March 23, 2011
Can a Palestinian story prompt dialogue for Middle East peace?
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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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