Adelaide's first Australia Israel Cultural Exchange (AICE) Israeli Film Festival (IFF) has been picketed by boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaign activists.
Over September 5-9, more than a dozen activists took part in the pickets, organised by the Australian Friends of Palestine Association (AFOPA).
AFOPA's Margaret Cassar told Green Left Weekly: “AFOPA held three protests outside the Palace Eastend Cinema to educate the public and Palace-Nova management about the cultural boycott against Israel.”
In a preface to the festival program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the event, saying, “The Film Festival plays an important role in deepening cultural cooperation between Israel and Australia and in strengthening the ties between our two countries.”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard echoed similar sentiments, saying, “AICE makes an enduring contribution both to strengthening the arts and the enduring ties that bind Australia and Israel.”
Cassar said, “Adelaide’s inaugural Israeli Film Festival event is part of re-branding Israel.
“It's funded by the Israeli embassy, who would like Australian audiences to develop amnesia about Israel's increasingly vicious and inhumane occupation of Palestine.”
In 2009, then spokesperson of Israel's Foreign Ministry Arye Mekel said the initiative to “re-brand” Israel involved sending “well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits … [to] show Israel's prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”
Likewise, current deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon has said: “Branding Israel is a way to bring who we are, without the prisms of political agendas, to the masses.”
But to BDS advocates, Brand Israel is anything but apolitical.
Despite statements like those of Ayalon, Israel has used cultural icons and personalities for political purposes.
In recent years, artists who receive funding from Israeil's foreign ministry to perform abroad have been required to sign a contract that, in effect, turns them into Brand Israel billboards.
In a 2008 Haaretz article, Yitzhak Laor published excerpts of one such contract.
Paragraph 12 said: “The service provider undertakes to act faithfully, responsibly and tirelessly to provide the Ministry with the highest professional services. The service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the State of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.”
Rather than being devoid of “prisms of political agendas”, the spirit of Brand Israel was best described by the foreign ministry's former deputy director general, Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, who said in 2005: “We are seeing culture as a hasbara [propaganda] tool of the first rank, I do not differentiate between hasbara and culture.”
The relegation of Israeli culture to pure propaganda, however, seems to have done little to rejuvenate Israel's floundering public image.
In May, the BBC released its Country Ratings Poll for this year, which put Israel neck and neck with North Korea for the dubious title of world's third-most negatively viewed country.
In Australia, 65% of the survey participants viewed Israel negatively, compared with just 18% who viewed Israel positively.
Israel's poor standing with the Australian public was evident from responses from cinema goers to BDS activists.
Beryl Barmada, who took part in the pickets, told GLW: “For the relatively short time we spent outside the Palace Nova before each movie we handed out many leaflets, particularly on Friday and Sunday.
“Most of them [cinema goers] were sympathetic or want[ed] to know what we were about.”
Barmada said it “got heated and noisy at times”, but AFOPA handed out nearly 250 leaflets during the festival.
Cassar said the pickets were a success, but said: “Israel is intensifying its attempts to win over the world opinion using sweeteners like film festivals and talented musicians.
“As Desmond Tutu said, 'it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel', it is wrong for Adelaide to host an Israeli Film Festival.
“People of conscience must shine a light on these attempts to whitewash the Israeli government's appalling behaviour towards the Palestinians.”