TAKOMA PARK, Md. (ABC7) — What started out as a monthly art and culture series in Takoma Park quickly turned controversial, amid concerns that one of the films chosen by city staff is anti-Semitic. The screening of the film, called 'The Occupation of the American Mind', took place Tuesday night at the Takoma Park Community Center.
The screening was originally set for June 13, but was postponed when city leaders began hearing strong emotions from people both for and against the film.
When the screening was rescheduled for July 23, Mayor Kate Stewart said that city leaders did not endorse the film, but the city "is committed to creating space for people to discuss various films and the issues they raise". They decided to move forward with the screening, as long as the event included a panel discussion led by a professional facilitator.
But that did little to address the concerns of those who feel the film is anti-Semitic.
"The main message of this film is that Jews control the media. And that kind of trope, it's those types of remarks, it's that type of anti-Semitism which has led to violence against Jews ," said Ron Halber, who is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. "There's nothing right about this. We have a city that has decided to spend taxpayer dollars on a discredited film that is anti-Semitic in nature."
Halber chose not to attend Tuesday's screening and encouraged others opposed to the film to do the same.
"Stay home," he said. "Nothing positive is going to happen."
Others chose to attend, to make sure their voices were a part of the conversation surrounding the controversial film.
"We believe in freedom of speech, we believe in furthering the conversation, we want people to watch the movie and decide for themselves," said Benjamin Douglas, with the Jewish Voice For Peace of DC Metro. "We also want to say, loudly and clearly, that the Jewish Community Relations Council does not speak for all Jewish people."
Also among the crowd were representatives from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who say they received a lot of phone calls from people who support the film, people who were upset when the screening was postponed and happy to see the event had been rescheduled.
"On behalf of CAIR, we want to express our gratitude to the mayor and city council for not caving in to the immense pressure they were under to cancel the screening," said Zainab Chaudry, the Director of Maryland Outreach for CAIR. "Because if we shut down debate, then we're basically saying it's my way or the highway, and that's not government's place to say that."
Chaudry said it was actually CAIR's suggestion to hold a panel discussion at the screening, although some of the people who were asked to be part of that panel did not show up on Tuesday evening.
Takoma Park City Manager Suzanne Ludlow addressed the controversy on Tuesday night, while speaking to the standing room only crowd at the community center.
"We hard from both sides that we should show it, that we shouldn't show it, and what we felt was that given the controversy and the concerns, we needed to have a panel discussion," said Ludlow. "That it was something that needed context and people needed to be able to talk about what the issues were and their feelings about the film."
Prior to Tuesday's screening, eight Montgomery County Council Members signed a letter "to express grave concerns" with the city of Takoma Park's decision to show the film.
In response to concerns over whether the film screening was an appropriate use of taxpayer money, Ludlow said the event cost the city less than a thousand dollars. She also said the controversy has prompted to changes when it comes to how the city will choose films for its art and culture series in the future.
"What I'm going to be doing is meeting with the Arts and Humanities Commission, to identify their ideas for criteria for film series," she said. "And I'll talk also with the city council once I've heard from the Arts and Humanities Commission, and see if we can come up with a full program so that people understand and staff knows how to select things that meet those criteria. And I'm looking forward to that very much."