Julian Schnabel stirs up controversy at the U.N.

The Israeli government and the American Jewish Committee clashed this week with Hollywood filmmakers and the United Nations over Monday evening’s premier of a new film, Miral, at the U.N. General Assembly hall. The movie provides a sympathetic portrayal of a young Palestinian girl coming of age in the era of the first Palestinian Intifida ...

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<> the premiere of Julian Schnabel's "Miral" hosted by The Weinstein Company and his excellency Mr. Joseph Deiss, president of the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations General Assembly Hall on March 14, 2011 in New York City.

The Israeli government and the American Jewish Committee clashed this week with Hollywood filmmakers and the United Nations over Monday evening's premier of a new film, Miral, at the U.N. General Assembly hall. The movie provides a sympathetic portrayal of a young Palestinian girl coming of age in the era of the first Palestinian Intifida (1987-1993).

Israel's deputy U.N. ambassador, Haim Waxman, wrote a formal protest on Friday to the U.N. General Assembly president, Joseph Deiss of Switzerland, for agreeing to host what he characterized as a "politicized" film, directed by the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel and distributed by Harvey Weinstein. But Deiss rejected the Israeli request to cancel the event, according to U.N. officials, who said he defended the film as a "love story." He sent invitations to all the U.N.'s 192 member states, including Israel.

The Israeli government and the American Jewish Committee clashed this week with Hollywood filmmakers and the United Nations over Monday evening’s premier of a new film, Miral, at the U.N. General Assembly hall. The movie provides a sympathetic portrayal of a young Palestinian girl coming of age in the era of the first Palestinian Intifida (1987-1993).

Israel’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Haim Waxman, wrote a formal protest on Friday to the U.N. General Assembly president, Joseph Deiss of Switzerland, for agreeing to host what he characterized as a “politicized” film, directed by the artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel and distributed by Harvey Weinstein. But Deiss rejected the Israeli request to cancel the event, according to U.N. officials, who said he defended the film as a “love story.” He sent invitations to all the U.N.’s 192 member states, including Israel.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declined the invitation to attend the viewing, according to a U.N. official.

“We find it very troubling that the U.N. has chosen to feature this film in the GA Hall,” Waxman wrote. The U.N., he said, has a “clear duty to carefully select all programs that are hosted on its premises in order to maintain a spirit of impartiality. The screening of Miral constitutes an inappropriate use of the hall of the GA, which already deals with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict excessively and obsessively.”

The U.N. General Assembly was established to provide a forum for the world’s government to debate and adopt resolutions on the most pressing issues of the day. But it occasionally lends its space out for special events, including concerts and observances. The GA hall recently hosted a memorial for the United States’ former U.N. ambassador, Richard C. Holbrooke.

But for Israel, the U.N. General Assembly has been a symbol of its marginalization on the world stage, a forum that manufactures numerous resolutions criticizing Israel, including the notorious 1975 resolution that “determines that Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The resolution was rescinded in 1991.

Starring Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire, Miral is based loosely on the life story of the Palestinian-born Italian journalist, Rula Jebreal, who wrote the film’s screenplay. It is based on Jebreal’s 2004 novel of the same name.

Miral tracks the history of the Dar Al-Tifel orphanage, which was established in 1948, the year of the partition of Palestine and the birth of Israel, to educate Palestinian orphans. It portrays the struggle of Miral, a 7-year-old girl who is sent to the orphanage in 1978, between the values of the orphanage’s founder, Hind Husseini, who sees education as the key to a better life, and those of the young Palestinians who battled Israeli forces on the streets. She also falls in love with a young Palestinian militant who ultimately becomes a peace proponent. The book received cool reviews at the time of its publication.

Schnabel, the Brooklyn-born director of the film, has directed several acclaimed films, including Basquiat, about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat; Before Night Falls, an account of a gay Cuban novelist suffering discrimination under Castro’s reign; and the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the story of a French magazine editor paralyzed by a stroke. But none have generated the degree of controversy as this film.

Miral is a story about human beings, Palestinian, Israeli, Muslim, Jewish and Christian, and it explores how we all react differently to the violence around us, whether physical, emotional, political or otherwise,” Jebreal said in a statement. “It is a film about love, education, understanding and peace. That seems like a good thing to show at the United Nations.”

In a letter to Deiss, David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the movie was political propaganda. “The film has a clear political message, which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” Harris. Showing the film in the U.N. General Assembly hall “will only serve to reinforce the already widespread view that Israel simply cannot expect fair treatment in the U.N.”

In response to Harris on the controversy, Schnabel said in a statement that he had made the film as a friend of Israel. Schnabel, an American Jew, has noted that his mother, Esther Greenberg, was the president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization in America. “I love the state of Israel,” he said in the statement.

“I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it,” Schnabel said. “Understanding is part of the Jewish way and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But, if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace. Instead of saying ‘no,’ I ask the AJC to say, ‘yes,’ see Miral and join the discussion.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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