Makhmalbaf: Pseudo-Repent or Boycott? 21 July 2014 Debates: Program #8

Host: Gelareh Khoshgozaran Guests: Sadra Shahab and Nargess Tavassolian

Balavision/Khoshgozaran: Our program today is about Makhmalbaf’s participation in the Jerusalem Film Festival, which provoked two letters. One, signed by a group of academics, artists, journalists and civil activists, considered it a defiance of two petitions issued by the Palestinian civil society in 2004 and 2005, respectively, asking the international community to boycott the state of Israel culturally and academically as well as economically. In reaction to this letter, another group of Iranians and foreigners defended Makhbalbaf’s participation as a symbolic gesture of peace. Sadra Shahab is a human rights activist and co-founder of Where is my Vote and other campaigns against war, sanctions, and state oppression. He teaches urban development at the university and is among those who signed the first letter. He joins us from New York. Nargess Tavvasolian is a PhD candidate in law at the University of London. She is a human rights activist and signed the second letter. Mr. Shahab, please tell us about the reason for and the process by which the letter opposing Makmalbaf’s travel to Israel was drafted and distributed. Shahab: Good day and thanks for inviting me to this program. We learned of Mr. Makhmalbaf’s decision to participate in the festival after the fact—too late to try and change his mind. Our goal was to influence what he would say at the festival and show Iranian civil society’s support for Palestinian and Israeli civil societies. The letter was written in English and translated into Persian and Arabic. It was first posted on the Al Jadaliyya website and was well received; even the Guardian newspaper published a report on it and cited some of its content. The importance of the letter lies in its support of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,) a nonviolent campaign in Palestine and Israel that opposes the apartheid regime in Israel. BDS aims to end the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and promotes the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homeland. The campaign also demands equal rights for Palestinian and Israeli citizens. Another campaign that formed in 2004 advocates cultural and academic sanctions against Israel. Both campaigns have emerged from the heart of Palestine and Israel; we asked Makhmalbaf to respect these campaigns and decline to participate in the festival or to criticize Israeli actions. Balavision: Ms. Tavassolian, please tell us about the reason for, and the process of drafting and distribution the second letter. Tavassolian: The second letter was in reaction to the first one and drafted in support of Makhmalbaf. From our point of view, this wasn’t about the selection of one director to travel to Israel; we wanted to break a taboo; Makhmalbaf’s decision is very important and defensible in this regard. Balavision: What’s your opinion of the BDS and the cultural and academic sanctions against Israel? Don’t you feel one should respect them? Tavassolian: Boycott is a means to an end and should be weighed on a case-by-case basis. Makhmalbaf was free to represent Iranian civil society at the festival, criticize Israel, and defend the rights of the Palestinians. He didn’t have to hide his feelings to participate in the festival. Therefore, although I’m not 100% against boycotts and sanctions, I consider them the last resort. Also, the people who signed the first letter were not uniform; in no way do I accuse them of being anti-Semitic or supporters of the Islamic Republic. Many of them live in exile and differ in their ways. We advocate peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis, between Israel and Iran, and between Shi’a, Hojjatiyeh and Baha’is. And we use different methods and reasoning. There are no clear cut solutions in the humanities as there are in physics and chemistry. Shahab: What do you mean by ‘taboo’? Tavassolian: The taboo of phobia, of fear of speaking [one’s mind]… I wouldn’t have dared sign such a letter a few years ago; I should write something about that. We have to pave the path to dialogue. Many hostile attitudes—anti-Semitism, -Islam, -Arabs, and -Baha’is—stem from ignorance and fear, not from human wickedness. Shahab: Traveling to Israel or screening a film there may be a taboo from the Islamic Republic’s point of view but many of us who wrote that letter do not have a taboo against traveling to Israel. Many human rights activists travel to the occupied territories and engage in a variety of struggles against the government of Israel. Tavassolian: This taboo has now been broken among Iranians. Shahab: I didn’t notice any taboo among Iranians. If you know of a case, show me. Our criticism of Makhmalbaf and our expectation of him is to protest the injustices committed against Palestinian people and the Arabs in the occupied territories; we have the same expectations of all artists. Human rights activists are now trying to cancel Alicia Key’s trip to Israel for a concert. More than 100 American and British filmmakers have supported BDS and boycotted Israel. I agree that boycott is the last resort but after 60 years of struggles and hundreds and hundreds of proclamations