The city of West Hollywood initially planned to screen the film on November 16, 2018, as part of its Human Rights Speakers Series. The film documents the founding of Israel and the forced expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes through first-hand accounts from both Israelis and Palestinians. Pro-Israel groups called for censorship over concern that historical facts paint Israel in a bad light. The screening was first postponed to December 12, 2018 and then April 16, 2019.
On Monday, the film was back on the agenda after city staff made a proposal to require city council approval for future events and gave the council the option of cancelling all scheduled future programming, including 1948: Creation and Catastrophe, while it considered the proposal.
The agenda item sparked an hour and forty minutes of public comment, including both criticism and passionate statements in support of the film.
Filmmaker Ahlam Muhtaseb traveled to West Hollywood to personally respond to the attacks against her and her film. “As a scholar of media studies, and in collaboration with my co-director Andy Trimlett, I wanted to translate the existing academic scholarship on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an accessible media version for the average person—which apologists for Israel are afraid of,“ explained Muhtaseb.
After describing over a decade of research and interviews that went into the film, Muhtaseb questioned the motives behind the censorship campaign. “What is the message that the city and council would send by supporting the typical racist and sexist trope that a woman of color could not be trusted with scholarship?” Muhtaseb asked the council. “I want to emphasize that the fact that I was the one singled out in all these attacks, not my partner who is a White man, just underscores those racist and sexist motivations.”
The council voted 3-2 to move forward with the film screening, citing their commitment to uphold the Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech. The tiebreaking vote came from Councilmember Lauren Meister, who had originally been a critic of the film. Noting that she had watched the film over the weekend, Meister explained:
“I found that there was no hate speech. There was no antisemitic commentary. Did the documentary have a specific point of view? Yes. But many documentaries do. Did I feel threatened by this film? Absolutely not.
I received a lot of letters starting with ‘I’m disappointed and angry.’ Well, I have to be honest, so am I. I am disappointed and angry and embarrassed that with everything going on in this country that we are seeing this level of intolerance in West Hollywood. I am embarrassed that we are contemplating shying away from controversy because it’s an uncomfortable topic. I’m embarrassed that we are here having to explain ourselves when there should be no other explanation that this is a film for discussion under our Human Rights Series, and that’s the point of our Human Rights Series.”
WEHOville reported that 300 people had sent emails or letters to the city council expressing their opinion about the film and that the majority of the calls for censorship were “worded the same and emailed from people across the country, indicating an organized campaign to sway the City Council.”
Palestine Legal wrote to the city council explaining that censoring the film would violate the free speech principles enshrined in the state and federal constitutions.
The censorship campaign was spearheaded by Rabbi Denise L. Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, who wrote to city council members demanding the screening be cancelled, denouncing the film and defaming filmmaker Professor Ahlam Muhtaseb as antisemitic. Eger cut and pasted the false accusations against Muhtaseb from the McCarthyist blacklisting website Canary Mission.
Muhtaseb is a Palestinian-American professor of communication studies and Director of the Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at California State University, San Bernardino.
She spent ten years researching and producing the documentary along with co-director Andy Trimlett. Since its premiere at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2017, the film screened at film festivals around the world and coast to coast in the United States, in England, Italy, Dubai, Australia, Kuwait, Egypt, Israel and Canada. It has been shown at numerous universities, including Oxford, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Berkeley and McGill.