Earlier this week I attended a screening of the short (25 minute) documentary film My Neighbourhood at The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. The filmmakers describe the film as being about "a remarkable nonviolent struggle in the heart of the world's most contested city." Here's the movie's official trailer:
(Edited to add:) For those who can't see the embed, it's here on YouTube. And for those who don't want to watch the trailer, here's a synopsis:
The documentary tells the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy growing up in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. When Mohammed turns 11, his family is forced to give up part of their home to Israeli settlers, who are leading a campaign of court-sanctioned evictions to guarantee Jewish control of the area.
Shortly after their displacement, Mohammed’s family and other residents begin peacefully protesting against the evictions, determined not to lose their homes for good. In a surprising turn, they are quickly joined by scores of Israeli supporters who are horrified to see what is being done in their name. Among them is Jewish West Jerusalem resident Zvi Benninga and his sister Sara, who develop a strong relationship with Mohammed and his family as they take on a leading role in organizing the protests.
Through their personal stories, My Neighbourhood goes beyond the sensational headlines that normally dominate discussions of Jerusalem and captures voices rarely heard, of those striving for a shared future in the city.
I'd read a lot about it (see East Jerusalem Doc 'My Neighbourhood' Wins Peabody Award by Emily L. Hauser in The Daily Beast, or Sumeet Grover's review in the Huffington Post.) In addition to winning a Peabody, this short film won both at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival and the Al Jazeera Documentary Festival -- how many movies can make that claim?
I knew I wanted to see it on the big screen. And I was especially interested in seeing it accompanied by the panel discussion which followed -- featuring Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Israeli writer, activist, refusenik, and poet Moriel Rothman (a frequent contributor to The Times of Israel and to Ha'aretz); and moderator Victor Navasky, Publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
I expected that the film and subsequent discussion would move, challenge, and discomfit me. I find that trying to look at the Middle East with clear eyes and an open heart always does.Let me just say this: You should watch the film. It's 25 minutes long, and the whole thing is available on YouTube. It tells its story better than I can. If this is a part of the world that you care about; if peace and justice are issues that you care about; you should take 25 minutes of your life and watch this film.
Watching it made me weep.
After the film, Moriel told the story of protesting in Sheikh Jarrah for the first time, and of what it was like for him to hear police shouting that he was breaking the law -- and how it took him a few minutes to realize they were talking to him. He described himself as an observant Jew and Israeli citizen who has always loved Israel and thought of it as the place where he always wanted to be.
He cited the original March on Washington (the anniversary of which is this week), and he spoke about the (US/American) Voting Rights Act and how once that act was in place, "the law was on the side of justice," though certain individuals in government (for instance, noted segregationalist Governor George Wallace) weren't acting justly yet. "The situation in Jerusalem is different," he stressed, saying:
"The law is the problem. Israeli law allows injustice. There are different sets of laws for different people. If you are a Palestinian living in Jerusalem you are subejct to different laws than if you are an Israeli living in Jerusalem."
Moriel explained that after 1948, some 700,000 Palestinians became refugees, and the Israeli government gave their properties, by and large, to Jewish refugees from Europe. In 1950, Israel enacted something called the Absentees' Property law (hold that thought, Moriel said; he would return to that law momentarily.) "In 1967, Israel conquered territories including the West Bank, the Golan, Sinai, Gaza and what is now called East Jerusalem. East Jerusalem was of course a concept which didn't exist until '67," Moriel pointed out. "Until then it was 28 Palestinian-Arab villages...this is different from the West Bank where according to Israeli law the land is still disputed."
In Israeli law, East Jerusalem has a different status than the West Bank. (I wrote about this in my 2008 post A Day with ICAHD -- which I still think is worth reading, though it's five years out of date.) The West Bank is "disputed" or "occupied" territory, whereas East Jerusalem was annexed; according to Israeli law, it is part of Jerusalem. And Israeli law -- specifically, that Absentees' Property law -- says that Jews with property claims in East Jerusalem from before '48 can take these claims to court and reclaim their property.
