A number of documentary makers have produced a very interesting series of short films about the perspectives of those who live in Israel, but do not feel a full member of Israeli society. I only wish in this day of the internet that I could view some of the videos directly.
Israeli documentary cinema
Belonging in Israel
Apr 24th 2008 | TEL AVIV
From The Economist print edition
What does it mean to be an outsider in the Holy Land? A new generation of Israeli documentary-makers examines a thorny questionJonatan Ben Efrat
IT IS no surprise that in Israel, a country constructed around the notion of belonging, many film-makers should choose to focus on what it is like not to belong. A selection of new documentaries screened this month at the Israeli Cinema Showcase in London and at Tel Aviv’s annual documentary-film festival, DocAviv, showed that stories about being an outsider in Israel are an interesting way to explore the country’s subtleties and contradictions.
The ultimate outsiders are, of course, the Palestinians. Until the second intifadaPalestinians could still move relatively freely and many had jobs in Israel. Most are now excluded. As a result, those who do get in are more vulnerable.
“Six Floors to Hell” by Jonathan Ben Efrat follows the lives of a group of Palestinian labourers who have slipped in from the West Bank, as they jockey for odd jobs by day and sleep in the foundations of a mall at the busy Geha Junction in central Israel by night. Contractors happily take advantage of their illegal status to hire them on the cheap, while the police seem content to round them up occasionally and burn their mattresses and other meagre possessions before setting them free again. As they take an evening stroll through a park, one of them wonders at the crowds of Filipino and African guest workers who have been granted visas while they, whose families used to own land there, can get in only by sneaking around checkpoints.
In Ibtisam Mara’ana’s “Three Times Divorced”, Khitam, a mother of six from Gaza who has fled the home of her abusive husband, an Israeli-Arab, battles for custody of her children. In Israel issues of marriage are in the purview of religious not civil authorities; as Khitam and her husband are Muslims their case comes before a sharia court, which, as the film shows, is biased in his favour. Khitam is Palestinian, so her marriage has won her only a visitor’s permit in Israel, not residency or citizenship. She cannot turn to the state for legal aid or asylum in a women’s shelter. “She has no status in this country,” a social worker explains.
A more complex issue is the subtle hierarchies within both Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli society, both of them communities that purport to value unity and common identity. The gaps between Palestinians in the occupied territories and those with Israeli citizenship, which emerge in “Three Times Divorced”, are also evident in Rokaya Sabbah’s “On Hold”. She and her friends from Haifa call themselves Palestinians. They face the job discrimination and racial prejudice that second-class citizens suffer everywhere, but they speak an Arabic heavily laced with Hebrew and their mores and mannerisms are in many ways distinctly Israeli.
This has a fragmenting effect. “In the Arab countries you feel like an Israeli, and here in Israel you feel like an Arab,” Ms Sabbah comments in the film. When one of her friends starts a job at an East Jerusalem art gallery, the Palestinians there, who have Israeli residency but not citizenship, treat her with suspicion too. “I don’t feel I belong anywhere,” she says. Ms Sabbah and her partner are torn between moving to Spain to seek work and staying in Israel; between losing their identity in a foreign melting-pot and having it thrown in their face every day at home.
Meanwhile, torn loyalties dog the protagonists of two films about Jewish-Israelis whose lives span cultural borders. “Yideshe Mama” by Fima Shlick and Genadi Kuchuck follows a Russian who wants to marry his Ethiopian girlfriend. Her parents seem fine with it, but his mother complains that he is bringing “the lowest possible people” into the family. And the almost surreal “King Lati the First” portrays a boy born in Israel to a Senegalese father, Aziz, who obtained Israeli citizenship as a refugee, and a Belarusian mother, Irena, who, being Jewish, got it by the more conventional method.
Lati, who is technically no less Jewish or Israeli than any of his classmates, endures taunts of “nigger” from them. Aziz, who is of royal blood in his tribe, takes Lati on a trip to Senegal to stake the boy’s claim to the vacant tribal throne. Whether this is more for the boy’s sake or the father’s remains unclear; at one point in the film Aziz is asked whether it is fair to load his ambitions on his son, and does not answer. But the director, Uri Bar-On, says that since the making of the film, Lati seems to have gained pride in his origins and self-confidence against his tormentors.
In both these films, Jewishness and Israeliness take a back seat to the conflicts of ethnic identity, but gentle reminders float in the background that Russian and African Jews, though not as low in the pecking order as Arabs, are still not fully accepted as Israelis. “Half of my family was killed in the Holocaust,” says Irena at one point, “but in Israel I’ll always be a Russian.”
Between the cracks
Two other films examine the status of Israelis who, being neither Palestinian nor Jewish, fall between the cracks of identity, with Kafkaesque results. Ohad Ofaz’s “The Boys from Lebanon” looks at the small community of Lebanese Christians who fought on the side of the Israeli army during its 18-year-long occupation of south Lebanon, and who were given asylum with their families in Israel when it pulled out almost overnight in 2000. Barred from their homes just a few kilometres over the border, but stigmatised in Israel where the Jews look down on them as Arabs and the Arabs despise them as traitors, their horizons and ambitions are shrunken.
Pierre, a teenager when he arrived in Israel, wants to be a musician, but the only place he can get an audience is the small town where most of his fellow Lebanese live. His younger brother Massoud starts a basketball team, but sometimes cannot even get a hall to train in because of the hostility from locals.
“The Prodigal Son” is a rare inside glimpse of the African Hebrew Israelites, a group of black Americans who claim descent from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Though not recognised by the rabbinate as Jews, they have managed over four decades to establish a thriving but tight-knit, deeply traditional, teetotal and vegan community in southern Israel. A few years ago they were given permanent residency, and full citizenship is now probably only a matter of time.
One of them, Ben Halahliel Mercer, a film student, took up a camera to record his elder brother, Kathriel, who decamped to Tel Aviv for a life of freedom, girls and booze. Kathriel’s dilemma is not unlike that of Ms Sabbah: to escape the strictures of his community he has to surrender his identity in a foreign society. But in his case it is one that will always treat him, a black non-Jew, as a lower-class alien.
One thing all these films show is that for all their clannishness, Israeli society’s various subgroups are also remarkably open to well-meaning interlopers. Mr Mercer’s community is probably the only one to which an outsider would have real trouble getting close. Mr Ben Efrat is a Jew and Ms Mara’ana is a Palestinian-Israeli, but he seems to have gained just as much trust and access to his Palestinian subjects’ private thoughts as she has. What distinguishes the films in this crop made by outsiders to the community from those made by insiders, if anything, is that being more detached, they are more keenly observed.
A light-hearted respite from all this cultural anguish comes in “Circumcise Me” by David Blumenfeld and Matthew Kalman, a film now just starting the festival circuit. Its subject is Yisrael (formerly Chris) Campbell, an ultra-Orthodox Jew born a Catholic Irish-American. Mr Campbell has turned his experiences of conversion—he had to undergo the process, including a symbolic circumcision, three times before being certified fully kosher—into a stand-up comedy show. His show, which is the main content of the film, manages to be both hilarious and moving, as when he describes how, planning his wedding at a Jerusalem hotel at the height of the intifada, he had to haggle over the number of armed security guards the hotel would provide, and simultaneously realised that he had now thrown his lot in with the Jewish people “more deeply than I had ever thought possible.”
His story is a bittersweet contrast to the others, for it shows that it can be easier for an American convert to Judaism to feel fully Israeli than for a Jewish-born Russian or Ethiopian, let alone a Palestinian who can trace her family history on the land back for generations. If Israel were a true melting-pot those divisions would melt away. But it would also be a far less interesting place.