by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council this is the time for the last resort. Boycott is a nonviolent method, which is why it’s universally popular; it’s an awareness raising effort. You stated that Makhbalbaf was free to speak there; you have to ask whether Palestinians and the Arabs in the occupied territories also enjoy civil liberties and freedom of speech. Balavision: The Iranian government has been at odds with Israel for decades. Does the cultural boycott of Israel mean supporting the Iranian government? Tavassolian: Yes, Mr. Makhmalbaf himself stated that the boycott reinforces the positions of Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu. The Iranian regime does not want any exchange between Iranians and Israelis. Balavision: How will Makhmalbaf’s presence at the festival and winning a prize help push the peace process forward? Tavassolian: These actions will reduce fears, because the root of this phobia is ignorance…a lack of knowledge about one another. Balavision: By phobia you mean fear of the other? Tavassolian: No, any kind of fear. For instance, a homosexual activist used to say that most people have a fear of gays although they’re people just like us except they’re attracted to the opposite sex. Likewise, there’s a phobia against Israel in our society. When I first learned there were six Israelis in my class my expression changed; I didn’t want that to happen but I had no clear understanding of them. Balavision: Don’t you think this is a personal case? Tavassolian: No. Balavision: Some of those who signed the first letter have Israeli friends and have traveled to Israel. Their only demand is to boycott the Israeli government because of its policies. Tavassolian: People have to bring more pressure on politicians to change their policies. We also want to bring a different kind of pressure. But these communications are very significant. An Israeli friend told me he was very moved by Bahman Qobadi’s Persian Cats, which he saw in Israel. When the film ended, he asked his friends, “Why shouldn’t we love people that produce such beautiful music?” On hearing this story I really felt that cinema can eradicate phobia and fear of the other, whether of Arabs, Iranians or Muslims. Balavision: Was it necessary for Mr. Makhbalbaf to travel to Israel and attend this festival? Shahab: This is a personal decision. BDS respects that. It’s not mandatory to follow the campaign. This nonviolent method does not harm Israeli people at all. I don’t agree with Ms. Tavassolian. I don’t speak out of phobia; nor do my friends. If you want to generalize all Iranians as suffering from phobia, I have nothing to say. But I’d also like to thank Ms. Tavassolian for being fair and for not accusing the letter writers of being anti-Semitic or anti-Baha’i and anti-Israel agents of the Islamic Republic…The campaign does not aim to destroy Israel or Israeli people; it supports the rights of Palestinians based on international law. Balavision: You are against [UN] sanctions against Iran; how is it that you support boycotting Israel? Shahab: Under the sanctions against Iran states and corporations may not sell goods or services to Iran. These sanctions are legal and mandatory; Israel is their staunched supporter. The cultural and academic boycott of Israel is on the other hand a personal choice. It’s a voluntary and awareness-raising effort organized by people; it asks artists, scholars and academics to decline from screening their work in Israel and receiving an award from the state. Balavision: Does awarding an Iranian film and receiving an Iranian filmmaker in Israel serve the interests of the Israeli government or is it an honest endeavor to improve relations with Iran? Tavassolian: Many human rights activists are similarly accused of being a safety valve for the Islamic Republic. The fact that governments may exploit our endeavors is no excuse for human rights activists to take no action. One theory holds that human rights activists working in dictatorial systems commit the worst treason. I don’t submit to that. Balavision: Supporters of Makhmalbaf believe that the continued exchange of hostility and warmongering between Iran and Israel does not serve either country or the region and that it only benefits those like Ahmadinejad who have been fueling the fire over the last eight years. What do you think? Shahab: Civil society all over the world supports boycotting Israel. This campaign is similar to the strategies adopted in South Africa against Apartheid and is supported by Desmond Tutu. I challenge Makhmalbalf’s position and prefer to trust an experienced person who engaged in a struggle in South Africa from 1958-1900 with success. Balavision: Do you think that hostility is necessarily war mongering? Shahab: if hostility leads to war and military action, it is 100% against humanity. War between states should be transformed into diplomatic dialogue. Iran does not have a right to attack Israel because of Palestinian people; nor does Israel have a right to attack Iran. I disagree with both Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel should be wiped off the map and Netanyahu’s description of Ahmadinejad, the elected Iranian president, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing and his total