Category Archives: Cinema

Remembering the Yom Kippur War by demanding peace

Scene from Amos Gitai's "Kippur" (2000)

Scene from Amos Gitai’s “Kippur” (2000)

Today (10/6/2013) marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 October War fought between Israel on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other. The war is also known in Israel as the Yom Kippur war, because the Arab states launched a surprise attack on the Jewish Day of Atonement. At the time I was a 12 year old boy living in Manchester, England, and spent the day in Heaton Park Synagogue, a nominally Orthodox institution, most of whose members were non-observant. By 1973 I went to the club house of Habonim, a Labour Zionist youth movement, twice a week (along with my two older siblings), and after being a pupil at King David Primary school for seven years I was thoroughly immersed in a Zionist environment that resonated with my home life, where souvenirs from Israel adorned the walls and the Hebrew records played on the hi-fi. So, when Israel was attacked, I took it personally. If Israel was in danger, so was I.

I find it instructive to return to my feelings of forty years ago, because though now strange to me, they are familiar to so many others. Then, I felt an existential fear, a terrible dread on that day of awe. I should remind myself when I confront and engage with Diaspora and Israeli Jews, who say they are worried that the Arabs want to wipe out Israel, that they’re probably experiencing something close to those old emotions of mine. I should remember how tangible my worry was, how the terror of annihilation tasted dry like my fasting mouth, how the anxiety felt like my empty stomach. The news of what was happening that day filtered through the congregation slowly. Nobody was supposed to be listening to the radio, but Manchester City were playing at home against Southampton, and a few people had gone outside to hear the score (the match ended in a draw). Seated some distance from my father on this crowded day in the synagogue, I turned to the authority of the Rabbi, also my Hebrew school teacher, to confirm the rumours. The news we heard and watched when we all returned home was dismaying. Was Israel about to be destroyed? Were the Jews going to be thrown into the sea? Was this somehow God’s judgment? What sin had I or we committed that deserved such punishment?

The intense fear gave way to apprehension as the days passed, and the Israeli armed forces turned the situation around. Within days, our youth leaders in Habonim took us out knocking on doors to gather donations for some sort of medical aid for Israel. Soon, we had a new song to learn, Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi (Let it Be), which had been quickly rewritten when her husband came home from his military reserve duty, and was then adopted as Israel’s popular anthem for the post-war period. It’s a mournful song, a secular prayer whose chorus beseeches: ‘All that we seek, let it be,” and the final verse of which implores: ‘grant tranquility and also grant strength to all those we love’. Even today, the song feels comforting.

The terror passed, replaced by the relief of Israeli success on the battlefield, a cease-fire, and the beginning of disengagement talks that would eventually lead to the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, concluded in 1979. I should always remember my fear of forty years ago, but I should not forget that fear can be overcome. Fear is not a state to dwell in, not an emotional homeland, but an uninhabitable exile.

For Israel, the 1973 war was traumatic, not simply because of the surprise attack, but because of the series of military and political failures that led to the attack. The Agranat Commission (1973-75) looked into shortcomings on the military side, and by 1977, the Labour-led coalition that had dominated Israeli democracy since 1948 had paid the electoral price, paving the way for a government led by the right. The 1973 war is an unhealed wound that Israel is still picking at, and which it has barely begun to reflect on its public culture. One exception, Amos Gitai’s semi-autobiographical art-house film about the war, Kippur (2000) leaves the viewer with a sense of disorientation and detachment, its minimal action focused on a helicopter rescue unit that flies over muddy scenes of labyrinthine tank tracks as they ferry back the injured and leave the dead behind until the rescuers too become casualties, prey to the purposelessness of the war.

