According to Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times (1/29/14), Secretary of State John Kerry is on an accelerated mission to bring about a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a mission that Friedman says may be the last opportunity for a two-state solution. Without a solution, Israel will continue its repressive occupation of the West Bank and, as its full measure is more widely known, draw an even greater opprobrium from the international community. Leaving Israel a pariah state. Another choice, a bi-national state, is out of the question according to Friedman.
A number of recent films and books can provide you with a better sense of the political and social landscape in the region and help you to conclude whether Kerry’s mission is quixotic or a potential breakthrough.
One good place to begin is the 2009 movie, The Lemon Tree, directed by Eran Riklis. It’s a story of a widow with children who have emigrated to the States. Her only source of income is the lemon grove that her father planted. The small grove is a powerful symbol of her past and it provides purpose for her reclusive life. Her life is complicated when the Israeli Defense Minister moves into a house adjacent to her property. The security forces assigned to his protection detail see the grove as an impediment to the minister’s safety: a place from which a Palestinian terrorist might throw a bomb or fire a bullet. With the assistance of a local Palestinian attorney, she takes the land dispute to the Supreme Court which renders an unsatisfying Solomonic decision. As interesting as is the performance of Hiam Abbass as the put-upon widow, the dramatic weight of the film falls on the charismatic minister’s beautiful wife played by Rona Lipaz-Michale. It is she who sees the injustice of the land-grab which is just one of a thousand episodes of land and housing confiscations in the West Bank. It is she who wants to reach out to her neighbor, in part because both are empty-nesters, but who feels imprisoned in her own house and by the prevailing Jewish narrative. It is she who most fully realizes the psychological cost to the Israelis who ruthless administer the occupation and perceive modest farmers as existential threats to the security of the neo-Zionist enterprise.
A more hopeful story comes from a book with the same title. The Lemon Tree (2008) by Sandy Tolan. Subtitled An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, it tells the story of a 35 year friendship between a Palestinian man, whose family was forcibly removed from their compound in 1948 at the time of the birth of Israel, and a Jewish woman, the daughter of Bulgarian Jews, whose family began to occupy the house in the aftermath of WWII and lived there through the mid-80s. The dispossessed Bashir uses the confusion of the ‘67 war to sneak back into Ramla where he encounters Dalia; thus begins a series of encounters, some highly contentious, in which the parties debate the Palestinian advocacy of the “right of return,” and the world’s responsibilities to the survivors of the Holocaust. The endurance of the friendship is a testimony to the possibilities of human connection and understanding (though no satisfying resolution) through the years of expanding settlements and the two intifadas. Through the story of one house and two people, Tolan examines the many factors that are at the heart of the seemingly unresolvable dispute.
My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013), by Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, is a deeply conflicted though even-handed work. On the one hand, Shavit is proud of the accomplishments of utopian Zionism and the imperfect democracy that is Israel. He lavishes praise on the many settlers who came to Israel long before statehood and “made the desert bloom” and the hard struggles of Jews in the years after statehood. He also finds it remarkable that Israel, with all of its contemporary problems, has become a “start-up nation,” with a booming technology sector that has enabled it to survive the global financial collapse better than other nations. He documents quite well the ways in which Israel has been able to absorb so many different members of the Jewish diaspora from the Jews of Baghdad, Damascus and Tripoli, all victims of Islamic inhospitality, to the post-Soviet collapse Russian Jews who now make up slightly more than 15% of the population. (Today’s Chicago Tribune reports on the 15,000 French Jews who have fled the country of their birth for the safer haven of Israel.) Yet Shavit is deeply troubled by the ruthlessness and cruelty of what the Palestinians call the Nakba, the displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the countless deaths of innocents in 1967 when the occupation began, facts that are denied, minimized, or suppressed by Israel’s propagandists. He is not blind to the Jewish terrorists who blew up buildings to get the British to end their mandate. Nor to the leaders and followers to Shin Bet, the internal secret police, who have made life intolerable for Palestinians with curfews, arrests and imprisonments, often for the flimsiest of reasons. Nor to the ultra-orthodox and zealously xenophobic arrivals who dehumanize Palestinians and argue for the creation of Eratz Israel (the whole of Israel), which would require the removal of Palestinians from Samaria and Judea, the largest parts of the West Bank. It is interesting to watch Shavit repeatedly pull hope out of the mouth of despair at a time when tragedy rather than triumph seemingly has the upper hand.
Max Blumenthal’s recent book (2013) also has a poetic subtitle, but it’s one that provides a quick indicator of what separates his analysis from Shavit’s. Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel is a work that fully documents the loathing of Palestinians especially in the years since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister in 2009, introducing the most right-wing government in Israeli history. It’s an account of the relative ease with which the settlement movement began. An initiative of the secular conservative party joining forces with apocalyptic religious fundamentalists, and facilitated by the indifference and timidity of the liberal party and the undiminished foreign aid from the US, the West Bank settlements now hold an estimated one-half million Israelis. Blumenthal is deeply pessimistic that expansion can be stopped much less reversed. Fueled by fears of a demographic imbalance (Palestinians outnumbering Jews within Israel) and by the possibilities of a third intifada, Israel has only solidified apartheid state. The construction of barbed wire and concrete walls has isolated West Bank Palestinian communities from one another and made it very difficult if not impossible to travel to cities like Jerusalem. In many cases, a wall separates Palestinian farmers from the fields that they till and Palestinian school-children from the schools that they attend. Passage through checkpoints is a tedious and frustrating ordeal. Blumenthal also bears witness to the ways in which the schools and military training are conspirators in the spread of racism. (Military training is universal, though the orthodox Hasidim are currently excused, though that may be changing.) Most alarming is the rise in public rallies against all non-Jews, especially refugees from African countries. Some Palestinian communities in the occupied territories have engaged in Gandhi-like protests and a small group of rebel-activists from both inside and outside of Israel have tried to document Israeli injustices and atrocities, but they are Davids deprived of their slingshots. Many of those without hope of change have fled to places like cosmopolitan Berlin. Opposition parties on the left are routinely mocked or silenced by the extremists in the general assembly. Attempts to block or roll back discriminatory laws are futile. From Blumenthal’s point of view the well-oiled and well-funded Israel propaganda machine of the Netanyahu government has succeeded in convincing most voting Israelis of the righteousness of their cause and keeping foreign critics at arms’ length. While publicly indicating its solidarity with Israel and its people, the Obama administration has resisted Netanyahu’s calls for a more muscular US presence in the Middle East. Blumenthal’s previous book documented how extremists hijacked in the Republican party and here he does the same. Deliberately less even-handed than Shavit, the American Blumenthal has been denounced as an anti-Semite and his book defined as yet another reason why Israel must remain vigilant and exclusive.
Two additional film recommendations, both of which received Academy Award nominations in the documentary category and make for good companions:
The Gatekeepers (2012): a series of interviews with all of the past heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police, many of whom now doubt the wisdom of the occupation.
Five Broken Cameras (2011): a film made by an amateur Palestinian filmmaker that documents a series of protest marches in Bil’in, a small village. The title refers to the need to replace those cameras – primarily purchased to record the early life of his son – destroyed by Israeli soldiers.