“Jewish narratives” panel in Prague turned into angry argument over Israel and Palestine

by Phil Weiss – 15 Aug 2013, Mondoweiss


Two months back at an international conference on cinema in Prague, Terri Ginsberg, an anti-Zionist whose work has often appeared on our site, presented a paper on a pro-Palestinian documentary made in 1974 at a panel on “Jewish narratives.” Ginsberg was followed by Susan Rubin Suleiman, a Harvard scholar of the Holocaust speaking on the film “Inglourious Basterds,” and the panel turned into an angry discussion of the conflict, with Ginsberg saying Suleiman was denying the Zionist subtext of the movie and Suleiman characterizing Ginsberg as an extremist. The session ended in rancor and chaos.

In July, Ginsberg published an account of the affray on her website, and because we see value in arguments about the conflict at public forums– and because Ginsberg is an important scholar who recently lectured on Palestinian film in Washington and who lost a teaching job at North Carolina State University because of her views– we asked if we could republish it.

Ginsberg agreed, and we then approached Suleiman. She said that Ginsberg’s account was inaccurate. As the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) did not make a recording of the event, we followed Suleiman’s recommendation and sought out reports from people who were there. Suleiman and Ginsberg supplied us with names.

At the risk of creating a Zionist Rashomon story, below we publish several accounts of the exchange. We begin with Terri Ginsberg’s published account, slightly edited, followed by Susan Rubin Suleiman’s short rejoinder (Suleiman had sent us a much longer email but declined to make it public). After that are three emailed accounts from witnesses recommended by Suleiman and four emailed from witnesses recommended by Ginsberg, two of them anonymous. I am grateful to all these folks for responding to me.

First, Terri Ginsberg’s account:

On June 20-22, 2013, I presented a paper at the Network of European Cinema and Media Studies (NECS) annual conference, held this year in Prague, Czech Republic, on Simon Louvish’s 1974 documentary, To Live in Freedom, a compelling critical analysis of Zionism, its relationship to class stratification and racism. Well in advance of the conference, I was informed by the conference organizers that my paper had been slotted onto a panel about Holocaust film. Confused, I responded that–as per my paper proposal–my presentation involved a film concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not the Holocaust, and that therefore it would be best to move it to another, more appropriate panel. The organizers refused to do so, stating that my paper had been placed onto this particular panel because it was seen to involve “Jewish” issues. Implicitly, I had either to accept this decision or withdraw from the conference. Determined not to withdraw, I came to a compromise with the organizers, who agreed to change the panel title to “Narratives of Jewish History.”

Not long thereafter, I began receiving e-mails from the person installed by NECS to chair the panel on which I was scheduled to speak, one Naomi Rolef, an Israeli affiliated with the Freie Universitaet Berlin. In what is quite irregular practice for academic conferences, Rolef insisted that the panelists, who included Susan Rubin Suleiman, myself, and a scholar from Russia who never made it to the conference, meet with her in advance of the panel because, as she later explained in person, she believes “a panel is strongest if we can achieve unity.” Because I needed to schedule meetings with several other colleagues in attendance at the conference, I ended up declining Rolef’s request; but the suspicions I had been gathering with respect to her and the NECS organizers’ problematic communiques were confirmed later that day, as the participants, primarily Suleiman, proceeded publicly to insult me personally and blanketly dismiss my “pro-Palestinian” presentation as beyond the realm of consideration.

I presented first, followed by Susan Rubin Suleiman, whose own presentation offered an appreciative review of “Jewish revenge fantasy” in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 feature Inglourious Basterds. Immediately after her presentation, a Turkish member of the audience confronted Suleiman over the very visible negative gestures she had apparently been making during the course of my own presentation, and questioned the audience about the generally glazed look it had projected during same. According to this outspoken audience member, the history of Zionism and the oppression and exploitation of Palestinians are also part of Jewish history and should therefore be given space for serious, sustained analysis rather than for ridicule and condemnation, especially among scholars. I appended these very good points by asking Suleiman why she did not mention Zionism or Palestine/Israel during her analysis of Inglourious Basterds, not only because several of the film’s critics have in fact already done so, but because the film at the very least may be seen to allegorize Zionism and possibly some form of its critique.

