‘The Settlers’: And How This Documentary Fails To Bring Value

Originally published on The Times of Israel on 3/12/17

I’m not sure who Shimon Dotan was aiming for. He certainly couldn’t convince me. But then again, what did he try to convince me about? Let’s discuss Shimon Dotan, Romanian-Israeli filmmaker’s new movie, The Settlers.

When you do a documentary film, you must have a punch line in mind. Or not. But then you get what I’ve got after watching The Settlers: nothing really.

In fact, I left with a bad mouth taste. The only thing I could think of was how biased this movie really is, and perhaps it serves nothing more than a self-fulfilling cinematic work. (Which, I can accept, after all, we all need a creative outlet.)

And as I don’t like thinking alone and I usually don’t leave any event without interviewing a few people, I asked two guys how they felt about the movie. They were both Jewish – and that is what I wanted, to talk with Jewish people about this.

One of them was raised as an observant Jew but never been to Israel before. As he said, however, he was taking the current Israeli situation very seriously, and the movie showed him how complex this issue really is.

I really love talking to strangers, and see how their eyes tear up as they start talking about Israel; a country they have never visited yet.

The other guy told me, the movie made him lose all hope that there is a way to make peace and the 2-state solution is clearly an utopia. Hearing that I am from Hungary, he asked me if I find any kind of parallelism between my history and Israel. Clearly, he was talking about the Russians.

“They came to occupy you, no?”

“Depends on who you ask: according to them, they came to free us.”

And that is what Dotan’s movie is about: stretching the definition of what is occupation, what is a settlement, what is a held zone.

The whole movie is one-sided. Intentionally. It was the aim. To show the Jewish side. It only brings in four Palestinians for a quick snapshot, but it shows an extensive layer of Jewish sub-communities who breathe and live for their ideology.

“Are you a settler?” The movie starts with Dotan asking the same question over and over to different Jewish families. Some struggles to answer, some take pride in being part of the settlement movement.

What bothered me the most is that if Dotan – who is evidently representing the left wing’s views in Israel – wanted to produce a documentary that shakes things up, why didn’t he do it?

If I’m already on the left side, he didn’t show me enough.
If I’m on the right side, he certainly didn’t change my opinion.

While the cinematography offered a peaceful 2-hours dear escape to Israel, the narrative was lukewarm.

Halfway through the movie, I set myself up for a challenge and decided to continue watching it as if I would have nothing to do with Israel, if I would have never been there, wouldn’t live with an Israeli.

It didn’t work.

Dotan couldn’t tell me why Israel deserves the apartheid story.

My only fear is that if this movie – that is widely praised by the New York Times and others, – is watched by people who dislike Israel, how much harm it does?

Dotan lined up a strong ideological Jewishness by interviewing the forerunners of the Gush Emunim, and today’s far-right grassroots (the hilltop youth movement) who want Israel all the way till Iraq, picturing Israel as a group of fanatic people who pray, fight and conquer lands.

Obviously, this is not the way to go. And while I personally am against fanatism – from which the movie displays a lot – that is the minority in Israel and not vice versa. And as a documentary maker Doran has a responsibility, and he can’t or shouldn’t assume that everybody knows this and that his movie won’t fuels hatred even further. I need to note here that the movie is screened in New York exactly during the Israel Apartheid Week around the US Colleges that, by itself, fuels hate and anti-Semitism. Innocent mistake or a conscious decision? We’ll never know.

The only place where The Settlers brought some value was towards the final scenes:

Israel can’t have it all. Israel can’t have democracy, ideology, and a full-fledged stretched state.

So what is the solution then?

The movie is filled with maps, dates, documents, and first-person sources, with a clear narrative that the settlements are the cause and reason for today’s troubles. It mentions the government’s push and pull games, by not approving and not disapproving the settlements. It brings up Yitzhak Rabin, the only Prime Minister who clearly did something against the settlements to establish peace; but it doesn’t mention Netanyahu and his current expansion of settlements at all. (About this I would ask Dotan. Why not?)

One thing is for sure: even if you have strong values, you need to test yourself and if it means watching a 2-hour movie that brings you to uncomfortable places, let it be. The Settlers was good enough for that.

 


And something to add: as I was exiting the theater a woman handed me over a piece of paper. I hoped it would tell me something about the movie. But no! Instead, it was the usual propaganda paper that I get at every event where BDS is present. It didn’t make the case any better. The movie was already on your side, value my freedom and let me go to a cinema without getting political propaganda.



“Really? A Jew?” – 5 real life snapshots beside an Israeli

What do you do when your taxi driver displays three Palestinian flags in his tiny car and then asks you: “where are you guys from?”

