There’s a good chance that when they announce the winner in the Best Documentary Feature category at the Academy Awards on Sunday night, it will be the Egyptian film “The Square.”
It’s one of my favorite movies this year. Throughout the film, which follows the uprisings in Tahrir Square since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011, it’s as if you’re right there, on the streets, living and sweating with the demonstrators, feeling their pain, their joy, their frustrations, their exhilaration and, ultimately, their uncertainty about the future.
With documentaries, there’s always a risk that real people who can’t act will be dull — that filming a real drama in real time with real people can never be as dramatic as having a genius like Steven Spielberg orchestrate the whole production with star actors. And yet, the film pulls it off. The real people in “The Square” are as believable as Jack Nicholson or Meryl Streep on a good day.
What these people crave, above all, is human dignity. Tahrir Square is the source of their power, the place where they can gather in huge numbers, sing songs, drink coffee at midnight, fight the police and scream for what we in America often take for granted: freedom and opportunity.
But the real drama of the Egyptian story is that these revolutionaries’ only causes are to take things down. There’s nothing good to cheer for. There are only bad people to rebel against.
The people scream to take down the dictator Hosni Mubarak, and after he goes down, millions erupt in a frenzy of joy. A year and a half later, they scream to take down his successor, Mohamed Morsi — who turns out to be even worse than Mubarak — and after he goes down, millions erupt again in a frenzy of joy.
And so it goes.
The tragedy in the film is when people realize the limits of their power. There is absolute clarity in what the people don’t want — oppression and poverty — but very little clarity about how the country can get to a better place.
That’s why “The Square” might be the very best hasbara film ever made for Israel.
As I watched the Arabs of Egypt scream for their rights, I couldn’t help thinking that they were screaming for precisely what the Arabs in Israel already have.
As I watched the demonstrators scream against corrupt Egyptian judges and politicians, I couldn’t help but recall that it was an Arab-Israeli judge, George Karra, who convicted a Jewish president accused of rape.
As I watched Egyptian demonstrators protest the jailing of innocents and bemoan the lack of opportunity in their crumbling society, I couldn’t help but think about an Arab-Israeli woman, Mais Ali Saleh, who recently graduated No. 1 in her class at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
There was no doubt in my mind that every Arab demonstrator in Tahrir Square would be better off living in Israel — that Christians would have more freedom to worship Jesus; that gays, women, minorities and people of all colors and religions would have more freedom to follow their dreams, get an education and benefit from a thriving economy and civil society.
And yet, you’d never know any of this if you see the latest clip going viral on YouTube promoting this year’s Israel Apartheid Week, where Jews like author Naomi Klein associate Israel with the apartheid regime of South Africa and make passionate appeals to boycott and punish the Jewish state.
The hypocrisy of these self-righteous agitators, who pick on the only democracy in the Middle East while millions of people throughout the region live in misery, is mind-numbing.
As they support a high-profile BDS movement that aims to delegitimize all of Israel (and not just the occupation), they are doing a lot more than hurting Israel. They are drawing attention away from the suffering masses across the Middle East who would love nothing more than to have the same freedoms and human rights that their brethren have in Israel.
That is another reason I so love “The Square.” For once, the punching bag and the scapegoat is not Israel.
While the mainstream media is still obsessed with Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, “The Square” cuts through this fog with a missile of truth: The misery across the Middle East has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.
In fact, for all its flaws, Israel is the antidote to this very misery. As Alan Dershowitz has written, “No country in the history of the world faced with threats comparable to those Israel faces has had a better record of human rights, a higher degree of compliance with the rule of law, a more demanding judiciary, more concern for the lives of enemy civilians, or more freedom to criticize the government, than the State of Israel.”
That is the unspoken context that hovers above “The Square.”
During Israel Apartheid Week, pro-Israel groups ought to organize showings of “The Square” and follow these screenings with panel discussions.
Even more, they ought to include on these panels Israeli Arabs who can explain how different their lives would be if they lived in any Middle East country besides Israel. Someone ought to make that documentary.