The Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference may severe collaborations with the Jewish National Fund following the premier of a film at the Encounters International Documentary Festival which criticizes Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The documentary “Under The Village Forest” at the festival screening in Cape Town and Johannesburg reveals alleged ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by the Israelis.
The film explores, amongst other themes, the role of Israeli-parastatal, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), in its involvement in building a forest over the destroyed Palestinian village of Lubya.
Commenting about the film, the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) said their collaborations with JNF had been “based on ignorance” and would not partner with an organisation alleged to be oppressing Palestinians and forcing them off their land.
Father Michael Deeb of the SACBC’s Justice and Peace department said they were “very concerned” about JNF’s alleged role in trying to erase the identity of Palestinians who lived in Lubya.
Ilana Shapiro, a member of lobby group STOP JNF, said they fully supported the film and would organise several screenings across the country in the coming months.
She said they would also be approaching the Department of International Relation and Cooperation (Dirco) to get clarity on why the JNF could name contentious tree plantation the ‘South African Forest’.
Anti-Israel lobby group Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS South Africa) “warmly welcomed” the premiere of the film.
In a statement it said “We encourage members of the media and public to seriously consider this must-watch documentary film.”
Narrator and writer of the film which was directed by Mark Kaplan, Heidi Grunebaum, visited the South Africa Forest on a pro-Israeli youth programme in the mid-1980s.
But when she discovered the ruined Palestinian village of Lubya beneath the forest, she says “it felt like the rug being pulled out from under my feet”.
“I knew I’d been there before, but I’d had absolutely no understanding or ability to imagine then that my trees were erasing the presence of people who had lived there and been forcibly removed…the quiet violence of using trees to hide something felt like a deception.”
But JNF board member Isla Selesman rebutted the film’s narrative, saying when the Jews arrived in Israel, they were refugees fleeing the holocaust.
He said it was a “state of war” and the Palestinians left the village of their own accord and others were free to stay on.
She said Israel believed in a two-state solution and peaceful co-existence with Palestine.
The JNF operated as a charity in South Africa and has come under increasing protests by BDS South Africa for its role in the Israeli displacement, forced removals and oppression of Palestinians.
Recently, after months of nationwide protests, South Africa’s largest toy retailer Reggies terminated its charity relationship with the JNF. – Francis Hweshe