A group of 80 Iranian academics and activists sent an open letter to The Times of Israel Wednesday supporting an Iranian director who came under fire for appearing at the Jerusalem Film Festival last week.

The signatories, describing themselves as “members of opposition groups, scholars and human rights activists,” lauded exiled filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “bravery for breaking the taboo of visiting the state of Israel and conveying the message of friendship between Iranian people and people of Israel.”

Makhmalbaf was in Israel for the Jerusalem Film Festival premier of his film “The Gardener,” which was filmed primarily in Haifa and the Old City of Jerusalem.

The 10-day film festival featured a series of Makhmalbaf’s films, in a tribute to Makhmalbaf, showcasing four of his past works and a special July 10 screening of “The Gardener,” after which the filmmaker received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Peace and Freedom.

The note in his defense, provided to The Times of Israel by one of the activists, came a week after a self-described “group of Iranian scholars, artists, journalists and activists” had published an open letter to Makhmalbaf in the independent Arab Studies Institute website Jadaliyya, in which it called on the London-based filmmaker to “be a messenger of liberation for everyone, including both Palestinians and Iranians” and to “stand with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement.”

The critical letter’s signatories called Makhmalbaf’s participation at the Israeli festival a “disregard for the global movement for Palestinian human rights and… implicit support for Israel’s apartheid policies.”

The activists supporting Makhmalbaf, however, said his visit had furthered the cause of peace between the countries.

“We believe that instead of criticizing Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s trip to Israel, we should call him the ambassador of peace and friendship between the people of Iran and Israel,” the letter stated.

The signatories further said that like the director, “we are unafraid to stretch out our hands in friendship with the citizens of Israel and believe that art can be a tool that brings people together regardless of people’s racial, linguistic and political differences.”

The letter added: “We believe that supporting the rights of the Palestinian people is not a sufficient justification to criticize an Iranian director’s professional trip to Israel. We still remember those Israeli and Iranian citizens who last year launched a campaign of friendship between the two countries and exchanged written and video messages stating that they ‘loved’ each other just when it seemed that the chances of an Israeli strike against Iran was increasing. We condemn the politics of war whether it is advanced by officials of the Islamic Regime or some officials in Israel. Instead, we endorse, support and welcome, the position of Mohsen Makhmalbaf that instead of a military attack, Iran’s ‘democratic forces’ should be supported.”

At a press conference in Jerusalem last week, Makhmalbaf, who has been a strong supporter of Israel, said that he wished Iranians and Israelis could visit each other’s countries. One of the things he found most fascinating about the country, he said, is the way many of its citizens strive to create a way to live peacefully together.

“I found out there is a solution between people. Even if the government can’t fix it, they can talk to each other,” he said.

Makhmalbaf also defended his decision to visit Israel in an interview with British newspaper the Guardian published Tuesday. Calling himself “an ambassador for peace,” he said “I went there to take a message of peace…I try to unite people through arts, I am citizen of cinema, and cinema has no border, and in fact before my journey to Israel my film traveled to that country many years before.”

While in Jerusalem, Makhmalbaf emphasized that he likes the Israeli people, but he opposes an Israeli strike on Iran, saying that supporting the “democratic forces” in Iran would do much more to bringing a peaceful solution.

“One million young people graduate university every year in Iran,” said Makhmalbaf. “They don’t need atomic bombs; they need freedom and love.”

Leeor Bronis contributed to this report.