Suleiman responded peremptorily that Inglourious Basterds has nothing to do with Zionism, that Israelis could never be said to have taken “revenge” against Palestinians, then immediately began a series of vehement, ad hominem attacks against my person, calling me names such as “self-hating Jew,” “propagandist,” and “extremist.” Suleiman claimed that the views expressed in my presentation were limited and marginal within the “Jewish community,” whereas her own position would be considered “mainstream” by that same “community,” and that therefore the audience should discount everything I had argued. She claimed furthermore that my paper lacked critical distance from To Live in Freedom, when in fact it supplies a sophisticated structural analysis of that film in the context of explicating its overtly anti-Zionist political message.

Although I wanted to respond to this very direct, personal, and highly inappropriate attack, panel chair Rolef proceeded to keep the microphone from me and to take additional questions from the audience–which focused entirely, and favorably, on Suleiman’s presentation.

As these questions ensued, Suleiman took every opportunity to make additional verbal attacks on my person. I decided I could not allow the panel to be hijacked in this way, in strict favor of Zionism and exclusive of any Palestinian perspectives. When it became clear that the audience was not going to prevent Suleiman from dominating the panel and denigrating my person or position, and was in effect encouraging these actions, I grabbed the microphone and, in a veritable tug-of-war, wrested it away from Rolef, stood up and made an impassioned plea to the now quite startled attendees for an open discussion of Zionism and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict not censored by Zionists (whereupon I identified Rolef as Israeli)–at which point an Israeli audience member who had apparently accompanied Suleiman to the event called me a “terrorist,” and Suleiman herself chastised me for my “emotional behavior.”

Fortunately, at this point a second audience member, one of the few Americans participating at the conference, began speaking in defense of my analysis of the Louvish film. While that was certainly helpful, the bulk of the audience–numbering between 40-50–remained silent. Again, the conversation returned to Suleiman’s presentation, although now in the form of more challenging questions that in fact echoed, indirectly, my original question about the film’s Zionist subtext, by criticizing the ideological nature of “Jewish revenge fantasy.” Suleiman continued stubbornly to deny any such subtext and to deflect attention from the ideological character of her own presentation by making irrational comments against my person and position–such as claiming that I know nothing about Israeli history. Finally, after I managed through a series of pointed questions (again necessarily interrupting the prevailing focus on Suleiman) to pressure a well-known audience member who was also a plenary speaker at the conference to admit that the historical enabling conditions of Inglourious Basterds do indeed include the Palestinian-Israeli situation, Suleiman stated that she herself knows nothing about Israeli history–and is not sure she wants to! This last comment elicited a collective groan from the audience.

In hindsight, I was not surprised by the fact that my presentation at NECS was met with such nasty resistance by Zionists, whether alongside me on the panel or before me in the audience. What surprised me was that I was subjected to such irrational, personal, public attack by a colleague of such well-known stature in a formal and respectable academic setting. Susan Rubin Suleiman’s negative actions were an instance of the sort of inanity we have unfortunately come to expect from Zionist ideologues operating in today’s university system.

Susan Rubin Suleiman responds:

I firmly and categorically reject the account that Terri Ginsberg has given, both in its details and in its tenor as a whole. Aside from its inaccurate representation of what actually occurred at the NECS conference session on “Narratives of Jewish History,” this account attributes statements to me which are patently false, and which do not correspond to any opinion I have expressed in my writings and public speeches.