For the generation of Israelis who fought the war, their fear gave way not to despondency but to anger at the ineptitude and negligence of the country’s leaders. While for some the Labour establishment remained the focus of their frustration, others came to understand that as citizens they could no longer trust to their government to do what is best for Israel. Following President Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977, a group of the ‘1973 generation’ wrote to then Prime Minister Begin in the famous ‘officers’ letter’ to argue for a path of peace rather than settlements, and the Peace Now movement was born. That generation, also central to the civil opposition to Israel’s First Lebanon War in 1982, overcame their fear, and frustration, through activism. Their activism figured Israelis not as the inevitable targets of unfounded Arab hatred, condemned to fight one war after another, but as partners for peace who wanted “No more war, no more bloodshed’ and that ‘the October War will be the last war’, as Begin’s and Sadat’s words repeated in a jingle on the Voice of Peace radio station.

In 1973, the founders of Peace Now could not know as soundly as they do now that the disaster of the war was not only that Israeli forces were caught off guard but that the war happened at all. By October 6th, there was no choice but for Israeli soldiers to fight back, but leading up to that point there were significant opportunities for Israeli governments to negotiate over the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights which had been captured in the June 1967 war. The war was an example of politics fought by other means, when diplomacy would have been far preferable.

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Peace Now logo, designed by David Tartakover

Diplomacy seems to be breaking out all over the Middle East now – in the case of Syrian chemical weapons, and Iran’s nuclear programme. As several commentators have noted, this outbreak has made Benjamin Netanyahu anxious. In his UN speech on October 1st he referred to Iranian President Rohani as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, thereby directing not only Israelis but the whole world to be wary of the new mood blowing from Tehran. Netanyahu is a salesman in statesman’s clothing, a merchant of fear whose domestic political standing is directly proportional to the terror he induces. He is a political Mafiosi, promising Israelis protection in the form of armed might against a threat that he magnifies in order to sell his wares more effectively. He makes offers of ‘defence’ and ‘security’ that the voters can’t refuse. Netanyahu is a politician of fear, an orchestrator of powerful emotions who constantly builds them into renewed crescendos. It is not that there are no threats at all to be concerned about, but the politics of fear need to be confronted with a politics of different emotions, including hope. The fear of extinction that is shared by so many Diaspora and Israeli Jews is not unfounded but palpable. It cannot be dismissed, but nor can we remain hostage to it. The generation of 1973 found in Peace Now the best counter to the politics of fear in their activism, in giving voice to a demand for a better present. Their demand remains the best memorial to the Yom Kippur war.

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World War Zion: or Trumpeldor’s Return

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

Zombies rush the wall in World War Z. Paramount Pictures

(spoiler alert)

By now word is out that the new Hollywood summer blockbuster zombie movie, World War Z, includes a controversial section about Israel/Palestine. In the rapidly paced plot, driven at the speed of an action movie, the world is overrun by a viral pandemic of fast-moving zombies. Gerry Lane, the hero of the film, an American former UN investigator (remobilized for the emergency), played by co-producer Brad Pitt, learns from a former CIA operative in a US military jail in South Korea that Israel knew of the outbreak and had time to quarantine itself behind a wall. Lane flies to Jerusalem, where Mossad agent Jurgen Warmbrunn dispels the hint of a global Zionist conspiracy by explaining that they had intercepted Indian military communications about fighting the zombies, then implemented their survival plan based on prior experience of persecution and attack. As Lane is shown around Jerusalem, the film shows scenes (filmed in Malta) of a huge wall on the edge of Jerusalem that clearly resembles the existing notorious separation wall that encloses and cuts off most of the Palestinian West Bank. As in reality, the film portrays an elaborate military checkpoint through which healthy people of any background may pass into the safe zone, apparently allowing Palestinian Arabs as well as Israeli Jews to enter. But the joyful survivors celebrate together noisily, attracting the zombies outside, who pile on top of each other to climb over the wall, bringing the safe haven of Zion to an end. Lane narrowly escapes by plane, taking with him one of the Israeli military escorts, a woman who calls herself by her rank segen (lieutenant) and whose left arm Lane amputated hastily after she was bitten by a zombie, thereby saving her. Segen becomes Lane’s lieutenant for the rest of the film, a heroine who assists him in discovering and obtaining the medical means to camouflage the survivors from the zombies, namely, injecting the healthy with terminal but curable pathogens.

