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Should Lebanon have banned Wonder Woman?

The decision to see or boycott the new film should have been left up to individuals instead of empowering the state to intervene

“Lebanon hasn’t been so afraid of an Israeli woman since Ehud Barak raided Beirut in drag.” This is how Israeli newspaper Haaretz commented on the official ban in Lebanon issued this week on the newly released Wonder Woman movie.

Those in favour of the ban, however, were not driven by “fear”, but rather by an impulse to resist Israel and an opposition to the normalisation of relations with a country that is still at war with Lebanon.

Furthermore, campaigns to boycott Israeli products, including the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon that was behind the Wonder Woman ban, are driven precisely by the various “raids”, wars and policies carried out by the Israeli army and government that have resulted in war crimes and the crime of apartheid against the Palestinian people.

Gal Gadot, the lead actress in Wonder Woman, is Israeli, served in the Israeli army (which is mandatory for Israeli men and women over 18), and publicly supported the Israeli aggression on Gaza in 2014 which killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 72 Israelis, only six of whom were not soldiers.

Beyond Gadot’s public support for the Israeli Defence Forces - and whether an official ban of the Hollywood movie fits within the purview of boycott campaigns and Lebanese law – the bigger question is the tactics anti-Israel groups used to get the ban and whether they will best serve their cause in Lebanon.

Contentious ban

The debate in Lebanon surrounding the ban became contentious. Those in favour considered that the issue was not up for debate. In the words of Al-Akhbar’s deputy editor-in-chief Pierre Abi Saab, opposition to Israel “is not a matter of opinion”.

On the other hand, many voices took issue with the ban, some even going so far as to joke about how the ban helped to “liberate Palestine”.

To be clear, no one in Lebanon disagreed with the ban out of love for Israel or support for Zionism. But there were many observers who objected to a blanket, government-imposed ban given how the state and religious authorities have used censorship laws so broadly to repress in the past.

Unfortunately, it seems that the campaign was not looking for dialogue or consensus within the Lebanese public, but for a victory - one that they declared shortly after the Lebanese authorities decided to ban the movie on Thursday.

It was unclear, however, who the “loser” was in this situation. There were many pro-Palestinian voices against the alignment of the boycott campaign with the authorities.

One commentator summarised these sentiments: “I am surprised when I read thank yous for the general security for banning an American Hollywood movie, at a time when the civil and cultural society are waging a quasi-existential battle for freedoms with censorship, and particularly with the “scissor” [reference to censorship] now almost in the hands of religious institutions.”

The boycott campaign should have taken such considerations into account, especially because the objections were not being made from a pro-Israeli and anti-boycott standpoint.

Rather, those who objected were questioning if the ban – and the government’s involvement - was warranted. Wouldn’t a better alternative have been to call for a boycott of the movie, appealing to reason and evidence and leaving it up to individuals and movie theatres to decide whether to heed or ignore their call?

Balancing freedoms

The issue here is not merely one of personal preference and sensitivity.

The debate in Lebanon is important given the available space in the country for people to air grievances and to disagree with other citizens and politicians, albeit with limits - in a region where uniformity of opinion is imposed by autocratic regimes, as well as by religious institutions wary of challenges to their authority and to religious teachings and customs.

The campaign to ban the movie should have shown better awareness of this context and of the need to balance the boycott of Israel with the imperative to safeguard individual freedoms and the right to make up one’s own mind on whether to join the campaign or not.

In relation to “freedoms”, Abi Saab asked rhetorically: “Has the national choice (al-khayar al-watani) become takfiri and anti-freedom – what freedom, for God’s sake?” And at the end of his editorial, he reiterated his appeal saying" “Gentlemen, we are talking here about our killer [ie Israel]." In other words, any discussion of freedoms is inappropriate in this context.

Yet due to the fact that individual freedoms are being fought for on various fronts in Lebanon, and given the history of the authorities’ readiness to cater to the preferences of political parties and religious figures when it comes to banning movies, plays, books, events, and so forth, a delicate balance must be reached between those who oppose the ban on the principle of freedoms and those who support the ban based on the equally important principle of boycotting Israel.

One need not, and should not, come at the expense of the other. The boycott campaign against Israel needs to be fought using the right methods. The end does not always justify the means.

Boycott campaign versus official ban

As an illustration, compare the official ban on Wonder Woman in Lebanon with South African filmmaker John Trengove’s decision to cancel his participation in the International LGBT Film Festival being held in Tel Aviv this week.

“Knowing what I know now [as a result of the BDS campaign],” Trengrove said, “I feel it is imperative that I withdraw myself from attending.”

The campaign’s “victory” in Lebanon would have been more effective had individuals freely and deliberately decided to boycott the movie.

Or if a spokesperson for the movie theatres came out saying: “Knowing what I know now as a result of the boycott campaign, we will cancel the screening of Wonder Woman.”

A successful boycott campaign would have been able to appeal to reason, engage the public rather than divide it, and convince sceptics of the legitimacy and importance of a symbolic boycott of a blockbuster movie.

In contrast, a top-down imposed ban ends up with a “victory”, albeit one that might - in reference to the people who would ordinarily support such a campaign but who disagreed with the need for an official ban - “lose friends and alienate people”. 

- Halim Shebaya is a Beirut-based analyst and researcher. He teaches in the School of Arts and Sciences at the Lebanese American University. @halimshebaya

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Actress Gal Gadot arrives at the Hollywood premiere of Wonder Woman (AFP)

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