In a piece in the Forward, the critic Keith Kahn-Harris notes that “a common theme in pro-Israel discourse is that critics of Israel are ‘obsessed’ with the Jewish state.” He has a point. “Israel,” he notes, occupies “a place in the pantheon of leftist bugbears out of all proportion to the size of the country and the (undoubted) wrongs it has committed.” (Indeed, it clearly does so in this magazine.) But Kahn-Harris is surely right to note as well that this obsession is hardly confined to leftists and anti-Zionists. “Its defenders are equally convinced of its importance as a touchstone of moral and political rectitude.”
As Joel Schalit writes in Israel vs. Utopia, “The failure of both the Right and the Left in the Diaspora to see Israel as it actually is constitutes a subtle but pernicious form of intellectual imperialism.” What’s more, the insistent focus on the purely political (and religious) aspects of the conflict blind us to the complicated reality that underlies them in everyday life. I recently read in The Nation that “if the [Palestinian Authority] collapses…it will strip off the mask that there is anything in the territories beyond Israeli occupation.” Now, this cannot be literally true, as an awful lot of life–even political life–occurs on the West Bank independent of the occupation. But it is also apparently belied by developments reported by Avi Issacharoff on December 19 in Ha’aretz, who notes, “The current situation in the West Bank is one of the best, if not the best, since 1948. Quiet prevails in the streets of every city there, the economy is starting to take off, the civilian police are maintaining law and order, and even the courts, despite their tremendous caseload, are upgrading their activity with every passing week…. A Palestinian journalist said this week that the situation in the West Bank is not only better than in the past, but ‘terrific.’ A survey published this week by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that 63 percent of West Bank residents feel secure.”
A useful corrective for Americans to the one-dimensional picture presented by both left and right is evident in the contemporary renaissance in the Israeli film industry, where one frequently finds empathetic and realistic portrayals of Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians that rarely manage to pierce the conflict-focused journalistic coverage dominating left, right and center of the media.
Readers may be familiar with recent releases of films like Waltz With Bashir, Beaufort and The Lemon Tree, but the cavalcade continues. Two films that have been generating a great deal of admiration and excitement this year are Ajami, which showed at the 2009 Hamptons Film Festival and will appear in the 2010 New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center in January, and Jaffa, which also appeared at the Hamptons, as well as the 2009 Israel Film Festival in New York and the much smaller, Arab-focused Other Israel Film Festival, which, significantly, had its home at the Jewish Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Both films take place in the port city of Jaffa, where Jews and Arabs have lived together, rather uneasily, for more than a century. Each of them is dominated by people’s personal problems: in Ajami, an influential Bedouin clan wages a vendetta against a poor family, while a teenager from the West Bank tries to raise money to pay for his mother’s medical care. In Jaffa, an Arab father and son work uneasily in the auto-repair business of a Jewish family. In both films, a young Palestinian man falls in love with a Jewish girl, and in both films, this love is doomed in significant measure by the clannish hatred of both sides, though the Israelis are portrayed as always possessing ultimate control.
This doomed love/Romeo and Juliet scenario also forms the primary narrative of For My Father, which played at the 2008 Hamptons Film Festival and was also shown at the 2009 Israel Film Festival in New York. In that film–perhaps the most affecting portrayal of the human side of the conflict I have ever seen on a screen–a young Palestinian goes unhappily to blow himself up in a Tel Aviv market to reclaim his family’s honor. (His father had been collaborating to facilitate his son’s career as a soccer star, which involved the frequent crossing of Israeli checkpoints.) But his bomb fails, and he is forced to spend the weekend in Tel Aviv waiting for a Jewish repair shop to fix his fuse. There, he is befriended by a bunch of Israeli Jews, and falls in love with a young woman who has been excommunicated by her Orthodox parents for her hippie/ punkish lifestyle. I won’t ruin its marvelously moving ending.
These films do not ignore the conflict, nor the human toll it takes on the inhabitants of both nations. While the Palestinians suffer what they must, Israeli anguish is also front and center. In For My Father, the Palestinian boy strikes up a friendship with a Jewish mechanic, who tells him about the death of his son in a training accident. In Ajami, a Jewish police detective struggles with the disappearance of his soldier brother. The fact that the human consequences of the conflict are addressed for both sides forces the viewer to go beyond the clichés that dominate conversation about the Middle East and make civil debate all but impossible.
I don’t want to oversell the influence of these films, which, given the recalcitrance of Israel’s right-wing government, is obviously less than one would wish. And I saw a few films, including at least three set in Jerusalem, that largely ignored the enormous indigenous Arab presence there. (One even professed to be a documentary about the city’s history.) But as my friend the Israeli folk singer and activist David Broza said to me the other day, “Israel’s salvation lies in its ability to be self-critical.” And these films, like the novels of writers like Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman, offer the possibility that such self-criticism will lead to a more humane and farsighted politics. It is a hope, at least…