A new documentary has come out about dialogue. In the Land of Pomegranates offers the hope that by sharing their stories of victimization, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to transcend those myths and learn to get along. The film opened at the Lincoln Plaza in New York last week, and I made a point to see it, because it was long in the making and director Hava Kohav Beller has such a sure hand in telling human stories. But I left the film more despairing than ever.
The central action of the movie is a dialogue project called “Vacation from War” that takes 20-something Israelis and Palestinians to a German retreat to talk about their national stories, so that they might develop more sympathy for the other side. These scenes are riveting/wrenching, even though their emotional focus is on the Palestinians: can they get over their sense of themselves as victims? Alas, they are portrayed by the filmmaker as being indifferent to the Holocaust, even after going to an exhibition on it, and shown to cling to a ghastly foundational story of their own: that someone occupied their house and killed the father and raped the mother, etc., and kicked out the children; now the children have grown up and Israelis expect them to accept the Jewish ownership of the house? No! The refugee’s shoe has more right to that house than the Jews, says one of the young Palestinians.
The filmmaker plainly finds these attitudes to be intransigent and stuck in the past and only productive of more violence. Though the Palestinian anger does produce a breakthrough for one of the young Israelis: a thoughtful woman says that it is incumbent on Israelis to acknowledge the Palestinian story first before insisting that Palestinians must recognize the Jewish right to be there. Maybe she will grow from this understanding, and reach out to Palestinians and help resolve the two victim-mythologies: that is the point of view of this movie.
That view is conveyed by the very positive characters in the piece. Mohammed, the Palestinian organizer of “Vacation from War,” was arrested during the First Intifada and used to hate Jews; now he doesn’t, and he wants other Palestinians to hear the Jewish story, so they understand Jewish vulnerability. A Tel Aviv pediatric surgeon puts aside all political differences with Palestinians so as to treat children with congenital heart defects. A Gazan mother who brings her little boy to him to be healed doesn’t like Israel, but she also puts her feelings aside, and when her boy is saved, she tells the doctor, “God bless your hands.”
That moment is extremely moving; I trembled as she said it. Yet it has nothing to do with politics. The woman goes back to Gaza with her little boy, and Israel soon pounds the heck out of the tiny over-populated strip. Presumably the surgeon also saved the lives of a few Gazan children then too, shredded by the munitions he had paid for.
That onslaught of 2014, Operation Protective Edge, is presented by Hava Kohav Beller as an equal battle between two entrenched sides. Israel smashes an apartment building; Hamas lands a rocket in Haifa. This is a misrepresentation: the force on one side was overwhelming, and the casualty count reflected that, some 2300 Palestinian dead to 13. Among the Palestinians were whole families and 500 children.
The film excuses the imbalance of power between the sides by talking about Jewish suffering in the pogroms and the Holocaust, which is not a real answer. (Beller herself left Germany to move to Israel, then the U.S.) The politics of In the Land of Pomegranates are utterly dismissable.
Yet I found the film very powerful; and it left me despairing. Why? The filmmaker’s most intimate portraits are of Israelis in their homes speaking of terror attacks, notably a family in the Galilee that came apart after the Second Intifada. The husband suffered relatively minor injuries in a suicide attack on a bus. But he soon lost his mind from the trauma and had visions of the bus connected to the cattle cars going to Auschwitz; and spent six months in a mental institution. The family moved to the north to try and stay together; and then the Lebanon war of 2006 came and Hezbollah missiles hit Kiryat Shemona. After that the wife became traumatized, and the family split up.
It’s a scouring portrait of the inescapable violence of the conflict. Most of this violence is being inflicted on Palestinians, and the Palestinian youths on the German vacation are eloquent on this score. They describe routine attacks and killings of family members; and it is hardly surprising to see the militancy in their eyes. Or the obduracy in the Israeli eyes. These young people are so similar on the one hand– attractive, articulate, ambitious — and yet they do not see themselves as having anything in common.
I share the filmmaker’s view that these attitudes, these identities rooted in victimization, need to change if this situation is not to be a struggle to the death (and the Israelis’ attitudes are more irrational, imho). But what will change them? Only politics: a rearrangement of power at a structural level, brought about by international pressure. There too individual hearts and minds are important, but the film gives a complete pass to the ideology of Zionism, the belief that Jews are unsafe in the west and therefore need a nation. American Jews are deeply implicated in that ideology and have real power to change Jewish thinking. That’s the only dialogue that is worthwhile.