When it comes to tensions in Israel's Occupied Territories, we've reached the point where even the suggestion of flaring emotions can get emotions flaring. Northern Secondary grade 12 student Max Silverman hoped for an emotional response when he and the school's Peace-Justice-Environment Club organized a showing last month of the film Jenin, Jenin by Arab Israeli director Mohammed Bakri.
Bakri interviewed those who lost homes or loved ones in the Israeli Defense Forces invasion of the Palestinian refugee camp. The students anticipated sympathy, but instead they aroused the anxieties of lobbyists.
The day before the showing, Northern's principal, Bob Milne, told the club's staff adviser that he had received complaints about the film. Milne asked that it be reviewed and shown alongside Relentless: The Struggle For Peace In Israel, a movie that the school's Israel Solidarity Club wanted to screen.
The staff adviser saw no problem with either film. When Silverman arrived at school the next day to check in, the advisor was in the middle of a call from Len Rudner, the community relations person for the Canadian Jewish Congress, which objected to the showing of Jenin, Jenin. Milne had delayed the event. A few days later, both screenings were cancelled altogether.
"Personally, I think he made a bad decision," says Silverman, "but that came from the pressures that were on him. I know him to be someone who supports free speech and dialogue. We think the movies got banned because the principal was put in a difficult place, with pressure coming from two directions with no guidance."
Milne sees it as much simpler. "It wasn't a difficult position at all," he says. "I would consider Relentless a propaganda film. And there's no doubt that Jenin, Jenin is a propaganda film."
So the CJC's involvement, including calls from executive director Bernie Farber, didn't sway him? "They simply stated their opinion," says Milne.
I call the CJC thinking they just might be willing to state that opinion for me as well. They stated two. As Rudner puts it, "The film perpetuates the notion that the IDF perpetrated a massacre in Jenin, and that is not a matter of a difference of opinion. Amnesty International and the UN determined there was no massacre." (True. However, as rumours of atrocities ran wild, the IDF's refusal to allow observers into the camp didn't foster clarity.)
Farber's angle is different. "We feel it's a hateful piece of propaganda," he tells me. "Throughout the entire movie you never hear the word 'Israeli.' All the allegations against the IDF are 'the Jews' this, 'the Jews' that."
The unfortunate phrase "the Jews" is certainly used more than once in the film. But it is not focused on, coming up, rather, with disturbing nonchalance in conversation - just one more ugly truth captured in the narrative-free collection of candid interviews. But rather than convincing me that Jews are evil - or that Palestinians are racist - it showed just how dangerous and polarizing it is to conflate military occupation with religious destiny. (Farber undermines his point with objections to "a statement made by one of the terrorists.' There is no reason to assume anyone in the film is a terrorist, but perhaps Farber saw telltale signs. Pointy teeth? Shifty eyes? Palestinian descent? )
Consciously or not, the CJC is exploiting the film's troubling weaknesses to obscure much more troubling questions about what is happening in Palestine. Its first weakness is that there is no numeric definition of massacre. The second is its propagandistic leanings. Interviews are interrupted by footage from the IDF incursion into the camp, presented in incongruous jump cuts that portray little more than scared people (and striking shots of soldiers who look painfully young and confused beneath their regalia) and footage of military hardware that may or may not be tanks rolling over people.
Against history's bloody record, 20-some confirmed dead civilians (and more injured) probably does not constitute a massacre. But while the Jenin invasion may not have been a bloodbath, the pain it holds for the survivors is not lessened, and the need to find out what happened is no less urgent.
The most haunting shot is of a young girl who carries herself with the joyless poise of a war veteran. She states point-blank, "After all I've been through, what will become of my life?" If I hoped for an ever expanding military solution, I wouldn't want too many people to see that scene either.
The adults in the Northern flap say they are protecting students from the work of separating political wheat from ideological chaff. After all, if they spend all their energy coming of age, they'll have none left to write essays about Holden Caulfield doing so.
"Some folks have characterized our involvement as censorship," says Rudner. "Our issue was with Jenin, Jenin being shown in a high school. I remember when I was in school, I felt I should have all the rights of adults. I haven't met a high school student who didn't feel that way. But the fact is, they aren't adults."
Milne cites rowdy protests at university events of a similar nature. "I'd be in violation of the Safe Schools Act,' he says. The act allows school boards to make policies, and the Toronto board instructs principals to avoid course materials with undue bias.
Josh Matlow, school trustee for the area, says there is a plan to strike a task force to discuss the implications of the act. "I have suggested that students should have a role in this,' he says.
Silverman would welcome this. "I think (the CJC) were afraid of students in high schools being exposed to opinions that are contrary to what the CJC wants them exposed to."
Rudner, for his part, dismisses the voices in the film, saying, "These are just stories." That's true - and so is anything that comes from the IDF, or anywhere else. Ultimately, all we have are stories. The answer isn't to destroy as much information as possible; the answer is to seek as much information as possible. And if teachers are doing the former, then it seems students will have to do the latter.
Ultimately, recent events have been educational, though not in the way the educators had hoped. "Lots of students who wouldn't have come (to the films) or who weren't involved are saying to me that they're pissed off and want to get involved," Silverman relates. Even students who are supportive of Israeli policy. The Peace-Justice-Environment Club has teamed up with the Israel Solidarity Club to put on joint educational events about the history of the region, from both sides of the issue. If the grown-ups among you will excuse me, let's hope they don't become adults any time soon.