Usually the courts rule in favor of the Jews with the property claims (see Israeli policy pivot strengthens grasp on East Jerusalem, Christian Science Monitor, June 2013), though this doesn't necessarily mean that the houses return to their previous owners. Frequently, Moriel explained, the properties are purchased by the Israel Land Fund (an organization which works toward its vision of "Greater Israel"), and the ILF gives the properties to young yeshiva buchers who want to be part of the struggle to rid East Jerusalem of Arabs. (We heard from some of those voices in the film.) Of course, Absentees Property law cases have to be decided in court, and they do receive due scrutiny. But, Moriel noted:
"The court never asks the question of what it means for a country to call itself a democracy and have two different sets of laws for different people. Palestinians who lost their homes in '48 not only can't take their claims to court, but they are often forbidden from entering Israel at all. This is the injustice taking place in Sheikh Jarrah -- and in Silwan and in other places, as well."
"It's crucial," he added, "that we recognize and remember that East Jerusalem is just as occupied as the West Bank.... [When we talk about] the peace process, we're talking about bringing two parties to the table -- meanwhile there are families in Sheikh Jarrah facing eviction, and when they are evicted, they have no recourse. When we talk about making peace, we need to remember that any discussion of peace process is hollow and meaningless if it doesn't take into account peace on the ground."
Moriel reminded us, "The Torah teaches: you should have one law for the citizen and for the stranger."
Then we moved into Rebecca Vilkomerson's remarks:
"As someone steeped in this issue, watching the opening of this film, it reminds me why I do this work -- the level of injustice that it documents is breathtaking.
If you have an open enough heart, this issue is so easy to understand. But the way that we move toward peace is often fraught with difficult conversations."
She began by speaking to us about her own journey. "Many of us in the Jewish American community have had to overcome some strong conditioning in order to even hear these stories wholly." She told a funny story about meeting her Israeli husband-to-be, being introduced by the Palestinian owner of a coffee shop they both frequented in San Francisco. And she said:
"I knew I believed in equality of citizenship regardless of race, ethnicity, religion; I knew I believed in the universality of human rights; and the more I learned, the more I realized -- much to my sadness -- that Israel was not living up to those values."
She told about picking olives with Rabbis for Human Rights (an experience probably quite like the one chronicled here), about driving Palestinian children who had permits to receive care at Israeli hospitals to those hospitals, about working with Bustan (an Israeli NGO which works with Bedouin and Jewish communities in the Negev), etc -- and also about working with groups which worked in solidarity with Palestinian villages, accompanying Palestinians to protests and so forth. "I swallowed my share of tear gas at the hands of the (Israeli) military." She told stories about going home to wash the tear gas off of her skin and clothes before picking her children up from gan / kindergarten. "That's the joy and challenge of life in Tel Aviv."
"As a Jewish person who hates how Israel acts in my name...I have a personal investment in Israel's future; my girls have Israeli citizenship, I want Israel to be a place where I would be proud for them to live!"
She also pushed us to consider why we're listening to a panel of two Jews moderated by an American Christian, rather than listening to the voice of someone from the Palestinian community. "Why is the Jewish voice on Israel and Palestine so often considered more legitimate than hearing the voices of Palestinians...when [Palestinians] are undoubtedly the ones most affected by what's happening there?"
"Part of the work we need to do, we who are Jewish," she suggested, "is help break down the walls of prejudice which make Jewish voices privileged in these conversations. Even if that means giving up some of our own power to drive -- some would say 'to police' -- these conversations."
The most critical way that we in the United States can support this struggle, she said, is by supporting the Palestinian-driven nonviolent movement of boycott, divestment, and sanctions -- known colloquially as "BDS." At that moment a buzz went around the room, because everyone in the audience knew what a hot-button phrase that has become.
The peace process, Rebecca noted, has gone on for 20 years and has done nothing but entrench the settlements. (Indeed: more settlements have been announced even since this most recent round of peace talks began.) She continued:
"Israelis have all the time in the world to talk about peace: they can go to school, work, receive health care, travel freely. Meanwhile, Palestinians are penned into ever-smaller areas of land, their freedom curtailed by army, settlers, police. This inequity is the difference between being the occupier and the occupied -- it's the furthest thing from the level playing field necessary for honest negotiations."
