Negative stereotypes can be numbing. One that has dulled our senses for years is that Jews and Arabs can’t get along. Many of us simply take it for granted. Read haaretz.com regularly, and you might even conclude that Israel’s Arab population is living miserably under an apartheid-like regime.
I certainly understand how reporters are wired to focus on the negative, and that good news is not really news. Reading about Israeli Arabs who might be happy under Israel’s democracy and who suffer little or no discrimination is not newsworthy. Abuse of human rights, however, is newsworthy — and that’s a good thing, because awareness is what forces a society to improve itself.
At the same time, though, reading only negative stuff can become exhausting and demoralizing.
Maybe that’s why it was so refreshing to sit with 250 people the other night at Laemmle’s Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills to watch the Israeli documentary film “Dolphin Boy.” The film was presented by The Jewish Journal’s Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival and its executive director, Hilary Helstein, as a preview to our annual festival, which kicks off on May 3.
“Dolphin Boy” tells the true story of an Israeli Arab boy who disconnects from humanity after suffering a vicious beating. The boy, Morad, was assaulted not by Israeli soldiers, but by his neighbors in his Israeli Arab village, who misinterpreted a text message Morad sent to the sister of one of the neighbors.
The beating was so traumatic that when we first see Morad, in a doctor’s office, he is zombie-like and cannot utter a word. His doctor, an Israeli Jew who is a world-
renowned expert on post-trauma care, develops a deep personal and professional attachment to the boy. Over several months, the doctor tries every treatment in the book to get Morad to speak and express himself, but nothing works.
Finally, before committing the boy to a mental institution, the doctor recommends a radical treatment: dolphin therapy (with the state picking up the costs). Meanwhile, one of the endearing stars of the film, Morad’s father, decides to leave his job and accompany his son to the dolphin reef in Eilat, where Jews — and loving dolphins — will help Morad undergo a miraculous three-year process of recovery.
The film challenges more than one stereotype. Of course, there’s the one that Jews and Arabs don’t get along. Even if that is true in many cases, in this story, all you see are Jews and Arabs treating one another like human beings.
There’s also the stereotype that Arabs live for revenge and justice. In fact, early in the film, Morad’s father is tempted to take revenge against the Arab neighbors who attacked his son. Some friends even suggest it. But in a defining scene, with a few friends playing the drums around a campfire, the father gets up, starts to dance and decides that he will devote every ounce of his being to saving his son, because, as he says, “His blood runs through my veins.”
You can’t be human and not be moved by these expressions of love — the love of a father for his son, the love of a doctor for his patient, the love of workers in a dolphin lagoon for a traumatized boy they help bring back to life.
It is this very celebration of life — symbolized by the playful and loyal dolphins — that slowly coaxes Morad back to humanity. How ironic that it takes loving animals to help him regain his trust in humans.
As I reflected on the film, I found myself wishing it would play on Al Jazeera and be seen by millions across the Middle East. That deeply divided part of the world could use an innocent reminder that the truest label we all share is our humanity. Beyond Arab and Jew, man and woman, Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim, we are all part of the same species, sharing primal needs — like our craving for love — that transcend all differences.
“We didn’t really focus on the idea of Jew and Arab when we shot the film,” Dani Menkin, the co-director and producer of the film, told me during the panel discussion I moderated after the screening. “We shot a story of humans interacting with each other. We weren’t thinking of giving a special message. It was just an amazing story that I fell in love with.”
We’ve seen many Israeli films over the years that play to the negative stereotype of the big, bad Israel as the oppressor of Arabs. This stereotype is reinforced by the endless string of news stories describing discrimination against Israeli Arabs and examples of mutual animosity between the groups.
But lost in this big picture are the many little stories of Jews and Arabs peacefully co-existing and treating one another like human beings.
We can only be grateful for films like “Dolphin Boy,” which come along once in awhile to crack our cynicism and remind us that beneath the heavy noise of darkness lies the silent whisper of hope.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.