Jewish Journal

Can a Palestinian story prompt dialogue for Middle East peace?

by Danielle Berrin

Posted on Mar. 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Freida Pinto as Miral. Photos by Jose Haro/The Weinstein Company

Freida Pinto as Miral. Photos by Jose Haro/The Weinstein Company

Julian Schnabel must have known that screening a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the United Nations General Assembly would be scene-stealing. To set the town talking, the event would unite all the trappings — provocative subject matter, prestigious venue, Hollywood glamour.

In fact, the March 14 screening of “Miral” in New York drew a crowd of movie stars, diplomats, artists and intellectuals — Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Vanessa Redgrave,  Ambassadors Jean Kennedy Smith and Qazi Shaukut Fareed, and Dan Rather, among them – raising the profile of an event that openly merged artistic prominence and political power. But when mixed, art and politics — while not exactly strange bedfellows — can stir into a complicated brew. And, sure enough, Schnabel’s screening spawned a flurry of protest from some of the most powerful and prominent voices in the Jewish establishment, who accused the film of being “one-sided” and “anti-Israel.”

The next day, a Los Angeles Times headline declared:  “Screening of ‘Miral’ at the United Nations draws protests from Jewish groups.”

The wave of controversy that ensued called into question whether a high-profile film written by a Palestinian and sympathetic to “the other side” was simply too much for some Jews to handle. That the filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish and presenting a perspective counter to the dominant Jewish paradigm was considered a tribal and national betrayal. That the film’s distributor, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is a New York Jew, and a vocal supporter of Israel, was even more unsettling. Haven’t the Jews and their State of Israel had it hard enough?

First to object was David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who, the night before the screening, sent out an open letter to United Nations General Assembly President Joseph Deiss. “The film has a clear political message which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” Harris wrote. “Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself — and the prestige of his office — with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

Next, Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier sounded off: “Last night, when the General Assembly Hall was used for the first time to screen a pro-Palestinian film, marked another sad day in the 63-year-old history of the U.N.’s bias against the State of Israel,” he said in a widely released statement. “It’s bad enough that the 55 Moslem countries in the General Assembly have a virtual lock on the political resolutions there. Now the U.N. wants to extend that anti-Israel bias to the cultural and arts world as well.”

That the screening became cause for Jewish opprobrium seems to reflect deeper issues. Was this a protest of the film itself? Neither Harris nor Hier had yet seen it. Was it, rather, a legitimate complaint about bias against Israel at the world’s preeminent political assembly? Or was it, perhaps, a knee-jerk reaction from the old Jewish guard to anything sympathetic to the Palestinian perspective? Whatever the answers, the conversation surrounding “Miral” is raising serious and important questions about the Jewish response to Palestinian narratives — and, perhaps ironically, perhaps not — that’s exactly what the filmmakers want.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, one member of the post-screening panel discussion at the U.N., suggested that “Miral” offers an important opportunity to approach the conflict with new eyes.

“Everybody should go see it,” Kula, president of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said in a phone interview a few days later, from his New York office. “If you’re a Jew and anything about Israel and Palestinians touches you in any way, you should see this film.”

For Kula and the filmmakers, the hope is that the film will provide rare insight into the Palestinian point of view and inspire dialogue.

“After 63 years of conventional diplomacy, we are now further from a two-state solution than ever before,” Kula said. “We need new forms of peacemaking. Let’s recover personal, intimate human stories, which have been completely clouded out by the political and power narratives.”

Films like “Miral,” he said, offer alternatives to Jewish understanding of the conflict, humanizing individuals on the other side and offering openings for empathy. “Either we live in a moment of pikuach nefesh [“saving a life”], which makes marginalizing and vilifying those with whom one disagrees permissible, or [the reactions are a] projection of repressed, disassociated, split-off guilt about what is happening in Israel that is simply too painful to bear.”

If the early ire of mainstream Jewish groups is any indication, American Jews may not be ready to empathize with Palestinians. For older generations, the historic and seemingly endless suffering of Jews has given rise to the indelible notion that the world is against us. “We all construct narratives to help us get through life, so for a post-Holocaust generation to construct a narrative in which everyone is seen as a Nazi out to destroy us is not crazy,” Kula said. “What trauma does is close down the capacity to trust the other, and we have a traumatized group of senior leadership in American Jewish life.”

For some, that trauma is especially real at a place like the U.N., where an Arab bloc of 55 Muslim countries is outspokenly anti-Israel. The U.N. Human Rights Council, for example, has passed numerous resolutions condemning Israel, while countries with far worse human-rights track records, such as Sudan, get by relatively unscathed. So while the filmmakers saw the U.N. as a powerful forum for dialogue, Harris and Hier saw the potential for an echo chamber of diatribes. And while making movies is an art, and not meant to be objective or balanced, using the U.N. backdrop implies a certain seal of approval for a narrative that is discomfiting for many Jews.

“The moment I hear the words ‘U.N. General Assembly Hall’ — it stinks, because it’s never been open for Jews,” Hier said during a phone interview. “Where’s the film telling Israel’s story? Did they ever show ‘Exodus’ there?”

Hier, himself a two-time Academy Award-winning producer and the force behind 11 documentary films, said he was not protesting the film’s content, but the fact that the location automatically politicized it.

“I’m not saying ‘Don’t screen an anti-Israel film at the general assembly.’ What I’m saying is, ‘Don’t screen it there if you’ve never screened any pro-Israel films,” Hier said. “That’s not the business of the U.N. to tell that side of the story. Their business is to be fair and equitable. If this had been Radio City Music Hall, there would be no statement by the SWC, AJC or the ADL.”