Al-Jazeera reported that some viewers have interpreted the film (both critically and favourably) to be ‘pro-Israeli’ because it justifies the separation wall as a means to keep out an implacable enemy bent on the annihilation of the Israeli population. Others noted the irony of Palestinians as well as Jewish Israelis being admitted through the checkpoint in the film, while others pointed out that the wall failed to keep out the threat. In a piece published in the Washington Post, Jake Coyle noted the ambiguity of the film’s message about the wall, wondering if it might be a symbol of peace, a haven for Jews and Muslims, which unfortunately is not secure enough. In light of the film’s sympathetic treatment of Israel’s brief, militarized survival as the world’s last civilized state, Jordan Hoffman approvingly takes it to be ‘the greatest piece of cinematic propaganda for Israel since Otto Preminger’s Exodus’, even while noting that it is the ‘joyous cherished vision of unity and peace’ – Israel’s admission of Palestinian as well as Jewish survivors who celebrate together – that leads to its downfall. Jesse Benjamin notes the same point in her critical reading according to which the audience is treated to a ‘not at all veiled justification of Israel’s current and widely condemned Apartheid Wall’ along with the usual (for Hollywood) racial and gender hierarchies.

The ‘message’ of the film regarding Israel goes deeper than whether the wall failed because it was not mighty, high or exclusive enough, or because the survivors were too noisy in their celebration, or because the wall is a failed strategy for security. The real wall itself is often credited by the Israeli government with preventing terrorist attacks, especially suicide bombers. ‘Zuicide’ bombers appear akin to zombies in that they are implacable, irrational, inhuman, and are already dead, or committed to death. Yet, the wall is neither complete yet, nor hermetically sealed, and the Palestinian Authority’s security force’s sustained cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, along with changes in Palestinian attitudes towards such violence, probably explains as much about the reduction in suicide bombings as does the wall itself. Nor is it one wall that encloses Israel, but a series of walls, fences, barriers and checkpoints built around Palestinians in the West Bank, in addition to being a target of protest and resistance itself.

Less significant than the portrayal of the wall in the film is its very character as an action drama infused with the terror of human annihilation by the mouths of the insatiable zombies. If, as I did, viewers suspend all disbelief, mortal fear is rarely more than 30 seconds away. Such existential anxiety in the film has been carried over from the books by Max Brooks on which it is loosely based, who explains in an interview that his books are not horror that conjures up fear but instead a vehicle for ‘a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in’ (emphasis added). The child of anxious and protective parents, Brooks enables his readers to ‘metabolize’ their fears about the world – HIV/AIDS, post 9/11 instability, natural disasters – into science fiction. The zombies are not real, but the grounds for fear are.

In the case of Israel and Zionism, such existential fear for survival is rarely far from the surface. For many, probably most, Jewish Israelis, fear of collective annihilation by a ferocious, implacable enemy underlies their felt need for security embodied in armed force and high walls. Zionism’s first military hero was Joseph Trumpeldor, a decorated former officer in the Russian army, who lost his left arm in battle (like Segen in the film), emigrated to Palestine in 1911, and died as the legendary defender of the Tel Hai settlement in 1920. Given Trumpeldor’s fate, I was relieved that Segen survived the movie, but by now Trumpeldor is very much a faded legend in Israel, as much a target of satire as a heroic figure, as Yael Zerubavel explains in her book Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition. Segen, self-identified only by military rank, is always serious. With her shorn head, she appears in the scene in which she and Lane survive a plane crash wrapped in a blanket, looking every inch like a death camp survivor. The connection between near annihilation in the Holocaust and survival through military might is blatant. In the face of such inhuman hostility, much Israeli policy operates under the conviction that ‘the whole world is against us’, and ‘there is no partner for peace’. In World War Zion, Israel faces the zombies alone, and there can be no peace with zombies, or zuicide bombers.

