Look for the helpers

April 2024
Jazmin Rymberg

The cancellation of the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival due to allegations of “Zionist propaganda” is a sobering reminder of the persistent echoes of antisemitism that reverberate through our communities. While the decision to cancel the event by the original venue may have been attributed to ‘security concerns,’ it cannot be ignored that the underlying issue speaks to a deeper prejudice that continues to linger.

Across the globe, cultural events with Jewish themes or participants often face unjust scrutiny and opposition, labeled as “Zionist propaganda.” This recurring narrative draws distressing parallels to darker chapters in history, mirroring sentiments of intolerance and discrimination. 

Amidst this disheartening backdrop, it’s imperative to heed the words of Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In the face of adversity, it’s heartening to see the outpouring of support from the community. Businesses such as Film.ca Cinemas in Oakville, Planted in Hamilton, The Cotton Factory, the Prosserman and Miles Nadal JCCs in Toronto, along with numerous individuals have offered their spaces and homes, demonstrating solidarity and resilience. 

“We don’t want to hide, we want to be prepared,” expressed the owners of Film.ca, which exemplifies a spirit of defiance against bigotry. Moreover, the unequivocal support from Mayor Andrea Horwath and city staff underscores a commitment to inclusivity and diversity. 

While the festival found a new home at the Ancaster Memorial Theatre, the lingering sadness remains that such prejudice persists in our society. Helaine Ortman, a film festival committee member, aptly captures this sentiment of disappointment and disbelief. As a proud Hamiltonian, she reflects on the distressing reality that such intolerance exists in a city she holds dear. 

Yet, amidst the adversity, there is hope. The festival’s resilience and support of allies signify a beacon of unity in the face of hatred. As Ortman rightly notes, it’s a testament to the collective determination to stand against injustice and uphold the values of inclusivity and acceptance. 

Moving forward, it’s essential to confront antisemitism head-on and reaffirm our commitment to building a community that embraces diversity and celebrates cultural heritage. As friends and partners, we must continue to stand together, rejecting prejudice and creating an environment where we all feel welcomed and valued. 

Victoria Mancinelli, the director of communications at LiUNA, has emerged as a staunch advocate for the Jewish community. In an article penned for the Toronto Sun, she emphasized the significance of the cancellation of the Jewish Film Festival in Hamilton, stating, "The cancellation of the Jewish Film Festival in Hamilton is not just a cancellation of a cultural event. This is a cancellation of the Jewish people — a targeted campaign of harassment and intimidation met with irresponsible silence by our elected representatives and other equity groups. It is the total collapse of the moral norms and values that are meant to protect our diverse and free society."

In a similar vein, Dana Robbins, former editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator, delved into the theatre's decision to cancel the festival. Robbins contended in an editorial on March 24th that the decision was not based on fears of violence during a sensitive period, but rather capitulation to voices inflamed by the conflict in the Middle East. According to Robbins, "the theatre’s decision to pull the plug was not due to fears of violence 'at this particularly sensitive time,' rather it was caving to voices angry about the conflict in the Middle East: the slaughter of Israeli citizens by Hamas on Oct. 7 and the resulting Israeli military response in Gaza that has claimed so many civilian lives."

In response to these events, the Hamilton Jewish Federation emphasizes the gravity of any antisemitic act, regardless of its scale. We liken the cancellation of the Film Festival to a canary in the coal mine that Jewish advocates constantly warn us about, a harbinger of greater dangers to come. It prompts the question: at what point do we withhold our response?

As we reflect on this incident, let us also acknowledge the contributions of the Jewish community to Hamilton’s rich culture and heritage. From business to arts, science to philanthropy, Jewish individuals have played a vital role in shaping our city’s identity. 

To those who offered their support, whether through words or actions, we extend our heartfelt gratitude. Your commitment to standing alongside the Jewish community sends a powerful message of solidarity and strength. 
In the words of Helaine Ortman, “We want to move forward. We want the best for our community.” It is through our collective efforts that we can build a brighter more inclusive Hamilton for generations to come. 

Moreover, Ortman's admiration for the Federation's leadership amidst the cancellation of the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival highlights the importance of steadfast guidance in challenging times. She commends the Federation for taking a stand against antisemitism, emphasizing that fighting such discrimination falls under the Federation's strategic priorities. Ortman's affirmation that the Federation's response is "the right thing to do" encapsulates the profound sense of duty and conviction driving their actions. She noted that it would have been easier to lay low and remain quiet and “to wait and see”; however, Federation was more determined to stand up against antisemitism. 

The committee's dedication to selecting films well in advance, with diverse origins including Israel, Poland, and France, reflects their commitment to education and inspiration, transcending geographical barriers. Ortman's reference to Israel as a "North Star" underscores its profound significance to Jewish identity, serving as a symbol of resilience and cultural heritage. Despite the festival's setback, the curated films aimed to foster understanding and connection, emphasizing the committee's unwavering dedication to promoting cultural exchange.

However, it’s crucial to delve deeper into the broader context surrounding the festival’s cancellation and its implications for our society. Antisemitism, as evidenced by this incident, remains a pressing issue that demands our attention and action. 

Moreover, the cancellation of the festival underscores the chilling effect of antisemitism on freedom of expression and cultural exchange. When cultural events are met with such opposition, it not only stifles artistic creativity, but also deprives communities of opportunities for dialogue and mutual understanding. 

In conclusion, the cancellation of the Hamilton Jewish Film Festival is a stark reminder of the challenges posed by antisemitism and the importance of standing up discrimination in all its forms. By rallying together, we can build a more vibrant and equitable community for all. 

Photo credit: Corey Nusca