Imagine if in the U.S. it were illegal to teach about the genocide of the Native Americans or the violent and gruesome system of slavery in North America. Imagine if you could be punished for simply mentioning the suffering of the indigenous people on Thanksgiving, or for questioning the nobility of Columbus of Columbus Day.
In Israel, this reality is not far fetched. Any Israeli institution with public funding that mentions, teaches, or mourns the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) can be fined, and individuals can be sentenced to prison for their involvement.
Recently this law threatened to cause trouble for the Israeli non-profit organization Zochrot as they prepared for their second annual “48 mm—International Film Festival on Nakba and Return” in Tel Aviv.
This year’s festival, which was attended by hundreds of people, mostly Israeli, featured three film shorts made by Israeli directors specifically for the weekend, as well as longer films made in Palestine, Israel, and abroad on the subject of the Nakba and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Highlights of the festival this year included Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours, which documented life inside a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon including the residents’ hopes, dreams, and depressions; Fida Qishta’s Where Should the Birds Fly, a “visual documentation of the Goldstone Report,” that showed Israel’s horrific Operation Cast Lead of 2008-9 against the Gaza Strip and spent time with several young survivors of the attack; and the Israeli premier of the film A People Without a Land, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s compelling documentary that takes a thorough look at both Israeli and Palestinian society before taking on the question of a solution to the “conflict.”
Zochrot, which means “remembering,” is an Israeli non-profit organization that seeks to raise public awareness of the Palestinian Nakba among Israelis, and advocates for the right of return of Palestinian refugees to Israel.
The group believes that the process of Israelis taking responsibility for the Nakba is necessary for any just and lasting solution and so works through different means to raise awareness about the Nakba in Israeli society.
While the group organizes several types of activities such as tours, protests, and forums, they see film and art as a unique way to reach a new audience that otherwise might choose to ignore what they have to say
“We think that through art or through film it’s easier for people to take in things and it’s a way to reach people that may not be reached in other way,” said Shira Hertzanu, the Public Engagement Director of Zochrot. Hertzanu added that though many people who came to the festival could be considered the “expected” crowd, many other people came not for the politics, but for the cinema. “So it’s a way of reaching new people,” she said.
The date of the yearly festival is chosen intentionally to mark the anniversary of the November 29th 1947 United Nations partition resolution, which set the legal basis for the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. This year was the 67th anniversary of the plan, which, as Zochrot described in a statement, “fixated the idea of partition and separation between Jews and Arabs in historical Palestine and was a key milestone in the ongoing conflict and the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.”
“The festival seeks to creatively challenge the partition concept and suggest new pathways for just and equitable life for all of the country’s present inhabitants and refugees,” Zochrot said.
Israeli Government tries to censor the Nakba
This year however, and at a time when the country has experienced escalating tensions over the last couple months, the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport decided such a festival would be pushing things too far.
In the days leading up to the festival Limor Livnat, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, tried to bully the Cinematheque for hosting such an event, demanding that funding provided to the theater by the government be stopped if it is going to host such subversive films.
“It is an unreasonable situation, in my view, when an entity that is supported by the State of Israel enables the holding on its premises of a festival devoted entirely to preaching that the day on which Israel was founded is a day of mourning,” Livnat said in the statement. “The state cannot bear the cost of funding of an entity that encourages debate over what the Palestinians call ‘the right of return.’”
Livnat cited the Israeli “Nakba Law,” an amendment to the Budgets Foundations Law (1985, PDF) which was passed in 2011 and essentially declares it illegal for any publicly funded entity to promote anything that “undermines the foundations of the state [of Israel] and/or contradicts its values“. Such contrary activities include “(1) Rejecting the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; (2) Incitement to racism, violence or terrorism; (3) Support for an armed struggle or act of terror by an enemy state or a terrorist organization against the State of Israel; (4) Commemorating Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning; and (5) An act of vandalism or physical desecration that dishonors the state’s flag or symbol.”
While the law was mainly designed to target Palestinian municipalities rather than Israeli NGOs, many people see it as a blatant form of silencing and a de jure form of the erasure of Palestinian history that has been central to the state of Israel since it was founded.