Rebecca offered some history around settlements, noting that Prime Minister Shamir saw the settlements as a strategic bulwark against a Palestinian state. She pointed out that this hasn't just been a Likud stance; Yitzchak Rabin, whom many of us revere for working for peace, also supported settlements. She offered a quote from Rabin (also cited in an October 1990 issue of Davar): "For all its faults, Labor has done more for expanding Jewish settlements than Likud with all of its doing. It is we who built the suburbs" -- that's what they call them, she added; suburbs, not settlements -- "in the annexed part of Jerusalem." Israel talks about peace, she told us, but its actions work against peace every day.
Here in the States, she noted, between the presence of AIPAC, and the weapons companies which benefit from US arrangements with Israel, and certain politically powerful branches of evangelical Christianity (which believe that ingathering the world's Jews in the Holy Land is a necessary step toward Armageddon), conversation on these issues has been strangled. The accusation of antisemitism is used to silence critics of Israel or of US policy.
But surely our responsibility as citizens, Rebecca argued, is to be aware of state power and not to trust it blindly. (The Snowden story currently unfolding ought to teach us that.) Given these conditions -- which she described as an ever-worsening human rights situation on the ground, compounded by the US's inability to create a situation of negotiations between equals -- "the peace process," she suggested, "dooms us to something worse than failure: a false hope which perpetuates an unjust situation on the ground."
BDS, Rebecca said, is a movement which allows people all over the world to peacefully act on their values. Palestinians (she told us) have entered into BDS because they recognize that the violence of the second intifada led them nowhere -- and yet, she noted, the American Jewish establishment responds to BDS with the same vitriol with which they responded to that violence, which is problematic.
Boycotts, divestments, and sanctions, she noted, have been employed in a variety of struggles throughout history: boycotts of sugar and rum in protest of the slave trade in the 1700s, in Gandhi's boycott of British goods, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in this country, the use of boycotts and economic sanctions in helping to end South African apartheid. "Israel's situation is not exactly like any of these, but it is similar enough that it's reasonable to think that BDS can work." She added:
"BDS is an economic and cultural tool to impose consequences on Israel where there had been none. These consequences can create emotional reactions for those of us with ties to Israel. But just as previous boycotts did not intend to destroy their targets but sought to make them better places, so now with BDS directed toward Israel."
She explained that JVP participates in BDS efforts which target the occupation specifically. This is what's known as targeted BDS. (I've written about this before; I find the distinction meaningful, though much of the current American Jewish conversation ignores it.)
Rebecca concluded her prepared remarks by urging us:
"Think about the steps that you can take to be part of this growing movement for a just peace in Palestine and Israel. Like the March on Washington, I believe that this is one of the most critical fights for justice in our time."
Then we moved into Q-and-A. Victor Navasky asked: are we better off or worse off without a peace process of some sort? Rebecca said: "This is counterintuitive but we might be better off without one. It gives a false sense of progress, and meanwhile the situation on the ground grows more unjust and less changeable by the day."
"I think the peace process can be extremely dangerous; it can take the attention of people who are committed to peace, and turn them into people who are committed to process. At best the peace process should be treated with skeptical neutrality. We need to pay attention to issues that actually matter, happening day by day. Many in power want us to ignore what's actually happening day by day."
Someone asked: if Israel gives Palestinians the right to vote, will Israel still be a Jewish state? Moriel replied, "I am a proud Israeli citizen and a proud observant Jew, and I don't want Israel to be a Jewish state -- I want it to be an Israeli state. I want to see a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state. In the Israeli state Hebrew would be the national language, and there would be an expression of Jewish communal values in the land of Zion... Israel should be an Israeli state in which each citizen, whether Palestinian or Jewish, has an equal stake."
