Yes, I know it is really early in the week; and thinking about the Chutzpah of the Week award runs the risk of being premature. However, this one is too good to resist for a variety of reasons. It concerns a recent decision made by Mike Leigh to decline an invitation to teach at the Sam Spiegel Film & TV School in Jerusalem. Dave Itzkoff documented Leigh’s justification on his ArtsBeat blog for The New York Times as follows:
Mr. Leigh wrote that he “always had serious misgivings about coming,” adding that he almost canceled after an incident in May in which Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound flotilla. The “last straw,” Mr. Leigh wrote, was the proposal of legislation by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, requiring that Israeli citizens pledge a loyalty oath to the “nation-state of the Jewish people.”
Mr. Leigh added that these and other actions by the Israeli government had left him “in an untenable position, which I must confront according to my conscience.”
Under most circumstances this could simply be accepted as an act of conscience; but what makes this particular episode interesting is the way in which Israeli filmmaker Renen Schorr, director of the Spiegel School, chose to respond to Leigh’s statement:
Mr. Schorr wrote to Mr. Leigh in a letter dated Oct. 15, “I am certain that the decision is sincere and that it reflects your detailed, legitimate political views,” but added, “Boycotts and ostracism are the antithesis of dialogue.”
Mr. Schorr wrote that “the public will interpret your decision as indicating an irrevocable rift between us, a boycott of Israel, and a rebuke of its current and future artists.”
“To me,” he said, “this is a red line. Thus, I cannot justify your decision.”
Schorr basically escalated Leigh’s rather simple statement of conscience into an insult that required riposte, oblivious to the extent to which this intuitive reflex to counterattack would be fraught with irony. At the simplest level we have the “surface” reading of Schorr’s motive in his final sentence. If Leigh was following the dictates of his own conscience, Schorr’s “justification” is at least irrelevant and at most intrusive. However, the strongest irony lurks in that sentence about dialogue. Schorr is perfectly correct in asserting that ostracism is antithetical to dialogue, but his own ideological blinders prevent him from recognizing the extent to which that same spirit of ostracism by Israelis continues to undermine any substantive dialogue taking place between them and Palestinians.
In other words Schorr’s primary refutation actually serves to reinforce Leigh’s conscience-based motives. Leigh turned his rejection letter into a judo-like act of disarming his opponent through his opponent’s own weakness. In the context of the current volatility of the Middle East, such an act may be appreciated as an act of chutzpah, even if it was not initially conceived as such,. So, while there is always the possibility that a stronger case will arise later in the week, I am going to stick my neck out and name Leigh as the holder of this week’s Chutzpah of the Week award.