SJP-invited speakers prompt controversy at Gaza film screening

A middle aged woman with brown hair sits on a stage speaking into a microphone.
Abby Martin and Mike Prysner visited Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre on Nov. 14 to show their documentary “Gaza Fights For Freedom.” The event was hosted by Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine, with financial support from various academic departments. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine, with financial support from academic departments across the 5Cs, brought filmmakers Abby Martin and Mike Prysner to campus Nov. 14 to screen their documentary “Gaza Fights For Freedom,” a decision that elicited controversy over Martin and Prysner’s past statements.

About 100 students, faculty and community members attended the screening last Thursday evening in Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre. Eight academic departments, institutes and other campus organizations from Pitzer College, Pomona and Scripps College, in addition to the Los Angeles chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, co-sponsored the event, according to an announcement of the screening.

A former correspondent for RT America, Martin was previously an active member of the 9/11 Truth movement, alleging repeatedly that the terrorist attack was an “inside job,” according to The New York Times, and that the 9/11 Commission was “set up to fail.”

On Wednesday, the Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance said in a statement that it was concerned Martin holds “reckless and hurtful conspiratorial beliefs.”

“The fact that she’s used lies when talking about 9/11, the fact that she’s used lies when talking about Israel, just proves the fact that she has no credibility when speaking about any issue that deserves to be treated in a factual manner,” CPIA co-president Zachary Freiman PO ’20 said.

Martin and Prysner have been accused of anti-Semitism for their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both have directly compared Israelis to the Nazis, with Martin accusing Israel on RT that of using “Hitler’s methods against another minority to maintain a Jewish majority” and Prysner saying in a speech that “you can very much draw an equal-sign between what the Nazis did to the Jews and what is done to the people of Palestine,” according to The Jerusalem Post.

Martin told TSL after the event that she did not feel her past statements were relevant to the film and that accusations of anti-Semitism are baseless. 

“The things we’ve said are in no way anti-Semitic,” she said.

She said in an email that the specific comments in question were about reports that Ethopian women were given contraceptive shots without their knowledge at transit camps and in Israeli clinics. It’s unclear who initiated the policy in the camps in Ethiopia, according to the Guardian, but doctors continued the injections in Israel.

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Event organizers agreed, saying they were only concerned with Martin’s “invaluable contributions” to discourse over the Israel-Palestine conflict.

“Inviting them doesn’t mean we stand by everything they say,” said Sophia Knowlton-Latkin SC ’20, a member of Claremont SJP.

The chairs of Pomona’s Religious Studies and Scripps’ Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments, which co-sponsored the event, said via email that they were not aware of the filmmakers’ prior comments when their departments signed on as co-sponsors. Both characterized the comments as “unhelpful” and “hurtful.”

Despite what Ms. Martin and Mr. Prysner have said previously, college students should be able to assess the quality of a documentary and ask questions about it,” said Zayn Kassam, chair of the Pomona Religious Studies Department. “The department attempted to reach out to Ms. Martin through a third party to ask her to refrain from harmful rhetoric and focus on facts on the ground about what is happening in Gaza in her Q and A. We are not sure whether the message reached her or not.”

Piya Chatterjee, chair of the Scripps FGSS department, stood by the content of the film itself.

“FGSS looks at colonial, postcolonial and de-colonial issues through transnational, intersectional and antiracist lens,” she said. “Indeed, decolonization is one of the concentrations in our major. This particular film’s intervention fit very well into that purview.”

The screening went mostly without conflict, save for an interaction with two students during a Q&A. 

When Martin and Prysner took audience questions after the film, a student questioned the accuracy of the documentary’s portrayal of the shooting of Palestinian paramedic Razan al-Najjar. 

Another asserted that the organization Hamas is a terrorist group rather than a “purely political agency.” The U.S. government classifies the group as a terrorist organization.

The latter comment came from Jordan Esrig CM ’23, who penned an article in The Claremont Independent on Monday calling Martin an “anti-Semitic conspiracist.” 

Martin answered forcefully, referencing his article.

“I find it really hypocritical and embarrassing because you’re tied to an organization that works with Breitbart. This is a white nationalist, Neo-Nazi organization,” she said to applause. “It is extremely racist.”

Esrig, responding from the crowd, said the Independent had no ties with Breitbart.

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“Hey, Jordan, you already spoke. You need to be quiet,” Martin said.

The Independent said it is “not affiliated with Breitbart or any external national media outlets.” 

It has received funding from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a group that aims to “engage conservative thought on campus,” according to the ISI website and previous TSL reporting. And the Independent has been affiliated with the Leadership Institute, which operates Campus Reform, a national conservative media outlet covering campus issues.

Breitbart has cited the Independent at least 13 times in the last decade. It’s unclear whether Breitbart is linked to ISI, Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.

Addressing Esrig’s question, Martin said Hamas supports a two-state solution akin to the beliefs of politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Prysner added Hamas is irrelevant to the fact that “blatant war crimes are taking place” and that the Israel Defense Forces shoot demonstrators regularly.

Martin said she found Claremont SJP “inspiring” and was excited about campus activism around justice in Palestine, despite what she called Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver’s “undemocratic” veto of the Pitzer College Council’s vote to suspend the school’s study abroad program at the University of Haifa.

“This is where the frontlines are at,” she said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Prysner made his comments about the Nazis and Palestine at a Holocaust memorial event. He did not. A previous version also stated that Martin said that Israel uses “Hitler’s methods” against Gazans and Palestinians. The clip in question does not mention Gazans or Palestinians, and instead refers to “another minority.” TSL regrets these errors.

This article was last updated Nov. 21, 2019 at 6:15 p.m.

This article was last updated Nov. 20, 2019 at 3:33 p.m.

This article was updated Nov. 20, 2019 at 11:55 p.m.

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