Whether these early reactions indicate how Jewish audiences will respond to the film remains to be seen. For starters, early reviews have been mixed. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote: “Julian Schnabel — whose ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ was so outstanding — has got himself into a terrible muddle with his movie ‘Miral’…  . The movie is unable to tell the heroine’s story in a clear and compelling way, the focus is fatally divided from the outset, and Freida Pinto looks uneasy and miscast as Miral herself.”

Variety’s Justin Chang agreed: “While any film addressing the Israeli-Palestinian divide can expect a measure of controversy, few hearts or minds are likely to be stirred by Julian Schnabel’s inoffensive, well-intentioned ‘Miral.’ ”

And yet, despite critics’ appraisals of inoffensiveness, Harris took to the Huffington Post last week to decry what he sees as general Hollywood reluctance to depict the conflict from the Israeli side: “Too hot to handle, too risky to careers and potentially too dangerous, for life and limb, to be associated with a film seen as sympathetic to Israel.”

But making a film about Palestinians has proven equally knotty for the makers of “Miral.” Both Schnabel and Weinstein have had to defend themselves against critics who invariably are dismissing them as self-hating. One comment on The Jewish Journal’s Hollywood Jew blog read: “We don’t need Jewish Directors, Producers, Actors, etc. trying to prove how ‘even handed/thinking they are’ by joining the mob! Shame on Julian Schnabel. Harvey Weinstein’s mother should give him up for adoption!”

And still, Schnabel has said, it is precisely a “Jewish responsibility” to tell the story of the other side. “We have suffered so much that if anybody should understand the Palestinian problem, it should be Jewish people,” he told deadline.com’s Mike Fleming. Indeed, the Torah exhorts no less than 36 times the Jewish imperative to “remember” the stranger. “One of the essential Jewish sensibilities is being able to understand the other’s position. You can’t deepen your understanding of the truth until you deepen your positions on the other side,” Kula said. With that in mind, what might the world look like the day a Palestinian filmmaker makes a nice movie about Jews?

“I love the State of Israel,” Schnabel was quoted as saying in a press release following the U.N. screening. “I believe in it, and my film is about preserving it, not hurting it. Understanding is part of the Jewish way, and Jewish people are supposed to be good listeners. But, if we don’t listen to the other side, we can never have peace.”

Weinstein was also moved to defend himself against the onslaught. In a statement e-mailed to The Journal, Weinstein wrote: “I am very proud of my Jewish identity and heritage, and any discussion in the marketplace suggesting otherwise is simply not true. My supporting a film about a Palestinian girl growing up in Jerusalem does not negate my love or support for Israel. I believe in this movie, I believe in freedom of speech, and I believe in representing both sides of a story.”

There are, of course, those in more left-leaning Jewish groups, such as J Street and American Jews for a Just Peace, who have sided with the filmmakers and come out in support of the film. “If controversy helps people see this film, I’m OK with that,” Schnabel told deadline.com.

But all the noisemaking may do more harm than good — and not just to the film, but to the conversation American Jews could be having about Israel. That conversation, if it has any hope of pushing past party-line radicalism and a peace process stalemate, deserves more than one perspective, as well as a deeper understanding of the other — which a film like “Miral” provides.

“I really thought I was pretty evolved,” Kula said, explaining how the film surprised him. “I didn’t realize how few stories of normal, regular Palestinians I know. Even for me, Palestinians are really just a species, and that is very unnerving.”

For younger generations of Jews, whose increasing alienation from American Jewish life and especially from Israel has been well chronicled, the hard-line reactions to the film may seem outmoded and off-putting. After all, the idea that anti-Semitism poses an existential threat to the Jewish majority does not reflect current realities of Jewish power at a time when, by and large, Jews are living safer and richer lives than at any other period in Jewish history. And, for its part, Israel today is no longer a scrappy startup, but a robust, democratic nation whose fiercest ally is the most powerful country in the world.

“As soon as people don’t experience their voices being heard in the centers of power, they exit,” Kula said, paraphrasing a book by political scientist George Fletcher. Young people will continue to disaffect from Judaism, he said, if the dialogue surrounding the conflict remains mired in the us/them, good guys/bad guys mindset.

What would it mean to young Jews if the SWC, AJC or ADL, if not applauding the screening, maybe attended it to actually see what the film represents?

“I’m not willing to say that people from the Holocaust generation or post-Holocaust generation are always right,” Rabbi Hier said. “You need new and fresh ideas. But at the same time, you cannot argue that throughout history, fresh and new ideas were always great. Sometimes they were dead wrong.”

However sympathetic Schnabel’s film is to its characters, it does not render all Palestinians sympathetic. “Miral” is, simply, a portrait of one life. Which is not to say that there is no such thing as Palestinian terrorism, because there is; or that no Palestinians deserve Jewish scorn, because some do. But the reverse is also true: Israel has done some wrong, Jews have hurt some Palestinians.

“Miral” asks audiences to pause from seeing Palestinians as “the other” and instead to see a people with whom Jews and Israelis might partner. It is asking us to consider the millions of Palestinians who are not terrorists, who desire economic opportunity, civil liberties and a chance to swim in the Mediterranean Sea.

If, as American Jews, we can’t even watch a movie in peace, what might that mean for the peace prospects of an entire nation?

Or, rather, two nations.

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