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Open Letter Urging ‘Docunight’ to Cancel its Participation in Festival Sponsored by Israeli Government

What has quickly brought together a diversity of individuals—including a former Iranian political prisoner, a celebrated Palestinian filmmaker, important public intellectuals, and various professors, activists, students, artists, poets, writers, and cultural programmers?

What has brought them together is their commitment to support the growing Palestinian civil-society call for cultural boycott, which is one element in the Palestinian call for  Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). This BDS movement, inspired by the international boycott campaign that helped to abolish apartheid in South Africa, aims to pressure Israel and send the message that there will be no business as usual until Israel puts an end to its violations of Palestinian human rights abuses and its violations of international law. It also recognizes that the Israeli government is actively trying to whitewash Israel’s crimes by sponsoring cultural events abroad and trying to “re-brand Israel.” As Israeli Ambassador Arye Mekel said when he was the Israeli foreign ministry’s Deputy Director General for Cultural Affairs, the Israeli government is sponsoring cultural events to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”

Below is an open letter, which I initiated, to Ahmad Kiarostami and his collaborators at “Docunight: Iran via Documentaries.” Docunight is a monthly program, focused on screening Iran-related documentaries, that began in San Francisco, and has, according to its website, grown to screen films in other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Washington, and Toronto.

The open letter is signed by a range of concerned individuals who are asking Ahmad Kiarostami and Docunight to heed the Palestinian civil society call for the boycott of cultural events that are sponsored by Israeli government institutions. At present, Docunight stands to violate this call for boycott, as expressed in the letter below. The diverse signers of this collective letter hope that Ahmad Kiarostami and Docunight will reconsider, desist from violating the call for boycott, and express their respect and solidarity for this call.

Whatever ultimately happens at this juncture, the signers of this letter clearly believe that the Palestinian call—to all of us, everywhere, who care about art and who care about justice—deserves very serious consideration. We collectively hope that Ahmad Kiarostami, Docunight, and all cultural programmers—however large or small—come around to supporting the Palestinian call for solidarity, and by doing so, support Palestinians on the terms that so much of Palestinian civil society itself has demanded. This way, we can together help end Israel’s grave human rights violations and violations of international law, and advance a critical movement towards a just peace.

The call to support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is not one that seeks to close conversations and actions towards a just peace, but like its predecessor in South Africa, seeks to open and advance new ones that are centrally preoccupied with ensuring that we move from “co-existence” with oppression to “co-resistance” against it.

May this letter advance such debates and conversations among Iranians and Iranian-Americans, and communities far beyond them. And may cultural programmers and artists who ignore or violate the Palestinian civil society call for boycotting cultural events that are sponsored by the Israeli government increasingly realize that they will continue to face opposition.

Leili Kashani

Open Letter Urging “Docunight” to Cancel its Participation in Festival Sponsored by Israeli Government

Dear Ahmad Kiarostami and Docunight organizers,

Some of us who have signed below know one or more of you personally. Some of us have also attended and enjoyed the monthly “Docunight: Iran Via Documentaries” series, which you have been responsible for organizing and screening in New York and other cities.

We are writing to express our serious concern over the fact that Docunight has chosen to collaborate with a film festival that includes the Consulate General of Israel in New York among its sponsors. While in principle we wholeheartedly commend and welcome Docunight’s collaboration with a Jewish Sephardic film festival, we must object to its collaboration with the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival (NYSJFF) for as long as this festival continues to allow the Consulate General of Israel in New York to be one of its sponsors. As such, the NYSJFF is currently implicated in the Israeli government’s efforts to use cultural events to whitewash its ongoing illegal occupation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights. Docunight’s current plan to screen the film Before the Revolution on 17 March, in collaboration with the NYSJFF, therefore also violates the call and guidelines for the boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, made by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and more broadly violates the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS). PACBI has clearly stated that “a cultural event/activity is boycottable if it is partially or fully sponsored by an official Israeli body or a complicit institution”—which means that as long as the NYSJFF continues to accept and advertise sponsorship from the Israeli Consulate, its screenings violate the Palestinian call for BDS.

We urge Docunight to not violate the Palestinian call for BDS, a call whose legitimacy has been recognized by filmmakers, artists, intellectuals, activists, and conscientious people from around the world.

Specifically, we are asking Docunight to:

1) Cancel its 17 March joint screening of Before the Revolution at the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, and withdraw its sponsorship of the festival, as long as the Consulate General of Israel in New York remains one of the festival’s sponsors.[1]

2) Inform its supporters, and invitees to the screening in NYC, about why it is cancelling its joint screening with the New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.