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in "World War Z" (photo credit: Courtesy)

Segen (Danielle Kertesz) with Brad Pitt in “World War Z” (photo credit: Courtesy)

The fear is real, but the zombies are not. The Palestinians are not zombies, but people who want what Israelis have: civil rights, independence, and so on. Not all Israeli Jews see the Palestinians and other Arabs (and Muslims) as zombies, and Israeli perceptions and policies change over time. But the upper hand is with those who see zombies everywhere, build walls to keep them at bay, and disregard the value of their lives. The lives of the Palestinians do not count. Their lives are not, as the American Jewish philosopher Judith Butler puts it in another context, grievable when Palestinians are framed in Israeli discourse as zombies.

The ‘zombies’ that many Jewish Israelis fear came from elsewhere, from another time and place. Like the fears that Brooks channels into science fiction, these Israeli Jews displace their just fears of former persecutors in Europe and other places onto Palestinians and Arabs in general. It is a fear that I carry too, a fear that also allowed me to feel, for a while, in the movie that if only Israel survived, that would be good enough. But in order to avoid the injustice of treating Palestinians as zombies, as ungrievable lives, I and other Jewish Israelis need to understand – and feel- that we are not the only ones who are afraid, whose lives are lived in the shadow of existential anxiety, whose lives are, as Butler says, precarious. Out of concern for own precariousness, we have imposed it on the Palestinians. We have sought to be exclusive and pure in our precariousness, yet in the film it is not purity that immunizes human beings against the zombie threat (by camouflaging them), but self-contagion with pathogens. So long as we seek to be utterly secure at the cost of the insecurity and precariousness of Palestinian existence, we will not be secure, nor will we be at peace. Acknowledging the shared human condition of precariousness, and the unjust imposition of it on those we frame as zombies, is a precondition for a future peace.

Link

A Stony Field, An Olive Grove, An Iron Dome: Researching Peace in Israel/Palestine at a Time of War

[Click title above for video]

While researching images of peace produced and performed by Israeli activists, I found myself in a pastoral olive grove in Jayyous, in a stony field by Umm el-Arayes, then under an Iron Dome in Tel Aviv as another round of explosive violence erupted between Israel and Gaza. What peace was to be found in these sites? And which war was being fought?

This presentation is a reading that draws on my blogs (http://israelipeaceimages.com) and field notes from my research semester in Israel, fall 2012. It is not an academic analysis of my research material, but a personal reflection on some of my experiences and encounters. This presentation speaks to my motivation for and some of the challenges of undertaking such research. At some points I use ‘we’ to refer to Jewish Israelis, reflecting my own identification within my research context. The visual material you see includes my photographs, along with stills and video footage that activists groups circulate on social media, and other illustrative material.

 

The reading takes place across several scenes:

Scene 1 – Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Defense (Israel-Gaza War, November 2012)

Scene 2 – Iron Dome (Israeli missile defence system)

Scene 3 – Composing peace as a picture (Combatants for Peace demonstration by Beit Jala, West Bank)

Scene 4 – The Stony Field: Partnering in Justice (Ta’ayush activity at Umm el-Arayes, South Hebron Hills, and clip from Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer)

Scene 5 – Pastoral Peace: Olive harvesting in Jayyous (West Bank)

Scene 6 – Café in Tel Aviv (activist interview)

Scene 7 – This war here, that war there (clips from Waltz with Bashir and Towards a Common Archive: Video Testimonies of Zionist Fighters in 1948)

Scene 8 – What peace? (Imagination)

How should we picture the blood of Occupation?