Suleiman suggested that we approach panel chair Naomi Rolef, who responded:

Dr. Ginsberg misrepresents Prof. Suleiman’s conduct during the panel. Prof. Suleiman made no demeaning gestures during Dr. Ginsberg’s presentation, and no one claimed that she did. She began her own presentation with a positive reference to Dr. Ginsberg’s presentation. But she did disagree with Dr. Ginsberg during the discussion. When the latter demanded that she make a direct reference to her anti-Zionist reading of Inglorious Bastards, she began by saying: “When you are holding a hammer everything looks like a nail”. Through the discussion she maintained that Inglorious Bastards is not an anti-Zionist film/allegory. At no point did she call Dr. Ginsberg “self-hating”, “propagandist” or “extremist” (I am particularly sensitive to those expressions). I don’t recall her claiming the Dr. Ginsberg was emotional, or making any personal comments. As the discussion progressed she remarked that to her knowledge Dr. Ginsberg’s views (about Zionism) were held by a minority, but that she herself had no part in this debate and she did not possess the knowledge to argue with Dr. Ginsberg (I noticed no gasps in the audience when this was said). Her increasing irritation at Dr. Ginsberg’s behavior was in my view justified.

I have witnessed heated academic debates before, but never the kind of aggression demonstrated by Dr. Ginsberg during this panel. Almost all through the discussion she raised her voice, attacking whomever she spoke to. As she herself testifies, she snatched the microphone from my hand when I was trying to hand it to Prof. Suleiman and held on to it with force while delivering an exited speech. She became increasingly hostile to Prof. Suleiman. She yelled particularly loudly at Prof. Gertrud Koch (for not mentioning the occupation in her comment). About ten minutes before the end of the discussion she suddenly barked at me “And you are an Israeli! I saw you writing in Hebrew!” (It would appear she believed that a person’s Israeli origin was an offence in itself.)

What was the cause of Dr. Ginsberg aggression? I got the impression that she entered the panel expecting nothing but conflict. Others suggested that she appeared distressed because the audience didn’t seem to support her position (although most of it remained silent, and no discussion developed over her main premises – the illegitimacy of Israel). As she herself explains, most of the commentators referred to the issues and perspectives opened up by Suleiman’s presentation. Dr. Ginsberg could apparently not tolerate any part of the discussion revolving about anything else but her arguments and her agenda.

On the other hand Dr. Ginsberg didn’t seem prepared to enter a debate about her own presentation. As far as I can remember, the only one who referred directly to it was Prof. Kristian Feigelson, who spoke out relatively early. He criticized the political views she presented (calling them “a fairy tale of black and white”), and argued that on the analytical level she showed no distance and made no reference to the fact that the film was a statement delivered by a film maker rather than a projection of reality. (In my opinion this was correct. Dr. Ginsberg only made a few descriptive comments during her presentation about what appears in To Live in Freedom, and offered no analysis besides the assertion that the film reflected reality). Dr. Ginsberg’s answer was that she didn’t understand his comment (this was the only time she didn’t raise her voice). Later on, Prof. Feigelson disputed her claim that she was being ignored, saying that she refused to enter a discussion with him earlier. On that occasion he berated her for her aggressive un-academic behavior. I believe he might have used the expression “terrorist methods”. (In any case, he is French, not Israeli.)

I would like to add that the unfortunate panel constellation was not the result of a Zionist conspiracy between the organizers and me against Dr. Ginsberg. When I volunteered to chair the panel I had no knowledge of Dr. Ginsberg or her topic, Simon Louvish. When I found out later what the presentation was about, I tried my best to prepare by reading Louvish’s autobiographical novel. I agree with Dr. Ginsberg that placing a presentation which deals with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict in a “Holocaust” panel was a poor choice. If anything, it was the result of a lack of sensibility on the side of the organizers to “Jewish” topics. I on my part am guilty of attempting to be friendly to all parties and trying my best to chair a productive panel.

In conclusion, despite what Dr. Ginsberg believes, she was the aggressor rather than the victim in this occasion. It was regretful that Prof. Suleiman became an unsuspecting target in Dr. Ginsberg’s line of fire. It is even more regretful that Dr. Ginsberg is attempting to continue the assault in writing.

