Maybe it’s the simple fact that a high-profile film written by a Palestinian is cause enough for Jewish opprobrium. Maybe it’s because the director of the film, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish, and his commitment to any perspective other than the dominant Jewish paradigm is akin to tribal and national betrayal. Maybe it’s because the distributor of the film, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was reared and raised a New York Jew and should know better – haven’t the Jews and their State of Israel had it hard enough?
Or, maybe a cultural malaise has taken hold that’s made it impossible for Jews to empathize with anyone but each other.
That the film ‘Miral,’ a portrait of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen through the eyes of an orphaned Palestinian girl is earning the early ire of mainstream Jewish groups is not at all surprising. It makes perfect sense that a film told from the Palestinian perspective would rouse cries of condemnation from the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and others for being “one-sided” as AJC’s executive director David Harris wrote earlier this week, protesting the screening of the film for the U.N. General Assembly in New York (since when do Hollywood movies have an obligation to objectivity?). Another knee-jerk reaction came from SWC founder Rabbi Marvin Hier who called the screening of the film “anti-Israel” in a widely- released statement.
But this early condemnation is short-sighted and unfair. And not just to the film itself, but to the conversation American Jews might be having about Israel. That conversation, if it has any hope of pushing past party-line radicalism and a peace process stalemate, demands and deserves more than one perspective, as well as a deeper understanding of the ‘other’ – which a film like ‘Miral’ provides.
The Torah, Judaism’s most sacred text, admonishes again and again ‘love the stranger’, ‘remember the stranger’, ‘be kind to the stranger’ because ‘you were slaves in the land of Egypt.’ Have we forgotten? Or have we become so mired in our own neuroses about anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and general Jewish existentialism that we can’t see past our own noses?
Schnabel doesn’t have that problem. In fact, the making of this film became a bridge both creatively and personally. According to Vanity Fair, he met Italian-Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal at a party in 2007 and was so taken with her and the semi-autobiographical book upon which ‘Miral’ is based, he left his wife and committed himself to Jebreal and her story. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself…’
At the panel discussion following the screening last night, Rabbi Irwin Kula suggested that that’s exactly what’s missing in the conflict, noting an egregious lack of empathy on both sides.
“After 63 years of conventional diplomatic efforts, we’re pretty far away right now,” Kula, the president of CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership said. “The conflict has literally crowded out the possibility of empathy on all sides.”
But film, he said, according to a press release, allows people to experience empathy for a character. “As everyone knows you can’t have understanding without empathy. And this film is fundamentally a meditation on empathy.”
Why is it then that when a respected and talented filmmaker such as Mr. Schnabel says that he feels a personal Jewish responsibility “to tell the story of the other side” he is reproved and not praised? Such an admission makes Schnabel one of those rarefied artists with the courage to challenge established paradigms in his work – which, I might add, is a Jewish thing to do. But instead of averring the dignity of his position, and the openness with which he is broaching the Israeli-Palestinian juggernaut, Schnabel is put on the defensive.
“I love the State of Israel,” he said after 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.”
Maybe, when it comes to geopolitical conflicts, there is a problem of perennially bad timing. No doubt Schnabel’s film, which is openly and purposely sympathetic to the Palestinian position, will become the subject of even more undue scorn during a week in which Jewish blood was spilled at the hands of a Palestinian terrorist. Days ago, five members of the Fogel family were brutally slaughtered in their home in Itamar, a settlement in the West Bank. The sad fact of this tragedy will make it even harder for Jewish hearts to open. Especially during a week of tremendous heartbreak and grief, a week in which Jewish blood is up and anger is raging.
But even in grief, it’s a mistake to extrapolate blame for the actions of one man upon an entire people – just as Schnabel’s film about a sympathetic character does not render all Palestinians sympathetic characters. ‘Miral’ is primarily a portrait of one life, through which the plight of a people is surmised. That’s not to say 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 wrong, Jews have hurt Palestinians.
“As a Jewish American, I can categorically state that I would not be releasing a film that was flagrantly biased towards Israel or Judaism,” Harvey Weinstein said in a statement. “‘Miral’ tells a story about a young Palestinian woman, but that does not make it a polemic. By stifling discussion or pre-judging a work of art, we only perpetuate the prejudice that does so much harm.”
Indeed, ‘Miral’ is asking us to pause from our consideration of Palestinians as ‘the other’ and instead to see a people with whom we 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, I fear what that means for the peace prospects of an entire nation—or rather, two.