the film, the City of Takoma Park appears to legitimize the premise that American Jews control the media, which is “offensive and hurtful to Takoma Park’s many Jewish residents.”

Stewart said in a statement that neither she nor the City of Takoma Park council endorse the content of any films offered by Takoma Park Arts series, part of the Arts and Humanities section of the city government that organized the screening.

The discussion panel following the film was moderated by professional facilitator Theo Brown, and included Matthew Mayers of J Street and Taher Herzallah of American Muslims for Palestine.

Maharat Ruth Friedman and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of Ohev Shalom Synagogue, were scheduled to be on the panel but decided not to take part.

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A man holds a sign outside the Takoma Park Community Center on Tuesday, July 23, 2019, where a documentary on U.S. media portrayal of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was screened. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

The city invited the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington to be on the panel but it declined. In a statement Monday, JCRC of Greater Washington said it welcomes dialogue but it believes the film is “not an appropriate avenue for that discussion.”

JCRC of Greater Washington said the film is biased against the American Jewish community because of the film’s claim that “pro-Israel groups are engaged in a propaganda campaign and control the American media,” and that the film is “one-sided and does not present an accurate picture of the overall Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

JCRC of Greater Washington also objected to Herzallah’s selection for the panel, saying Herzallah has extremist views.

Herzallah pushed back by saying the description of him is “not an accurate statement and does not reflect” his nuanced views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Herzallah said those who denounced the documentary’s screening prove the point of the film. He praised the film for its quality and use of scholars and researchers who have studied the subject for decades.

“Any time there is a discussion on Palestine from the Palestinian narrative, there has to be this aura of objectivity by including an opposing voice,” Herzallah said. “The narrative of the colonizer is not a viable narrative.”

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Supporter and opponents of a documentary’s screening gather outside the Takoma Park Community Center on Tuesday, July 23, 2019. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

During the discussion, panelist Matthew Mayers said his group J Street is pro-Israel and also pro-peace. He said he believes in a two-state solution.

“You can love Israel and still disagree with the policies of its government. You can love Israel and still think that Palestinians aren’t evil but people with their own rights and their own need of a homeland of their own,” Mayers said.

Mayers said he believes the film is “obviously an advocacy piece,” but he does not think it is anti-Semitic.

“Occupation of the American Mind” can be viewed for free on the documentary’s website.

WTOP’s Michelle Basch contributed to this report from Takoma Park.

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