Lubna al-Hanash

Lubna al-Hanash

Gerald Scarfe's Sunday Times cartoon

Gerald Scarfe’s Sunday Times cartoon

Picturing oppression by portraying blood can cause wounds, a lesson that the British Sunday Times and its political caricaturist Gerald Scarfe learned following the publication of a cartoon on January 27th 2013. The cartoon depicts Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had in effect been re-elected for another term of office earlier in the week, building a block wall in which the bodies of people are crushed, using blood as mortar. That Sunday was also Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK and other countries (but not in Israel). The response was swift. In The Commentator blog, Raheem Kassam wrote that the cartoon shows ‘the large-nosed Jew, hunched over a wall, building with the blood of Palestinians as they writhe in pain within it’, accusing the newspaper of repeating the infamous mediaeval anti-Semitic blood libel that was repeated by the Nazis in their Der Sturmer propaganda paper. Less polemically, a piece by Mark Gardner, of Britain’s Community Security Trust, republished by The Guardian on January 29th, argued clearly that the cartoonist’s intentions were beside the point. Rather, what matters is the association between the blood (that appears often in Scarfe’s work) in this case and the ‘blood imagery, sometimes explicitly as Blood Libel, [that] is commonly found in obscene anti-Israel propaganda in Arabic and Iranian media’. Because of its visual motifs, its iconography, the cartoon belongs to ‘the canon of contemporary antisemitic imagery’. In the face of such criticism, the cartoonist, the newspaper and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, did not take long to apologise for the timing and content of the cartoon.

I do not want to rehearse the argument about whether the cartoon is anti-Semitic, or whether it should have been published that day or another day. I want to ask another question, which is: how should we picture the blood of occupation? The critical responses to Scarfe’s cartoon adamantly insist: ‘not this way!’ But they focus on this cartoon blood at the expense of the blood that is shed by Palestinians subject to Israeli occupation. In the weeks leading up to the Israeli election, and in the days that followed it, there was a rash of fatal shootings of Palestinians by Israeli forces using live ammunition in circumstances that did not, even by Israeli military standards, seem to justify the use of such deadly force. Israeli human rights watchdog B’tselem reported five such fatalities in January 2013, their report being the basis for coverage in The Guardian on Sunday 27th January of the spate of bloodshed. One of the dead Palestinians, 17-year old Samir ‘Awad, was shot on January 15th by soldiers beside the Separation Barrier near Budrus, a location where anti-wall demonstrations are so frequent that a documentary film has been made about the village. So, when Scarfe depicted the bloody wall in his cartoon, he illustrated one of the occupation’s most potent symbols and most damaging, concrete, practices. His caption written beneath his illustration, ‘Will cementing peace continue?’ is an apt comment on the continuity of the occupation in its most vicious form following Netanyahu’s re-election.

There is blood spilled by Israeli forces in the occupation to be depicted. How else, then, to show it, if not in political caricatures with risky associations? There is always the practice of photojournalism, now more widespread because of the common use of cameras and the open publicness of social media. The blood of Lubna al-Hanash, fatally shot by soldiers on January 23rd near al-‘Arrub Refugee Camp is shown in this way, among a torrent of photographic images of the occupation that appear each day, attracting far less attention or concern than Scarfe’s cartoon. And some of the attention her death did attract shows the vile abuse of anti-Semitism. Blogger Aussie Dave simply accepted the Israeli military’s initial justification of al-Hanash’ killing, given the conflicting eye-witness accounts of her shooting he could find (in English) on the web, calling the incident a Palestinian blood libel. Once again, the victims are turned into the victimisers in the logic of denial that sustains the occupation.

Is, then, the picturing of the blood of occupation too contentious, too repetitious, or too open to denial for it be worth bothering? No, this blood needs to be pictured, it needs to be acknowledged. We need to take responsibility for it. In the painful documentary film, To See if I’m Smiling one of the women soldiers who served in the occupied territories during the second intifada tells of how she is haunted by her experience. Rotem knew that her observation procedures led directly to the shooting of a boy. After her release from service, she tells the camera that she called a friend and pretended to be joking about the blood she could not wash off her hands. Rotem is horribly traumatized by the blood. She needs to find a way to picture it, to talk about it. We all need to picture it, because the path to peace is through the trauma we have wrought and brought on ourselves, and because if we do not, Lady Macbeth’s madness awaits us.

