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Attempt to ban Spielberg film raises liberals’ fears in Lebanon

Days before premiering in Beirut, Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post found itself banned last week by Lebanon’s Censorship Board, under pressure from Hezbollah and powerful anti-Israeli campaigners in Lebanese society.

The ban built on a 2010 Arab League decision to boycott Spielberg over a US$1 million donation he had made to Israel made during the Lebanon War of 2006. Activists argued that Spielberg had offered material assistance to an enemy state occupying Lebanese territory, one whose 2006 war led to the deaths of over 1,000 Lebanese citizens and the destruction of the country’s infrastructure.=

The decision was subsequently overruled by Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, prompting Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah to comment on Friday, that: “We reject this decision. We consider it a mistake. The man (Spielberg) announced his support for the Israeli aggression against Lebanon. He paid Israel from his own money… to kill your children and destroy your houses.”

The film, set in the 1970s, stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, and tells the true story of the American journalists who published the classified Pentagon Papers proving that the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson had lied to the public and Congress about the Vietnam War. Interior Minister Nohad Mashnouk, a Hariri ally, said: “I see no obstacle preventing the film from being shown because it has nothing to do with Lebanon or the conflict with the Israeli enemy.”

Since bursting onto the Hollywood scene nearly four decades ago, Spielberg has never hidden his Jewish background or Israeli sympathies. He descends from Jewish emigrants from Ukraine who settled in Cincinnati in the 1900s. This information is hardly secret, but it didn’t prevent Lebanese officialdom from allowing most of his prior films to be shown.

Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered at the height of the Lebanese Civil War back in 1981, three years after Israel had invaded and occupied South Lebanon. Then came E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It made Spielberg a household name in Lebanon and throughout the Arab World. It was released in Lebanese theaters in June 1982, three days before the Israeli invasion and occupation of Beirut.

Other classics, such as The Color Purple (1985) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), followed, with no objections from Lebanese activists or the country’s government.

In 1993, Spielberg came out with his black and white classic, Schindler’s List, about a man saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Parts of the film were even shot in occupied Jerusalem, prompting the Lebanese to ban it, but Jurassic Park passed with flying colors, and was attended by thousands of Lebanese children. And so did the 2005 film Munich, which tells the story of Beirut-based Palestinian guerrillas who famously assassinated Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. More recent films, like The BFG and Bridge of Spies, all passed without controversy.

The bizarre treatment of The Post has raised eyebrows among the intelligentsia in a country that has long stood out for its lax censorship and relative freedoms of expression. Once hailed as a “Switzerland of the Middle East,” it has always been a hub for outspoken artists, journalists, filmmakers and exiled politicians. No idea was taboo in Lebanon of the 1960s and 1970s – and no-one ostracized because of his views.

The prominent Lebanese poet Said Akl famously hailed the Israeli invasion of 1982, claiming that all Lebanese should support it because it promised to rid them of “the dirt of the Palestinians.” He died at the age of 102 in 2014 and was hailed as a Lebanese cultural and literary icon.

Such views are red lines in the Lebanon of today, however. Some see the Spielberg case as merely a response to Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as the “eternal capital” of the State of Israel. Others claim it is part of a systematic campaign to silence freedoms in their country. They point to a long list of films that have also been banned in recent years, and fear that Lebanon is morphing into another Iran, a country famed for its ultra-conservative codes of conduct, dress, and artistic expression.

One blogger, Anis Tabet, wrote: “This is serious. A new low for censorship. Is this 2018 or 1918?”

Back in 2013, the prominent filmmaker Ziad Doueiri’s movie, The Attack, was banned in Lebanon. It told the story of a secular Palestinian doctor living in Tel Aviv and trying to understand why his wife had blown herself up in a suicide attack against the Israeli Army. Doueiri shot parts of the film in Israel, using Israeli actors, which led to his brief arrest in Beirut. “I have no regrets and no apologies whatsoever” he said.

In 2016, another film, Personal Affairs, was also banned, because it was produced by an Israeli company and shot in Israel (although the director, Maha Ham, is a Palestinian). The film tells the story of life under Israeli occupation for an old couple from Nazareth.

In 2017, three films were banned in Lebanon. The first, Wonder Woman, was blacklisted because its leading actress, Gal Gadot, is an Israeli citizen and had served in the Israeli Army. At the age of 18, she had won the title ‘Miss Israel.’ Another DC Comics superhero film, Justice League was also banned on account of featuring Gadot, although the same actress had appeared in Fast & Furious, Fast Five, Fast & Furious 6m and Batman v Superman – all of which screened at movie theaters across Lebanon.

In an Instagram post, Gadot wrote: “I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens. Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas. We shall overcome!! Shabbat Shalom!”

Finally came Jungle, telling the story of an Israeli adventurer who gets lost in the Bolivian Amazon in 1981. Critics claimed that the character is based on a real person who served in the Israeli marines – sufficient grounds for it to be banned.

Published in Asia Times on 23 January 2018.