A tale of two documentaries.
The other day New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren did a story about whether The Gatekeepers, the Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary that features six former heads of the Israeli security service Shin Bet denouncing the occupation they all helped to enforce, could change Israeli opinion and save the two-state solution. The article stated that the film had helped transform American Jews, but alas the film is not being heard in Israel:
In the United States the confessions of these tough terrorist hunters have startled and provoked audiences, fueling the criticism among Jewish liberals of the right-leaning Israeli government’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank….
But one of the subjects of the film, Ami Ayalon — who followed his Shin Bet tenure with several years in Parliament — worries that the film will have less impact where it is most important, because “most Israelis who saw it are Israelis who are convinced.”
“Most Israelis are not listening.” [Ayalon said]….
The message of “The Gatekeepers,” formed from the collective wisdom of the six living former Shin Bet leaders, is this: The occupation is immoral and, perhaps more important, ineffective. Israel should withdraw from the West Bank as it did from the Gaza Strip in 2005. And the prospect of a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict diminishes daily, threatening the future of Israel as a Jewish democracy.
I admire the Gatekeepers, I praised it as a riveting and disturbing investigation. But this piece is further evidence of the double standard that the Times has for Jewish and Palestinian visions of the conflict: it grants just one paragraph to a second Oscar-nominated documentary from Israel/Palestine that also shows the occupation to be immoral. But “5 Broken Cameras” is told from the Palestinian point of view, and the Times scants the picture: “a $250,000, intimate movie mostly of video shot by a Palestinian [Emad Burnat, unnamed] who spent years at weekly protests of Israel’s separation barrier encroaching on his West Bank village [Bil’in, unnamed].”
Imagine if there were two documentaries about the Jim Crow South going for an Oscar. And one was narrated by white sheriffs who in their “collective wisdom” despaired about what they were doing, and bracingly compared themselves to Nazis (as one of the Shin Bet guys does).
But another film was narrated by the blacks who lived under Jim Crow, and actually showed you a lynching. Something like the killing of Bassem Abu Rahmah, the beautiful larger-than-life villager who dominates the screen in “5 Broken Cameras.”
I don’t think the Times would have focused on the white sheriffs movie alone.
I have often criticized the Times for being culturally-bound, for reflecting an inside-Jewish-Israel point of view, and that criticism is refreshed by this piece. The writer holds a candle for “Israel as a Jewish democracy.” Is such a thing possible? Isn’t that like saying the U.S. could be a “white democracy”? Daniel Levy writes in the Nation that such a project is impossible and its discrediting is long overdue. Shlomo Sand– himself a two-stater– has a book out saying much the same thing; he wants Israel to be a democracy of its citizens. So does Haneen Zoabi, the outspoken Palestinian member of Knesset. I wish the Times would enter that discourse.
Then, too, the Times article cites the political impact of the film on “Jewish liberals” back in the States. Maybe it’s had that effect, but the Times offers no evidence. It sounds to me like the Times is lobbying Hollywood to give Gatekeepers an Oscar.
I would of course prefer that “5 Broken Cameras” get the Oscar– just as I’d prefer to hear blacks narrate the Jim Crow south, and a lesser role given to the white sheriffs.
And as to the impact of “5 Broken Cameras” on audiences– look at the video that Guy Davidi, director of 5 Broken Cameras, has put together below. It is devastating, and demonstrates why 5BC is a morally-exalted work.
In this film, Davidi screens the movie to young Israeli Jews, who will soon have to go off and be the enforcers of the occupation. And watch how they respond. They identify with the oppressed. They say that they would also throw stones if they lived in Bil’in, and at night the soldiers would come for them. Look at the haunted face of the girl at 1:40. They are angry at the Israeli soldiers. They speak of the Palestinian children’s “gentleness… coping beautifully with the harsh reality.” Look at the thrilling scene of the martyr Bassem Abu Rahmah at 5:30.
Davidi goes to a larger point here: censorship. These Israeli schoolchildren say they knew nothing about the occupation. They have been brainwashed, one man says; this situation has never been described to them in school. They denounce the censorship as censorship.
What movies do Israeli schoolchildren see? Davidi shows the army going into a school to screen a movie about the great Israeli military attacking Lebanon. And a military spokesperson says the purpose is to “establish an affinity with the military,” to keep the young from evading service, and to build national pride. The scene feels fascistic.
But what can I do about censorship in Israel? That’s not my society. It’s a rightwing militaristic society. The U.S. is my society, and the liberal American Jewish community is the community I came out of. Why is the Times censoring material for that audience? Imagine that only the sheriffs got to narrate Jim Crow.
P.S. Yes, Ethan Bronner did write up “5 Broken Cameras” in the Times, but that was more than a year ago. And yes, we cover Gatekeepers ourselves today; Estee Chandler asks the right questions. And we’ve often written up 5 Broken Cameras.