To Be at Peace with Oneself: Reconciliation through Israeli Testimony of the Nakba

Catalogue cover for Towards a Common Archive exhibition

Catalogue cover for Towards a Common Archive exhibition


Last week a demanding and harrowing exhibition closed. The exhibition was called Towards a Common Archive: Video Testimonies of Zionist Fighters in 1948, consisting of more than 30 testimonies of Jewish fighters filmed especially for this project, one video of clips from documentaries by Israeli filmmakers with fighters’ testimonies, another video compilation of representations of the Nakba in Israeli feature films, and a video of testimonies by second- and third-generation Israelis who have heard first-hand reports of the Nakba. I attended the opening in October while on sabbatical in Tel Aviv.The exhibition was a collaboration between Zochrot, an organization that seeks to raise public awareness among Jews in Israel of the Palestinian Nakba, Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan, who now works at the University of East London and Israeli historian Prof. Ilan Pappé, now at the University of Exeter.

The ambition of the Common Archive project is both historical – to cross-reference testimonies by both Palestinian refugees and soldiers and commanders involved in the expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees in 1947-49 – and an exercise in peace-making. It may seem odd to consider the screening of testimonies about the Nakba to have anything to do with peace. Nothing is more likely to make Jewish Israelis and Zionists in general more defensive and less open to the needs of the Palestinians than confronting them with Israel’s ‘original sin’ – the uprooting of so many Palestinians to ensure that the nascent state would have a clear Jewish majority. Yet, the exhibition organizers take a different, more difficult path to peace through reconciliation, in which Israeli acknowledgment and accountability for the Nakba paves the way to tackling the most intractable issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the right of Palestinians to return.

I did not watch all of the hours of video testimony (which is viewable on both the Common Archive project’s and Zochrot’s YouTube channels) either at the crowded opening in the small gallery in an industrial building, nor on my return visit to the exhibition, or even on the DVD that came with the exhibition catalogue. It is more of an education than an exhibition, too much to bear in one sitting. It is an education not in the sense that unknown events are revealed, other perhaps than a detail here and there, but in that for the first time the perpetrators are the witnesses. It is not a question of Israelis being accused of crimes by Palestinian victims. Veteran Israeli fighters of the founders’ generation, often members of its elite commando unit, the Palmach, are the ones telling the stories of expulsions, killings, mutilations and massacre. We have known collectively all along, but preferred to repress, actively to forget these stories.

The testimonies I have seen tell of painful personal memories that merit repression yet need to be spoken and watched. None of the perpetrators have a problem characterizing what they did in the war of 1948 as “expulsion” of the Palestinians. The interviewers, Eyal Sivan and Ronit Chacham, ask the witnesses to specify what was involved in “cleaning” villages, the answers ranging from mostly shooting at the homes with small or heavy arms, sometimes shooting at those who fled, though mostly we are told they fled under cover of darkness, and sometimes entering the villages to throw grenades into houses. Some of the testimony tries to disconnect the violence perpetrated from the flight of the Palestinians: Yitzchak Tischler insists on saying that places “became empty” after being hit by fire; Esther Boss tells how shocked she was on entering the town of a-Lydd (Lod) to see so many corpses of Palestinian civilians on the streets, but is sure that Israeli loudspeakers calling on the remaining inhabitants in Arabic not to flee. Some witnesses like to distinguish between themselves who “conquered” Palestinian villages and those who came in afterwards to “clean” them. Some say that there was no order to blow up the homes, or that it came only later when Palestinians tried to return to them; others that they blew up homes, burnt crops, and killed camels so that there would be nothing to return to.

Some witnesses find it difficult to speak about certain incidents: Benyamin Eshet is reluctant to say more about what happened to those Palestinians who buried the 120 victims of the Dahamsh mosque massacre in Lydda on 12 July 1948. 10 years earlier he’d been called into the General Security Services offices after talking to a journalist about it. (The report by Guy Erlich was printed in the Tel Aviv newspaper Ha’ir on 6 May 1992).But through his hesitant and indirect testimony he reports that the buriers were shot. Lyddah was traumatic for Eshet. In contrast, the perpetrator of the massacre, Yerachmiel Kahanovich, seems unabashed when he tells how he shot a Piat anti-tank missile into the mosque’s hall. Only when he recounts his single glance into the building, in which he saw the bodies of all those who had taken shelter in it smeared on the walls, does the camera catch a glimpse of some deeper, troubled emotion in struggling within him to find expression.

