US pans Israel-Russia film cooperation deal, citing Moscow’s ‘antisemitic propaganda’

‘Russia is not a trustworthy ally or partner,’ US State Department says, adding it discourages agreements with Moscow amid invasion of Ukraine

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Russian Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova and Israeli Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi signed a cinema cooperation deal in Moscow, Russia, September 2023. (Russian Ministry of Culture)
Russian Minister of Culture Olga Lyubimova and Israeli Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi signed a cinema cooperation deal in Moscow, Russia, September 2023. (Russian Ministry of Culture)

The United States on Thursday condemned Israel for signing a cinema cooperation agreement with Russia.

“The Russian culture ministry has funded antisemitic propaganda in Ukraine and elsewhere. We discourage official cooperation between other countries and Russia, especially Russian individuals who are sanctioned like the Minister of Culture,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to a query on the matter.

“Russia is not a trustworthy ally or partner. As the world has repeatedly seen, the Kremlin creates and spreads disinformation in an attempt to confuse and manipulate people about Russia’s real actions against Ukraine and elsewhere that are designed to destabilize and weaken sovereign nations,” the statement continued. “As a general matter, we oppose partnerships with Russia.”

The Biden administration has long pushed Israel to fall in line with the Western world’s more aggressive stance against Russia in response to the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, but Jerusalem has at times resisted, not wanting to completely upend its relationship with Moscow whose approval it needs to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

US-Israel ties have been strained for months against the backdrop Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s judicial overhaul and efforts to undermine prospects for a two-state solution. For seven months, US President Joe Biden refrained from inviting Netanyahu to meet him in the US. They’re slated to meet later this month when Netanyahu will be in the country to address the UN General Assembly but Biden may choose to merely meet him on the sidelines of the confab, rather than grant him a higher-profile Oval Office sit-down.

Hours before the State Department condemnation, Ukraine blasted the Israel-Russia deal signed on Wednesday, accusing Jerusalem of “collaboration” and aiding Moscow in spreading its propaganda.

“We no longer know how to comment,” said Ukraine’s embassy in a statement. “On the very same day when a Russian rocket struck a crowded market in Donbas area of Ukraine, once again killing and injuring dozens of innocent civilians, the Israeli Government signed a cooperation agreement in the field of cinema with the Russian propaganda perpetrators,” the embassy said.

On Wednesday, a Russian missile strike on a busy market in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region killed at least 17 and injured dozens more.

A Ukrainian serviceman shouts to paramedics in front of bodies killed after a Russian rocket attack on the food market in the city center of Kostiantynivka, Ukraine, September 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“Israel is collaborating with this ruthless country, well known for its cinematic endeavors aimed at spreading war propaganda,” continued the Ukrainian statement.

“While the international community isolates Russia to demonstrate that its actions are unacceptable to civilized society, it looks like Israel is offering additional platforms to the aggressive federation for the dissemination of their toxic ideas.”

A photo shared by the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday showed Israeli Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi signing the cinema deal alongside Russia’s Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova, who is currently sanctioned by the United States and European Union amid Moscow’s 18-month war on Ukraine.

The agreement gives film directors from both countries access to archives and facilitates collaborations on creating joint movies, according to an announcement by the Russian Ministry of Culture.

The deal has been in the making since 2009, according to the ministry. “I know how much the professional community has been waiting for this document, and how useful it will be for joint work. There are a lot of plans ahead, and I am sure this agreement will help take our joint work to a new level,” said Lyubimova during the signing ceremony.

Lyubimova was quoted by Russian media hailing the agreement as “important” and adding: “We are eagerly awaiting Israeli directors in our cinema competition programs.”

Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Alexander Ben Zvi. (Video screenshot)

The agreement will “allow the parties to exchange experience and create joint projects in the field of cinema,” and bring in “additional funds to the film industry of both Russia and Israel,” according to the Russian ministry’s announcement.

Russian funds will be able to donate funds to Israeli directors and productions to integrate Russian professionals in production work, and vice versa, Channel 12 reported. Israeli filmmakers will also be invited to film festivals in Russia.

Ben Zvi was quoted as saying: “I’m convinced we will have many joint movies. Producers are interested in collaborations. Israeli films are very strong and are shot at a high level. The Russian public will be able to appreciate them.”

Over the past 18 months, Israel has been repeatedly castigated over its decision to continue to engage with Russia after it invaded Ukraine, and its refusal to provide military aid to Kyiv.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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