Suleiman also gave us the address of Kristian Feigelson, Sorbonne University, who wrote:

The statement by Mrs Ginsberg is innapropriate, giving a false presentation of the debate and Susan Suleiman paper’s, as I was present at this session. I regret that finally this session at Necs became a Court for a political activist far from academical debate.

And Gertrud Koch, theater professor at the Free University of Berlin, a speaker at the conference:

It is with some anger that I follow the email-exchange over the panel at
the Prague NECS-conference. Given the fact that there are really serious
problems to be named and resolved in and in connection to the Near East I think that Terri Ginsberg channeled them in a really egocentric and manipulative way. Her behaviour was very aggressive and offending to the other panelists and the way she wrote afterwards about the event is overwhelmingly manipulative. I don’t want to be part in a dispute that
doesn’t contributes to the political debate and establishes instead rumors and scandalises individuals. Sorry but emails are often sent to hasty without being informed or informative and they just follow a logic of sensation that doesn’t help to establish a public debate. As I don’t want to be a tool in such a manipulated public I just let you know by this,
that it will be my only and last remark to the Prague panel.

Now here are four accounts from witnesses supplied to us by Ginsberg. First, Sibel Taylor:

I am writing to you because Terri Ginsberg has asked me to give you my account the events at the Jewish Narratives panel of NECS conference in Prague.

I am afraid I had decided I would not attend a panel with such a name, but after another panel I attended, Terri approached me – I believe she did that because she heard my comments and knew I would be likeminded – and asked my support by attending her panel, because she felt her paper was on its own and she needed solidarity. After hearing her and looking at her title – to my shame, I had not noticed her title because of the name of the panel before – despite the fact that there was another panel on Turkish cinema I wanted to attend, as I was trying to use the opportunity to learn what Turkish film scholars were discussing, I decided to show solidarity to a scholar who would be outnumbered in such an important discussion.

I was a few minutes late but as soon as I came in, it strike me very strongly that almost all the audience had a wooden, blank expression while Dr Terri Ginsberg was speaking. Throughout the conference I have never seen such a hostile atmosphere again. Furthermore they were from time to time giving each other furtive glances which clearly told what they were thinking about the topic and the speaker’s point of view. There were some people who rolled their eyes or caught each others’ eyes and then looked away in the manner I referred before, wooden, blank and completely hostile; but worse still, the other panelist, Suleiman, was openly having a mocking, derogatory smile on her face, while her body language was making it more pointed – she had her arm over her chair giving the clear signs of not only disagreeing with the current speaker, but she apparently could show disrespect openly in an academic setting to a speaker that she did not agree with.

At this point, with the overwhelming hostility generally Dr Ginsberg was being shown, the only thing I could do as a member of this audience was to keep my eye contact to her and shown solidarity by smiling or nodding approvingly.

When the other panelist Prof Susan Rubin Suleiman started speaking, the first thing she has said was – again mockingly delivered, that all the while Dr Ginsberg was speaking, she was thinking to herself that this panel was meant to be on Jewish Narratives / History, which was clearly meant to be ironic as Dr Ginsberg was talking about Zionism and what it brought to Palestinians. I thought this was very patronising and had no place in such an environment when academic discussions were to take place on Media Politics – Political Media (the theme of this year’s NECS conference). She then talked about the Holocaust, and “how it had to be shown” in films, and was speaking with certainty that Israelis have the “the moral high ground,” while vaguely referring to the film director -Quentin Tarantino, and his film Inglourious Basterds. Her speech gave me the impression of being a casual talk about why she likes the director and was not at all scholarly in its entirety. It is true that there was a totally different reception to her talk from the majority of the audience, which certainly showed reverence to her person, I could not pinpoint as to why, as her ‘analysis’ if there was any, was very vague around Tarantino’s filmmaking.

