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Global documentary seems unfair by Antonia Zerbisias

Jun 29, 2003

Source : Toronto Star

A controversial Global TV documentary that portrays last September's student demonstration in Montreal against a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the dawn of a new Holocaust is getting a repeat showing this week - despite three formal complaints against the film.

The outgoing Concordia Student Union (CSU) as well as Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) and the Canadian Muslim Forum claim that Confrontation At Concordia presents an unfair picture of events at the downtown campus, which is portrayed as "the vipers' nest of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli hatred.''

Now let me state up front: I may not agree with Netanyahu's politics but I'll defend his right to speak about them. So I am in no way supporting the suppression of his speech. And I also want to be clear that this is not a column about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, okay? This is about a documentary that many viewers would consider unbalanced and unfair.

So moving right along ...

The complaints, made to the regulatory CRTC and also to the industry's Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, also allege that pro-Palestinian activists are defamed as "thugs'' bent on "persecuting'' Jewish students.

The complainants have a point. I watched this film twice, and while there's no doubt that some pro-Palestinian students got too hot under the kaffiya, comparing one broken university window, a trampled Israeli flag, a few frankly hateful placards plus some chanting, jumping and pumping fists to Kristallnacht, that infamous night in Nazi Germany when Jewish shops and synagogues were destroyed, is hyperbolic to say the least.

But that's how filmmaker Martin Himel described it when I asked him if bringing up the Holocaust wasn't going too far.

"I don't know how much you know about history, but Kristallnacht, all that started with breaking windows,'' he said. "They broke windows, they put up posters of Jews and lo and behold.''

Himel makes no apologies for his documentary, adding that he is "not aware of the complaints'' against it. Fair enough. He's based in Israel where he reports for Global. But there's no excuse for his not mentioning - or even knowing - that Netanyahu's tour was co-sponsored by the Winnipeg-based Asper Foundation, established by his ultimate employer, CanWest Global chair Izzy Asper. Even a simple search of the Montreal Gazette, also a CanWest news organ, would have revealed that.

Not even Peter Kent, deputy editor of Global news programming, knew about the connection. But, as he told me, disclosing it was not necessary since the Asper family is open about its politics.

"I don't think it's any surprise to anyone watching Global Television where the hearts and souls of our owners are,'' Kent said. "You're right: Perhaps there should have been, for those who live in a societal vacuum, a hit-them-over-the-head disclosure. But I don't think that would have lessened the complaints of those who disagreed with the on-air product.''

"Even if he did (co-sponsor the tour), that's not the issue because it has absolutely nothing to do with Israel Asper's feelings about anything,'' Himel said. "It has to do with what happened at that particular place; the violation of (Netanyahu's) right to speak and the constant harassment of Jewish students over a period of several months.''

Well perhaps.

But any fair-minded observer would expect Himel to back up his allegations with facts or evidence. Yet the film provides little of either.

For example, student leader Samer Elatrash, a Canadian of Palestinian parentage, is described as wanting `'the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state'' and seeing `'Israel wiped out.''

Harsh words when what he really espouses is "a secular state that's built on the simple premise of respect for human rights, respect for cultural rights, respect for religious rights, that don't trespass on anybody else's human, cultural and religious rights.''

Indeed, Elatrash gets relatively little screen time compared to Yoni Petel, the president of Hillel, the Jewish student group that co-sponsored the Netanyahu speech.

Detailing the problems of this documentary could fill this page. Himel talks about campus violence and racism as his images show Arab and Jewish students drinking and debating together. The university supposedly arbitrarily bans Jewish groups even though it allows "Israel Day'' on campus. The Student Union is condemned for being "anti-Israel, anti-Bush and anti-war in Iraq.'' Hard-line American author Daniel Pipes, whose writings call all Muslims `'suspect'' and people who "need to be watched for connections to terrorism'' is presented as a counsellor who `'specializes in helping Jewish students cope with the intimidation tactics on campus.'' Words are put into the pro-Palestinian students' mouths while the other side speaks its piece. And on and on.

Himel professes no problem with any of this: "I think that the documentary speaks for itself. I think if you watch it carefully, it's not so much the interviews as the, you know, actions (that) speak louder than words.''

As for Kent, he says Himel's spin can be characterized as legitimate filmmaking.

"Martin rightly or wrongly has delivered a strong and powerful point-of-view documentary,'' he said. "If Kristallnacht goes a bit too far for you, then it's a fair point of view. That is certainly a debatable comparison, although it is one that can be fairly made.

"Certainly a large number in our viewing audience agreed with it. And I would expect that a large number of our viewing audience wouldn't agree with it.''

Judge for yourself, Wednesday night at 10.

© The Toronto Star