Please note that while the Palestinian call for cultural boycott draws major inspiration from the earlier South African call for cultural boycott in that country’s struggle against apartheid, the Palestinian call is institutional and does not target individuals as such. Therefore we are not asking Docunight to revoke its plan to show the Israeli-directed film Before the Revolution, and are not calling for the cancellation of screenings in other cities where it is being played, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Toronto. But if Docunight does want to show the film in New York City, it should do so as it originally planned, without collaborating with a film festival that is currently sponsored by the Israeli Consulate, in violation of a principled call for boycott that is advancing the possibility for a just peace.  

Please do not hesitate to get in touch with me, the organizer of this letter, with any questions about why we—a diversity of individuals including film makers, professors, activists, students, artists, poets, dancers, journalists, writers, cultural programmers, and most fundamentally, conscientious human beings—are asking Docunight to heed the BDS call and cancel its joint screening with the NYSJFF. We realize that your time frame to act before your planned 17 March screening is short, but Docunight did not announce its decision to collaborate with the NYSJFF until 12 March, and the matter at hand is too important to not act on, swiftly. 

Sincerely,

Signatories [individual organizational affiliations are listed for identification purposes only]

Leili Kashani, former Senior Editor at Arab Studies Journal and Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights [letter organizer]

Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University

Golbarg Bashi, Professor of History, Pace University

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies; Chairman, Department of History, Columbia University

Annemarie Jacir, filmmaker, Palestine

Mohammad Pourabdollah, former Tehran University student activist; former political prisoner in Iran

Arang Keshavarzian, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, NYU 

Riham Barghouti, Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI); Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel

Prerana Reddy, Collective Member, 3rd i NY South Asian Film & Video Collective

Ammiel Alcalay, Professor, English, CUNY Graduate Center; Classical, Middle Eastern & Asian Languages & Cultures, Queens College; poet, translator, critic and scholar

Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies/Race and Resistance Studies, Senior Scholar, Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative, College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State University

Sherene Seikaly, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of California at Santa Barbara; Co-Editor of Arab Studies Journal and Jadaliyya

Remi Kenazi, poet

Andrew Kadi, Co-Chair of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

Robert Avila, film and theater critic, San Francisco

Ahmed Issawi, Alwan for the Arts, NYC

Sally Eberhardt, Co-Founder, Theaters Against War

Ali Abdi, Havaar: Iranian Initiative Against War, Sanctions and State Repression; Yale University

Paula Chakravartty, Associate Professor, Media, Culture and Communication and the Gallatin School, NYU

Dahlia El Zein, Program Director, Center for Palestine Studies, Columbia University

Anjali Kamat, journalist

Alex Shams, Iranian-American journalist in Palestine

Josh Whitford, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Columbia University

Madiha R. Tahir, documentary filmmaker, Columbia University

Dena Al-Adeeb, visual artist, NYC; adjunct faculty at Pratt Institute and NYU

Laura Whitehorn, anti-war and civil rights activist, former political prisoner, NYC

Melissa Morrone, Librarians and Archivists with Palestine

Saadia Toor, Associate Professor, College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CUNY)

Allison Brown, Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel

Anthony C. Alessandrini, Associate Professor of English, Kingsborough Community College, CUNY

Nader Uthman, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, New York University

Sina Zekavat, architect, NYC

Zohra Ahmed, attorney, NYC

Susie Day, writer, NYC

Nadia Awad, filmmaker, New York

Amal Al-Ashtal, former Fulbright scholar at Columbia University

Karim Elhaies, City College of New York, CUNY; Columbia Palestinian Dabke Brigade

Alexis Stern, Adalah-NY: the New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel

Shima Houshyar, Department of Near Eastern Studies, NYU

Khaled Al Hilli, Comparative Literature, CUNY Graduate Center

Jeremy Randall, History Department, CUNY Graduate Center

Ulku Tekten, English Department, CUNY Graduate Center

Nantina Vgontzas, Sociology, NYU

Mariam Bazeed, Cairo / NYC

Hala Iqbal, NYC

Udi Pladott, NYC

Manijeh Nasrabadi, NYC

NOTES

[1] Please note that the current Israeli Consul General in New York, Ido Aharoni, is notorious among critics for spearheading the Israeli government’s “Brand Israel” campaign, bringing together various Israeli government ministries to work with public relations and marketing specialists to improve Israel’s image. Also note that according to his own official Israeli Consulate website, Aharoni is centrally concerned with “nation-branding methods” seeking to “[bring] about a paradigm shift in the perception of Israel’s public image.” [This additional explanatory note is separate from the open letter signed by its supporters.]

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