In their statement Zochrot described the silencing attempt as “another expression of an extreme and dangerous policy [similar to the] censorship common to dark regimes.”
On Wednesday, November 26, the day before the festival was to begin, MKs in the Knesset Finance Committee held an emergency debate over funding for the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque due to its hosting of the Festival.
MK Alex Miller of the Yisrael Beitenu Party who called the meeting described the festival as “a pathetic attempt by the Cinematheque to take advantage of its stage to support Israel’s enemies who look for every way to undermine our sovereignty.” Miller also said he supported Livnat’s call to withdraw the state’s yearly NIS 250,000 budgetary allocation for the Cinematheque.
The attack on the cinema comes in the context of heated discussion around the proposed Jewish State bill in Israel, a law that would potentially enshrine Israel’s Jewish character to take precedence above its status as a democracy.
Yet despite the government’s threat to cut funding, Cinematheque director Alon Garbuz refused to be intimidated.
“It’s not a matter of money,” Garbuz explained, when asked why he decided to stand strong despite the Minister’s threats. “If they cut the budget we would find another source of funding. But it’s the principle of trying to stop a cultural event that I find intolerable.”
Garbuz was quick to add that he thought the Minister’s fuss over the festival had actually helped more than harmed, due to the amount of publicity they received in the newspaper, on television, and on social media.
“So really I have to thank them [the Ministry],” said Garbuz. “It’s been a full house, packed all the time.”
He added: “However, I think I would like to have more people come see the films who are against this festival, those are the ones who really need to see these films.”
Reactions to the Festival
But even for many in the crowd with awareness of the Nakba, the films provided much to learn.
Hertzanu explained how for an Israeli audience, seeing such human stories in the films was important and very powerful.
“It’s very rare to, for example, have such wonderful insights into a refugee camp in Lebanon, or to go inside of Gaza and to see something different from what’s just delivered through the news,” she said.
She described the moment in A World Not Ours when director Mahdi Fleifel’s friend who lives in the refugee camp of Ein el-Helweh comes to him and says, “I don’t want this [how we’re confined as refugees]. I just want to live my life.”
“People in Israel sometimes forget,” said Hertzanu, “because they tend to talk about ‘the Palestinians’ as a whole, so they forget that they’re just like any of us, that they’re individuals and people who just want to live their lives.”
“Or the children in Flying Paper [about youth in Gaza who aim to set the Guinness World Record for most kites ever simultaneously flown]—you could see how they just want to be children. They just want to fly their kites. They talk about the attacks and it’s a part of their lives, but it doesn’t take away their joy and wanting just to fly their kites.
“It’s really hard not to connect,” she said.
Hertzanu added that for many the films also provided a reminder of the need to act.
“The Gaza films really showed how Gaza is forgotten,” Hertzanu added. “There is an attack and all eyes are on Gaza, and afterwards it’s completely forgotten. We can’t forget Gaza. We can’t forget the Palestinian refugees there (and elsewhere) who are being displaced again and again.
“I think there’s something so depressing about it, but it’s also encouragement to keep on doing what Zochrot is doing,” she said.
The festival itself also highlighted the need for more conversation around the Nakba in Israeli society, and the difficulty even for Israelis who want to talk about it to get the words out.
In a panel discussion the first night of the festival, following three film shorts made by Israeli directors specifically for the festival, director Laila Bettermann noted how while there were words in the shorts none of the three films featured people actually speaking on film.
“I think it shows our uneasiness of how to speak about the issue, and even if to speak,” she said. “Our need to deal with [the Nakba] is coming from this sort of non-ripeness. We must speak because we are not yet ready or able to.”
Hertzanu said that she thinks the most important thing to keep in mind is that the Nakba is not just something that was and that happened, but that it’s ongoing.
“Because there is still displacement, it’s ongoing. Because there is still silencing, it’s ongoing. Because there is still discrimination, it’s ongoing.”
As David Ben Gurion once said, “One day the old will die and the young will forget.”
For its part, Zochrot is doing what they can to make sure this prophecy doesn’t become reality.