For the most part, the perpetrators explain, if not justify, what happened as occurring in the context of a war in which there was no alternative, to clear terrain in case the armies of other Arab states attacked, to ensure a majority in the nascent Jewish State. But there are varying degrees of acknowledgements of ethical questions. Everyone regrets ‘unnecessary’ atrocities. Kahanovich is not proud of all the acts he perpetrated under such conditions. Esther Boss feels responsible for some acts, such as the wanton shooting of a Palestinian kiosk owner, but had no notion of ‘immoral orders’ at the time. Benyamin Eshet says there was no time to talk about what happened at the time, but others such as Yitzhak Tischler remember organised discussions about whether the revenge killings at Balad a-Sheikh on 31 December 1947 were justified. Much of the witnesses’ ethical reflection on the ‘purity of arms’ is displaced onto the issue of looting, of whether refugees were looted in their homes, or as they fled, or if only their abandoned homes were pillaged. In the Biblical tale of the conquest of Ai by Joshua, the first attempt failed because of divine punishment for a single act of pillage when Jericho fell. The conquerors of Palestine in 1948 are similarly clearer about the immorality of looting than of killing and expulsion.

The most telling testimony is the witnesses’ own comparisons of the columns of fleeing Palestinian refugees with Jewish refugees and victims in Europe during the Holocaust. Benyamin Eshet, himself a Holocaust survivor who had only been in Palestine for 1½ years before the war, is particularly haunted by the parallels, but it surfaces in the testimony of Yitzhak Tischler too. Micha Lin says at one point that he is not at peace with himself for the destruction of villages (the children of which he’d played with as a child), even though he’s not sure it could have been otherwise at a time of war. In Hebrew, to be at peace with yourself is to be shalem, to be whole, highlighting the connection between the Hebrew concept of peace, shalom, and wholeness. The Common Archive project, and Zochrot, build towards peace by demanding that Jewish Israelis become at peace with ourselves, to hold together our past and our present, to attempt to make ourselves whole. The exhibition demands not only that we acknowledge and take responsibility for the acts of expulsion and death perpetrated by Israel’s founding generation. It also demands that we reconcile our own traumatic history with the trauma we inflicted on the Palestinians. It is the most painful of reconciliations, to relinquish the role of victim and to accept that of perpetrator, but this is what the exhibition demands; and this is what a just peace demands.

Within the Eye of the Storm

Poster for Within the Eye of the Storm

It was International Peace Day on Friday 21 September, a day marked by several events in Israel, including the screening of a remarkable documentary, Within the Eye of the Storm, directed and produced by Shelley Hermon. The synopsis of the film on the website reads:

Bassam and Rami, a Palestinian and Israeli, were once dedicated fighters willing to kill and be killed by one another for the sake of their nations. Yet each one of them came face to face with the price of war when their daughters were killed in the conflict. Left with the excruciating pain of bereavement, they chose to do the unexpected. They set out on a joint journey to humanize the very enemy, which took the dearest thing from them and prevent the vicious cycle of retaliation in themselves and their societies. Along the way they reveal the friendship and humor that keeps them alive. The film follows their two parallel stories and the moments where they converge, both in their personal experiences and peace work as they face their shattered families, confused communities and opposing society. This is a critical junction in both their lives, as their life mission and personal agenda clash and they stand the biggest test to their friendship.

