The showing of Simone Bitton's film, Rachel, at the Castro theater in San Francisco on July 25, 2009, as part of the Jewish Film Festival, was a landmark event in changing attitudes toward Israel. Although the film itself is deserving of the attention given to it by both the press and the public, the real story was audience itself.
Around 1000 people attended the showing of the film. The line of theater-goers went around the block. I and my two companions were unable to find three seats together in the 1400-seat theater, and we were by no means the last in line. (The balcony went largely unused for some reason). People were actually standing in the aisles. It was the largest audience I have seen at any film festival. Attendees came from as far away as Sacramento and perhaps farther.
My first thought was that the supporters of Israel had turned out in force. In an unprecedented decision for any film, Michael Harris of San Francisco Voice for Israel had been given five minutes to speak at the beginning, to raise his objections. Perhaps he had turned out a lot of his community to drown out Palestinian rights advocates.
I was wrong. As Michael began to speak of Israel's right to defend itself, the misguided motives of Rachel, the "other Rachels" and all the other tired arguments against the film, the audience audibly moaned, then began to raise its own objections, punctuating Michael's every phrase louder and louder. At that point, the festival organizer stepped in to ask the audience to be more tolerant and pointed out that Rachel's mother, Cindy, who would be speaking at the end of the film, deserved such courtesy, as well.
The audience settled back into subdued groans for a few phrases, but when Michael accused Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee of being backers of terrorism, the audience erupted into applause at the mention of each name. It's a good thing it wasn't traditional Yiddish theater, where the audience armed itself with tomatoes. Anyone but Harris would have been humiliated by the experience.
The concern for respectful treatment of Cindy Corrie's presentation at the end of the film was also unwarranted. The audence was so completely supportive of her, her daughter and Palestinian rights that there was not a hint of the hateful messages with which the organizers had been deluged prior to the showing.
It was astonishing. Although the audience was by no means all Jewish, a large number clearly were, and the sense of many of the attendees was that their relative immunity from the charge of anti-Semitism gave them license to be more vocal.
The significance of the event was unmistakable. We were witnessing a major shift in attitudes toward Israel, even (or especially) within the Jewish community. The rose-colored glasses were coming off, and Israel was clearly no longer immune from standards to which other nations had long been held.
To keep things in perspective, community attitudes are far from being reversed. It's hard to believe that this audience represents even a majority of the community from which it comes. However, for it to be so dominant and numerous in this setting is something of a milestone, and potentially constitutes something of a sea change in the way Israel is perceived.
Take heed. The "other" view of Israel is now respectable.