That is why as soon as she finished her speech I spoke and first raised the issue of her point that this was meant to be a “Jewish History” panel. I clearly stated that although I understood why she chose to only to talk about “Holocaust” and having the “moral high ground” and “how this event had to be shown” in films; I pointed out that what the Israelis have been doing to Palestinian people throughout my life time (I am 53) is also Jewish History; Israelis may like to talk about it or not, ignore it or not, as we speak about what they have been doing to Palestinians and the fact that the suffering they cause is still there.

Then I talked to the audience and reflected back what I had witnessed – their hostility towards Dr Ginsberg – and I asked them if they would like to think about it and say why they were behaving like that.

My open criticism of both Prof Suleiman and the general audience was ignored. At this point someone who was sitting apart from the audience but close to Prof Suleiman, talked to Dr Ginsberg in a derogatory manner, referring to her as a “terrorist,” and as there was nothing that could be answered regarding his comment she said she could not comment. The majority of the audience and the chair of the panel, Naomi Rolef, were very clearly revering Prof Suleiman and they were waiting for her to bring the discussion to where they wanted. Dr Ginsberg wanted to speak in order to answer a question and the chairperson tried to take the microphone from her hand. What happened next – I believe, was a result of total hostility shown to Dr Ginsberg and the frustration she must have been suffering, crossing over her threshold of endurance; therefore she grabbed the microphone from the chair of the panel, who was trying to take from her hand, and tried engaging the audience as well as the chair of the panel and Suleiman concerning the content of her own paper, or rather the reality of what Palestinian people have been subjected to, continuously for many decades, and the filmic representation of their suffering; and if Prof. Suleiman saw a possible representation of this historical reality in the Tarantino film. Dr Ginsberg referred to the chair as taking an unfair position because of being an Israeli and Zionist herself.

After this, the chair person put both hands up and theatrically said: “Guilty as charged”. She and Suleiman were speaking at the same time and saying things like, “After what you have done someone else has to speak,” and they still tried to stop Dr Ginsberg from talking. The chair carried on with trying to censor the academic discussion, while Prof Suleiman called Dr Ginsberg an “extremist” and “self-hating Jew”. There was this impossible situation, so I tried talking again. I said I would talk on behalf of Dr Ginsberg and pointed out that Palestinian suffering was part of Jewish history as well, as Israelis have been causing so much suffering, throughout my life and more to Palestinians. I referred again to the reception of Dr Ginsberg’s paper and how unacceptable it was that everyone seemed so closed and hateful.

There was another American scholar – I believe he was but I do not know for certain – he spoke and supported Dr Ginsberg by stating that she had made a good case in her paper.

At this point Dr Ginsberg tried asking a question to the second keynote speaker of the conference, Gertrud Koch, about how is it even possible to talk about Tarantino’s film without referring to Zionism. To my astonishment, Koch also tried to not to condemn what the apparently Zionist majority present were doing to Dr Ginsberg.

After the session ended in a chaos, I was very worried about Dr Ginsberg that she would be persecuted more and tried to ask other people if they could give their email addresses in case there would be some sort of academic punishment imposed on her or something of this nature; because what I saw there in terms of how the people behaved towards her made me think, they will do more and I wanted to do something to stop that from happening. I had made an appointment with the conference organiser Petr Szczepanik for my research that is on a Czech-American filmmaker Alexander Hammid, who has been written out of film history for the sake of feminist historians’ need for “women role models,” but instead I spent most of that hour informing him about Dr Ginsberg’s panel in detail so that he and the other members of the NECS steering committee would not rush into doing more damage, since if anyone else were to demand Dr Ginsberg be punished for the events during the panel, at least he would know that there are other witness accounts and if needed he could come to me, as you did.

That the Zionist majority showed such a rigid and condescending attitude with zero tolerance for someone with a different opinion in an academic setting was absolutely unacceptable and shocking to witness. I believe there should be some reprimands imposed on these scholars for behaving in so unscholarly manner in an international conference.

