When Canadian documentary filmmaker John Greyson pulled his latest movie, “Covered,” from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) late in August, the controversy did not arise from the removal of his film, as might be expected. Nor was it his subsequent criticism of TIFF’s new film series entitled City-To-City, highlighting the films of Tel Aviv in an open letter. Rather, the hype was in the names of the celebrities that endorsed his letter that put the trade papers in a frenzy, effected a harsh response from even more celebrities, and forced actress Jane Fonda to explain her decision to support Greyson on the Huffington Post.
In his critique, Greyson wrote, “Isn't such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?”
But the response from Hollywood was quick and strong. Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Rogen, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Lenny Kravitz were just a few of the names who endorsed a rebuttal condemning the Toronto Declaration protest letter as being silly and anti-Semitic. Objectionable to them was the letter’s claims that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages” and the labeling of Israel as an “apartheid regime.”
In the end it was Jane Fonda who garnered the most attention of any celebrity endorsement, both for her quickness to join in the fray initially, but also for backpedaling from the controversy once it erupted. Fonda’s outspokenness in Mideast politics has caught attention before. As a strong voice in the anti-Vietnam War movement she surprised some anti-war activists in 1982 when she and her then husband Tom Hayden came out in support of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. When she traveled to Israel in 2002 as part of a tour of the Palestinian territories and protested Israel’s 35th year of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip outside of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s residence, she appeared to be back in the good favor of peace groups, so it was no surprise when she added her name to Greyson’s letter as a part of her recently articulated opinions. But when she backpedaled from the letter in an article written for the Huffington Post it exposed her lasting sensitivity on the issue, and the inflated importance of semantics in this debate.
In that article, Fonda wrote that she regretted some of the language used in the original letter, as she wanted to make clear that she was not questioning the legitimacy of Israel or the filmmakers involved in the festival. She went on to explain that her better judgment was blinded at first, and even criticized the one-sided nature of the original letter she signed, writing that “it can become counterproductive to inflame rather than explain and this means to hear the narratives of both sides.”