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The Other Israel, in Film

Movies explore the problems of peace

Allison Hoffman
November 15, 2010

That Prime Minister Netanyahu will propose a 90-day freeze on new West Bank settlement construction in hopes of kick-starting negotiations was, as far as things go, good news. But if you are looking for reasons to be skeptical of the prospects for peace—not just of a final agreement with the Palestinians, but of actual, viable, unshakable peace—you couldn’t do much better (or worse) than ID Blues, the five-part documentary series directed by the recently retired Israeli television anchor Haim Yavin. Camera in hand, Yavin, who is often billed as the country’s Cronkite, traveled all over seeking to isolate why peace is so elusive.

In the final installment of the series, which had its New York debut last night at the Other Israel Film Festival, Yavin examined how Israel deals with Palestinians living within its borders. After interviewing everyone from Avigdor Lieberman, currently the foreign minister, who has pushed a loyalty oath for non-Jewish immigrants, to the parents of Asil Asala, one of 13 Arab Israelis killed in the October 2000 outbreak of the Second Intifada, Yavin concluded: “The rage on the Arab street just continues to grow, and we, the Jewish citizens of the state, continue to bury our heads in the sand.”

Part of the problem, as famed historian (and Tablet Magazine contributor) Benny Morris has noted, is that Israel wants to be a Jewish state and also a liberal-democratic one, but it lives with the anxiety that at least some of its non-Jewish citizens are a potential fifth column. Morris, as it happens, was on hand last night after the ID Blues screening for a moderated discussion with TV newsman Aharon Barnea. “The problem that arises in Israel,” Morris repeated, “is that they negate the existence of the Jewish state. They want to create an Arab, Muslim state.”

It doesn’t help that Israelis often use that fear to excuse the kind of soft discrimination lampooned in the Israeli sitcom Arab Labor (also screening at the festival), which depicts an Arab-Israeli journalist who moves into a Jewish neighborhood and tries, desperately, to fit in. Morris, in response to a questioner who asked why Israel doesn’t do a better job of enforcing anti-discrimination statutes, responded, “States aren’t perfect,” before pointing out that racism still exists in America, too. (This was after he had already reminded the audience that the U.S. interned suspected fifth-columnist Japanese-American citizens during World War Two—an extremely low bar against which to be measured.)

Nevertheless, in the land of rosy fantasies, the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank would vacate any reason for any Arab, Israeli citizen or not, to undermine the Jewish state. But Barnea pointed out that even then, there will still be Jews in Israel who will not be moved from the view that the only way to guarantee the security of the Jewish state will be to “get buses, load on every Arab living in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel, and deposit them on the other side of the Jordan River.” To prove his point, one person in the audience responded by clapping, loudly.

But the clapper, and everyone else with a stake in this particular debate, would do well to check out Blood Relation, a 2009 documentary that had its U.S. premiere Friday in New York (and is screening concurrently at the UK Jewish Film Festival in London). In it, Israeli filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai discovers she has cousins living in refugee camps in the West Bank—the descendants of a great-aunt who ran off with an Arab boy in Mandatory Palestine, and wound up in Nablus, on the wrong side of the 1967 line. The cousins, who speak only Arabic and who keep running into trouble with Israeli authorities, are technically no less Jewish than Ben Hagai or her uncle, Shmulik, a former Israeli military commander in Ramallah who gets tangled in a web of competing responsibilities and impulses. Ben Hagai has said that she only wanted to solve a family mystery, but what she found, instead, was a whole new set of riddles.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.