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Jewish Journal

Can a Palestinian story prompt dialogue for Middle East peace?

by Danielle Berrin

March 23, 2011 | 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?”

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