Are donors censoring the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival?

A Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) activist claims that a powerful donor forced the Jewish Film Festival to ban JVP patriation. Is it true? I’m not sure. Let me try to unravel the story.

About a week ago, as this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival was winding down, the Eastbay Express published an article by Carol Sanders called The Jewish Federation Still Muzzles SF Jewish Film Festival. According to the article, the Jewish Film Institute – the organization that runs the Festival – invited the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) to co-present the documentary Advocate as a Community Partner “and enthusiastically agreed.”

Then the Festival rescinded the invitation, and “and JVP was told it could not participate.” Sanders blames the switch “on funding from the SF Jewish Federation, which has long attempted to constrain debate about Israel through conditions placed on its grant recipients.”


Sanders’ article listed no sources. She provided only one three-word quote, “undermines the legitimacy,” when describing how the Jewish Community Federation will not partner with an anti-Israel organization. She did not say who she was quoting. I found what I believe is her source, from a Jewish News article from 2010. This article describes “how the federation will not fund organizations that [participate] in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.'”

Sounds like the Federation has a tight, rightwing grip on the Jewish Film Institute and its Festival. But when you look at the Festival’s lineup of films, that’s clearly not the case. This year, I saw five Festival films that put Israel in a bad light. There were two very strong documentaries about the horrible treatment of Palestinians (Advocate and Afterward), two scathing biographical documentaries about prime ministers (Golda and King Bibi), and one very funny satirical comedy (Tel Aviv On Fire).

Tel Aviv On Fire

Afterward was the best film I saw in this year’s festival. At the Q&A with the director after the screening, someone ask about JVP’s BDS Movement. The film’s director, Ofra Bloch, described the movement as “non-violent, and Israel is fighting it hard. That means they’re scared.”

Before writing this article, I asked the Jewish Film Institute, the Jewish Community Federation, and Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area for comments. Both the Festival and the Federation pointed me to a response to Eastbay Express written by the Institute’s Executive Director, Lexi Leban: “We make our curatorial decisions without input from funders, including the SF-based Jewish Community Federation…”


As I write this, JVP has not responded to my request.

According to Leban, an intern mistakenly invited JVP to come in as community partners for the screening of Advocate, and the invitation had to be rescinded. “JFI does not engage in community partnerships with political organizations working directly on the Israel/Palestine conflict. This policy applies to organizations on both ends of the spectrum on this issue.”

Which brings up another question: Why? If it isn’t a worrisome donor, what other reason do they have for banning pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian organizations?

Afterward Q&A

In the final analysis, the Festival doesn’t seem like it’s being censored. If the Federation disallowed films that took the Palestinian view, it would be a very different film festival.

Note: I have corrected a typo in the first paragraph.

2 thoughts on “Are donors censoring the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival?

  1. As a former film festival programmer, I think I can understand the rationale for “banning pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian organizations.” The Jewish Film Festival programs films with diverse viewpoints ranging from left, to right, and center – and works to foster dialog and understanding among viewers of differing political persuasions. Having community partnerships is great for outreach to new audiences and enhancing available resources to mount screenings. And I understand your point about the Festival’s willingness to program viewpoints critical of Israel. But in a “liberal” environment, the presentation of controversial films attains legitimacy when the screenings are not anchored to distinct political or ideological positions of co-presenters. The Festival can only remain free to present divisive programming to audiences when it (the Festival itself) remains a neutral party to potential conflict. Having a partisan co-presenter would violate that condition, and potentially violate the audience’s trust in the Festival’s good will toward enlightened discussion of differing viewpoints.

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