The film itself is an image of peace, or rather a set of images of peace. The key image is the friendship that is displayed between the two fathers, the Israeli Rami Elhanan, whose 14-year old daughter Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers in Jerusalem in 1997, and the Palestinian Bassam Aramin, whose 10-year old daughter Abir was shot in the head with a rubber-coated bullet by an Israeli soldier in Anata, East Jerusalem in 2007. Bassam had already been politically active in founding the bi-national Israeli-Palestinian peace group Combatants for Peace in 2005, whereas Rami was roused to activism in the wake of his daughter’s death. Their friendship is highlighted in the public conversations the two fathers had with each other in weekly broadcasts on All for Peace Radio, in which Rami takes the lead. But the friendship is perhaps most evident at one point, after Bassam has had good news about the civil case he brought against the State of Israel for being responsible for Abir’s death, when Rami hugs him and tells him “You know I love you” in the same way that he hugs his son and his deceased daughter’s friend Danielle, who was badly injured in the same bomb attack as Smadar.

Another image or meaning of peace in the film is that Bassam does win his civil case against the State in 2011, although he’s still pursuing his criminal case against the soldier who shot his daughter in violation of military procedures. No justice, no peace, and although Bassam’s court victory is but one very small piece of justice, and such victories are very rare in Israeli courts, so is the friendship between Bassam and Rami but one small piece of peace.

Within the Eye of the Storm is a moving film, as demonstrated by the audience’s response, thanks in part to the intimate camera work that puts viewers inside the homes of Rami and Abbas, making us feel closely connected to their lives. The music also plays a significant role.  Yet, the main affective power of the documentary consists in its composition as an act of mourning for Smadar and Abir. For the most part, these are separate moments for the two characters and families. Bassam’s wife weeps as she holds up a younger daughter to compare her to Abir’s picture, and towards to the end of the film Bassam prays next to a poster size image of Abir in their temporary house in Bradford, England (where Bassam studied for an MA in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution). There are also photographs of Smadar on display in Rami’s home, but his mourning is most evident in his visit to and embrace of Danielle, his daughter’s friend who survived the attack. When Shelley Hermon described the film as a memorial to the two girls in her comments after the screening, she choked up, almost unable to continue. The sense of loss was palpable throughout the cinema hall.

The screening event itself was another image of peace, though more problematically so. The depth of feeling among the audience of about 400 people, of simple empathy, of shared grief, cannot be denied. As Bassam was called to the stage to speak, he received a standing ovation. One woman in the audience remarked that this film was the first time she felt that ‘her side’ had been listened to along with the Palestinians’, and so she said to Bassam and Shelley from now ‘I’m with you’. Other questions revealed more scepticism: how were Bassam’s activities and the film received by his extended family and community? Would the film get the same reception in the West Bank? Yes, he said, catching the implicit racism (and common assumption that ‘we Israelis want peace; it’s those Arabs who don’t) but responding cleverly with humour: they’d applaud it just as loudly in Ramallah, even though it’s full of Arabs. The film was screened on a Friday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque (and other Cinametheques across Israel), thus marking it as a ritual for a secular, bourgeois, Ashkenazi audience, who mingled and chatted as they would at any cultural event. Participation in such a ritual of spectatorship can easily displace any felt need to act to prevent the grounds for further acts of mourning. The film also leaves largely untold the stories of the two mothers, who are not seen to participate in the blood bond of shared mourning that prompts the men’s friendship.

Within the Eye of the Storm is not, however, a naïve documentary, certainly less naïve than my spontaneous feeling as an audience member that if there are such caring and sensitive people, surely Israel can find a way to make peace with Palestinians. In the film, there are several scenes of Rami failing to persuade Israelis that reconciliation and dialogue are the best way forward. Danielle’s boyfriend expresses a common view when says he can’t understand why Rami is helping those who murdered his daughter. Rami himself breaks off a discussion with a member of the public at a rally for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit who was then being held by Hamas, at the point when the man says he’s prepared to pay any price to keep a Jewish state. Rami has already paid the price, and even though he is distributing stickers saying ‘It won’t stop until we talk’ (a slogan of the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace Circle), he cannot continue to speak to another Israeli who would have him pay the price again. And why should he? Why should we? Because we prefer to mourn?