disregard for civil society, elections, and Iranian people. Israel on the one hand is the staunched supporter of economic sanctions against Iran and the democratic elections of Iranians in the recent elections and on the other grants the democracy award to Mr. Makhmalbaf. I find this behavior inconsistent. Likewise, the Iranian government’s support for the Palestinian people is a charade to cover up human rights abuses in Iran. Balavision: Makhmalbaf has asked, why don’t Iranians go to Israel and talk to them instead of signing petitions. What do you think about that? Tavassolian: Makhmalbaf was referring to young Iranian filmmakers living abroad who participate in international festivals; unfortunately, it’s not possible to get a visa for a trip [to Israel] on an Iranian passport. Balavision: What are some other ways to establish peace between Iranians and Israelis or their respective governments? Tavassolian: The best way is dialogue among civilizations or dialogue across civil society; any form of dialogue or participation in festivals or launching an Iran-Israel friendship campaign can be very helpful. Balavision: Why are reactions to a filmmaker’s trip to Israel significant? Shahab: Mr. Makhmalbaf’s decision is not a personal one. Since the events of 2009, he has presented himself as a representative of the Green Movement; having entered politics, he cannot speak as a mere artist. He has participated in a festival that has been built on the ruins of three Palestinian villages that have been ethnically cleansed. He should have screened this film in the cafés, parks and public squares in Israel and said to the government, I refuse to participate in your festival because of human rights abuses but will speak to the people of Israel and show them that Iranians are not evil; they do not wish to see Israel wiped off the map of Jewish people killed. What Mr. Makhmalbaf said at the festival was that both Israelis and Palestinians are at fault. This is unacceptable. He is misinforming people. He speaks of peace between Iran and Israel. Is that enough, even if we agreed that Israel did not have a hand in the terror of Iranian nuclear scientists? As human beings, should we forget Sabra and Shatila? Should we forget the attack on Gaza in 2008? Tavassolian: I completely agree with Mr. Shahab that we are all members of humanity and must also defend Palestinians. But Israel’s role in the terror of Iranian scientists has not been proven and it’s best not to discuss unproven cases. It’s also important to remember that it takes two sides to make peace. Some Palestinian groups like Hamas also target ordinary people; Makhmalbaf has tried to criticize violent actions on every side. Balavision: Rahman Javanmardi has stated that one must distinguish between political/economic sanctions and academic ones. Shahab: Cultural sanctions mean that artists should decline an invitation by the government of Israel and become a spokesperson for the Palestinian people because the government of Israel uses cultural programs, concerts and film screenings to hide or whitewash apartheid and broadcast a different image of Israel to the world. This boycott is very different from the sanctions that the U.S. and Israel organize to destroy the Iranian people. Tavassolian: I am against all types of sanctions and believe they should be avoided if at all possible. But enforcing political sanctions and restricting diplomatic relations puts pressure on statesmen and politicians and is the most effective against states that abuse human rights. Balavision: What do you think about Mohsen Makhmalbaf as a filmmaker given that he has changed his position on numerous occasions? Balavision: I’m glad to see Makhmalbaf’s intellectual journey and changing positions. He managed to transcend his ideology and what he had learned from his family and environment; I’m a little jealous of his daughters. It seems to me they had the courage to stand by their decisions and their work, and I admire that. Shahab: I don’t have any opinion or judgment about Mr. Makhmalbaf’s personality. But the Palestinian civil society has asked the rest of the world to join its struggle and proposed a specific way they can support. We can accept or reject this proposal but we cannot expect them to change their way to suit us. It’s also important to remember that the struggle of the Palestinian people is not equal to Hamas or to groups supported by Iran. Some people fear that if we support Palestine we’ll become like the Islamic Republic. But that is not the case. Civil society everywhere supports the Palestinians. My other criticism of the letter in support of Makhmalbaf is that it asks Israel to support Iranian civil society. Israel is at war with Iran and supports sanctions against Iran and insults the people’s elected president. It’s hard to understand this part of the letter. How is the Israeli government supposed to defend Iranian civil society? Fund it? Or for Mr. Netanyahu to praise them in his speeches? Tavassolian: Many who signed this letter, like me believe that those who signed a letter protesting Makhmalbaf’s trip are neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Baha’i or pro-Islamic Republic. We all share a goal, which is peaceful co-existence, but our approaches are different.