[Update: Ajami did not win, but….]
“Ajami” is the Israeli nominee for “Best Foreign Film” at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. However, what promised to be a public relations coup for the Israelis threatens to become a political embarrassment that exposes the wide rift between the country’s Jewish and Arab citizens. The film (the third consecutive Oscar nomination for Israel) has been applauded for its realistic view of life in an Arab slum neighborhood in Jaffa and also for the oft-mentioned multicultural feel-good component; the film was co-directed by two young filmmakers, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti — one Jewish and one Palestinian-Israeli.
Jewish Israelis take pride in their successful artists, viewing them as a reflection of the nation’s creativity, sensitivity and sometimes even what some like to call a “nuanced” political understanding. On the international stage, these Zionist cultural ambassadors work well in obfuscating the image of brutality and repression that usually emerges from the news headlines, whether the subject is discrimination against non-Jewish citizens, the siege of Gaza, the West Bank settlers, the Judaization of East Jerusalem or a threatened attack of Iran. Especially among some Jewish occupation critics, the sensitive artist narrative serves as a useful argument against cultural boycotts, while layering illegal Israeli government actions and alarming popular support for racist policy with the illusion and comfort of hope.
A good recent example of this is “Israel in Focus,” by Eric Alterman in The Nation.
Israeli reality began to intrude into “Ajami’s” directors’ sweet dreams of Hollywood glory shortly after the film received the Oscar nomination a little over a month ago. During a violent confrontation between Arab residents and the police, Copti’s brothers, Tony (who had a minor role in the film) and Jeras were arrested in the Ajami neighborhood for which the film is titled. The brothers charged police with using excessive force, illegal arrest and abuse while being held. Both Coptis were released without charge after questioning.
This week in Jaffa, 300 Israel Arabs demonstrated against the police. In addition to his two brothers, Scandar Copti’s parents participated in the protest. According to Ha’aretz, Jeras Copti, in addressing the demonstrators, said that at the police station his eyes were sprayed with pepper gas while he was in handcuffs. Copti also told the crowd that he was threatened by police and told that what the Israelis did in Gaza was nothing compared to what they will do in Jaffa.
Just hours before the ceremony, Scandar Copti angered Jewish Israeli government officials by declaring, “I am not part of the national team…. I cannot represent a country that does not represent me.”
This quickly brought reaction from Jewish government officials. Limor Livnat, Minister of Sport and Culture, opined: “It is sad that a director supported by the state ignores those who helped him create and express himself…. Happily, the rest of the movie’s team see themselves as part of the State of Israel and are proud to represent it in the Oscars as ambassadors of liberated cultural expression.” Member of Knesset Daniel Hershkowitz eschewed the gentler and nuanced critical style of Livat and spoke directly to the fears of the cultural ambassador types when he warned, “the man who directed the film with Israeli funding might wrap himself with a Hamas flag tonight. If the movie wins an Oscar, it might be a Pyrrhic victory for Israel.”
The chances are “Ajami” will not win the Oscar. My bookie is laying 7 to 1. If it beats the odds and wins, we will then see a real Israeli mini-drama in Hollywood. The plot: will Copti accept the award saying he is not a representative of Israel and what will he say about the real life Ajami?