Rebecca added, "I want to reframe the question and ask: what is a Jewish state? 20 percent of the population there now is not treated equally; is that what we want a Jewish state to be? There are Jewish women being kicked off of buses because Israeli men want their seats; is that what we want a Jewish state to be? ...As an American I support separation of church and state. In America we don't want laws to treat us unfairly as Jews, as a religious minority here. To say that those are my values here but not there...?"
She stressed that this is not an official JVP position --" we don't have a position on one state or two states" -- but, she suggested, "what I can imagine is a confederation -- with a Palestinian autonomous area and an Israeli autonomous area, so that people can live in the communities they want -- with a shared economic framework."
Someone else asked: define what you would suggest that people boycott? Rebecca said, "JVP's position is that we participate in boycott and divestment efforts, mostly divestment, which target the occupation specifically. Granted, sometimes to draw a line between occupation and the instutitions of the state can be difficult -- but we boycott products produced in occupied territories and companies which profit from the occupation, not Israeli products."
Another question after that raised the issue of "normalization," which is a big and complicated issue. There was also an interesting conversation about the pros and cons of economic sanction vs. cultural boycott, and about the current state of Israeli politics. I didn't manage to take notes on all of it; what you've read here is most of what I wrote down.
I'm still reflecting on this event. The film moved me and made me angry and sad -- it impacted me most in the realms of yetzirah (heart) and atzilut (spirit). The panel discussion was enlightening and interesting primarily in the world of briyah (intellect.) I guess the only thing missing was assiyah, action and physicality, since we're on the far side of the planet from where this conflict continues to unfold.
I have long experienced a powerful cognitive dissonance between the Israel of my dreams, and the Israel of lived realities. Between the Israel in which I was taught to believe and hope, and the Israel whose government takes actions and makes choices which I believe run counter to the prophetic vision of justice cherished in Jewish tradition.
I have friends and loved ones who proclaim Israel's shining glories, and friends and loved ones who bemoan her moral failings, and both are right -- though I've found that attempting to translate between those two worldviews can leave me feeling torn apart. (It's hard to live in a place of you don't have be wrong for me to be right.) And I always want to be conscious that the struggle of American Jews like me to reconcile Israel's beauties with Israel's misdeeds is not remotely important. What matters most is the real people who live in Israel and Palestine, created in God's image, whose lives are damaged by this conflict every day.
Because American Jewish discourse around this is so polarized and polarizing, all too often I am silent. I rationalize my choice: I remain silent because I don't want to be the American outsider whose voice is amplified at the expense of those who actually live there; because I am busy with other things; because there are so many different fronts on which I want to help create change, and this one is both far-away and out of my control. But seeing My Neighbourhood reminds me that silence is complicity with the status quo, and that this status quo is not something I want to tacitly support.
Rabbi Alana Suskin recently wrote that depriving other people of their basic rights and dignity is a "defiling of the land" as surely as anything which Jeremiah decried. Seeing this film heightened my sense that she is right.
The film and panel discussion were part of the fourth annual
Donald and Doris Shaffer Memorial Lecture Series in the Berkshires.
Donald Shaffer passed away in February -- see Don Shaffer: In Memoriam -- and this year's series honors his legacy. My gratitude is due to the lecture series organizers for bringing such a thought-provoking event to Pittsfield.
Related reading:My colleagues at T'ruah: the rabbinic call for human rights (formerly known as Rabbis for Human Rights North America) have a powerful collection of resources on Jerusalem, including:
- The Complexity of Jerusalem ("Jerusalem is a beautiful and holy place. // It is also a complicated and painful place")
- and Inside East Jerusalem Neighborhoods ("Palestinians and Israeli Jews have come together in a vibrant non-violent movement to protest the eviction of dozens of Palestinian residents from and influx of ideological settlers into the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah...")
- Also don't miss their resources on the film (including a terrific supplemental discussion guide)
Also worth reading:
- The Unsettling Question of Israeli Settlements by Matthew Duss at The American Prospect
- Is Normalization Possible before Israel Ends the Occupation? by Daoud Kuttab
- Facing Eviction in Sheikh Jarrah: One of Israel's Most Contested Neighborhoods, Sarah Wildman, The New Yorker