Israel flap escalates as Toronto fest starts

Rabbi Marvin Hier adds voice to debate over sidebar

TORONTO -- The protest and counterprotest over a Tel Aviv sidebar escalated Thursday as the Toronto International Film Festival got under way.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Los Angeles-based founder of the Simon Weisenthal Center, told a hastily arranged Toronto news conference that the critics of the Israeli film spotlight were taking criticism of Israel to a new low.

"Tel Aviv is one of the freest cities in the world, warts and all: a model city of diversity, freedom of expression and tolerance, for Arabs and Jews," Hier said as the Toronto festival kicked off with a screening of the British historical drama "Creation" at Roy Thomson Hall.

"It is the height of hypocrisy to single out Tel Aviv. These protesters cannot masquerade their hatred toward Israel which so distorts their view," he added.

The intervention by the two-time Oscar winner ("The Long Way Home," "Genocide") came as David Cronenberg, Ivan Reitman and Norman Jewison joined the chorus of supporters of the festival sidebar, who charged the growing artist-led protest with censorship.

"Empowered groups of people, deciding whose stories can, and cannot be told, does nothing but remind us of oppression that has no place in filmmaking," Minnie Driver said in a statement.

Ivan Reitman added in his own statement: "Film is essentially about telling global stories, of exploring the complexities and contradictions of the human condition. Any attempt to silence that conversation, to hijack the festival for any political agenda in the end, only serves to silence artistic voices."

The artist-led protest was sparked by Canadian filmmaker John Greyson choosing to withdraw his short film from TIFF over its Tel Aviv spotlight.

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Meanwhile, organizers of the Aug. 28 "Toronto Declaration" letter plan their own news conference at TIFF, likely Friday, where they will unveil about 1,000 new actor and director signatories. The new recruits are understood to include Julie Christie, Viggo Mortenson, Harry Belafonte and U.S. author and activist Noam Chomsky.

And the Israel Film Fund, which helped bring the 10 Israeli filmmakers to Toronto to be part of the controversial Tel Aviv spotlight, plans a gathering on Sunday evening at the Isabel Baeder Theatre to rally support around the film sidebar.