A second Ginsberg witness, who asks to be anonymous:

I only arrived at the panel mid-way through due to an interest in Tarantino’s film in relation to research I am doing on (US) revenge films. So, I’m afraid I didn’t hear you paper. I’m sorry if my questions focused solely on Suleiman’s paper (which I felt was romantic and failed to address the film’s politics with any rigour) but the reason for this was parochial and self-interested rather than constituting some kind of critical judgement on your paper that might be construed as Zionist.

After the panel – and in part because of the controversy -I asked a few attendees about your paper and they felt that it was important and timely. In light of this, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to presume that their lack of questions constituted some kind of passive Zionism (though, of course, the consequences of their silence may indeed contribute to just such a thing). From a British point of view, the silence was more likely a sign of social embarrassment, though this of course is a failure of (political) nerve of sorts.

In terms of the discussion it’s all a bit hazy for me, I’m afraid. I found the comments made by the (Turkish?) lady to be very difficult to follow (possibly because I hadn’t seen the facial gestures to which she referred). I do remember the words ‘self hating Jew’ and ‘extremist’ being said but I can’t remember the exact context for these. I didn’t hear anyone use the word ‘terrorist’. I should say that I found your comments about the chair’s nationality and chosen language for notetaking a little shocking (as if these things somehow might result in her having a Zionist view per se); though these comments were perhaps understandable considering what you felt was at stake (i.e. that there was some concerted effort to set you up) and with tempers raised, I feel that you lost the floor at that point. So, because of my part attendance, hazy memory, and a feeling that things were said in haste on both sides, I’m afraid that I’m not willing to go on record with Phil in terms of the specific comments…

A third witness, also anonymous:

I was an observer in the room during the discussion and I would like to make a general comment on the nature of the discussion. It seemed to me to center around Inglorious Bastards and whether there was or was not a reading other than the purely aesthetic. It seemed quite clear, and Dr. Ginsberg, pointed this out, that the film was, even denotatively, a revenge fantasy, yet no one for a long time would comment further on the contemporary cultural implications, indeed, the contemporary use, of such a fantasy. Finally, one member suggested that fantasies like these were used in the wake of 9/11 to sustain and perpetuate incursions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. This comment seemed very apropos but what indeed most stood out in the discussion was that we all seemed to know what the one member suggested and yet were afraid to say what we knew, though there was a sense that we all knew it. I was left finally with a feeling that the “chilling effect” perpetuated after 9/11 had solidified and had effectively silenced not only the participants in the room but perhaps a good portion of the overall public at large.

The last word goes to Andrea Mensch, a senior lecturer in English at North Carolina State University.

I’ve been mullling over the situation that Terri, who is a dear friend and colleague, has described and I have to admit that my perception of the details of the occurrence are not identical to Terri’s. However, I did think that the way the moderator treated Terri was shameful in that she clearly and deliberately tried to keep the discussion away from Terri’s paper and the substance of her presentation. This would have been infuriating to anyone and I can understand Terri’s reaction of anger which led to her wresting the microphone away from the moderator at one point. To some audience members this may well have seemed indecorous and created some discomfort. I did not perceive Susan Suleiman as hostile at the beginning of the presentation though she was undeniably patronizing, speaking from a position of great security in that particular environment. I also thought that her understanding of Terri’s paper was quite reductive and missed the critical elements of Terri’s argument in a way that may well have been somewhat prejudiced. While I don’t remember the name calling (and I can’t lay claim to the absolute accuracy of my own memory), I thought that there was a great deal of disingenuity in the room. This conference was supposed to be about the role of politics in the media and yet, there was a clear avoidance of the most important issues both as a result of the moderator’s exhortation that audience members not respond to the question raised by both Terri’s paper and the first audience member’s request for responses in a direct political way.
It’s really disconcerting when voices like Terri’s get marginalized as “extremist” (and this I do remember Suleiman saying) and the kind of debate that I was hoping to hear is therefore silenced.

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