I tell you what you do, as I’ve learned during the last 5 years: you don’t answer the truth. And that hurts. And it makes you upset. But this is what you do.

Here are 5 snapshots from the last years that I lined up a year ago. The list grows each day.


Originally published in the Times of Israel on 11/24/2015

***
Being The Girlfriend of Him is not easy. No, not because he would show some very Mediterranean traits now and then, or because he could eat za’atar and Tahini for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or not because he cheers for this weird basketball team called Maccabi. (Weird means: I found the word entertaining).

No. Living with Him is not easy because his passport states: Israeli citizen.

Since I have 10 minutes, I share with you 5 recent conversations just to give you a glance at my life, at our life and what it means to be with an Israeli when you’re not an Israeli, and you’re not in Israel. (You know only 5 because writing takes longer than talking. Otherwise, I would just give you the 10.)

***

Four months into our relationship, one of my best friends – thought, believed, hoped, since then gone best friend – pointed me the question: “Really? A Jew? You needed to get together with a Jew?”
I never saw him again. He never called again.

***

“Yes, my boyfriend is from Israel”.
“Tov-tov, but you [sic] ima Jewish?”
“No, my Ima is not Jewish.”
“You must convert then.”
“I must?”
(Subway talk in downtown Manhattan with an Orthodox Jewish man (!))

***

“Watch him.”
“Why?”
“Because he is OK for you not being Jewish now, but once he puts the ring on you, he will want you to be Jewish.”
“No, I know he won’t.”
“So then his Mother will for sure, they are the worst.”
“His Mother passed away, she will not. And even if she would be alive, she wouldn’t.”
“Well, you know, but I would be very careful”, said my Jewish-hater Jewish classmate at NYU.

***

“Yes, we live together”.
“And his name is this?” (the clerk points on my boyfriend’s ID card)
“Yes, that”.
“Where are you from Sir?” (suddenly, I stop being important)
“This is my file; I think we can focus on me”. (I insist assertively, as I learned)
“But Sir, you’re not European, right?”
“I am British”, says my boyfriend, who indeed has two passports.
“But, you are not British for sure. Where are you from?”
“I am from Morocco”.
I see how my boyfriend is controlling himself, and yet, his little vein on the top right corner of his head gets thicker and thicker.
“Ah, salam aleikum – says the bureaucrat at the local, Belgian commune with pride.

When we leave, I am mad at him. Not the clerk, but my boyfriend.
“Why do you lie about yourself?”
“I don’t lie.”
“Yes, you do. You are not British; you are Israeli, be proud of that.”
“Yes, but this is your file, and I didn’t want to give you trouble.”

I am still mad. Not at him, but the clerk.

It’s not the first time he does this. I mean, it’s not the first time that my boyfriend becomes Marrocconian for a few minutes. He says Morocco, because he’s some roots there, and it eases situations when needed. And it’s needed.

***

“I would take out Hebrew from your CV”.
“But why?”
“Because it can close doors for you.”
“But what if I don’t even want to enter those doors?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if I don’t even want to work in a place where I can’t talk openly about my next visit to Israel, or that my boyfriend is from Israel.”
“So, get prepared for some closed doors, my dear.”
(Said an HR agent in midtown Brussels)

***

And for the last four years, I am preparing for those closed doors. And they do come. But what nobody told me that I would get some other doors opened. And perhaps, I’m happier this way.



Can Artists Heal Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Originally published on the Times of Israel on 12/12/2015

To cut it short: I work for Artists 4 Israel, or rather work with them. But it’s not why I write about them. I write because they are on a mission, and I can’t be there. I write because what they do needs to be acknowledged. I write because you need to know they exist.

It is exactly a year ago when I was searching for volunteering opportunities in New York, and for some unexplainable and odd reason, I wanted this opportunity to be related to Israel. I came across this group of artists, called Artists 4 Israel, who find their creative outlet in graffiti – something that I did not necessarily think high of until I visited Tel Aviv and then got hooked on it in the up-and-coming Bushwick, NYC.

I looked them up, checked their projects and reached out to the Executive Director, Craig Dershowitz. A young guy from Brooklyn, whose body – as far as I could tell from the pictures – is filled with tattoos. He represented something I never felt cool enough to belong to.

“But is it OK that I am not Jewish?” – I asked him.

We talked for an hour, and I was bought. He suddenly represented everything that I value. I will spare you my intellectual crush on him – you can reach out to him and be challenged on the spot (I am sure he wouldn’t mind, would you, Craig?) – but I signed up to help him and Artists 4 Israel a good few months ago and my drive is unbroken. (Just think, how cool someone has to be for me to work after my full time job and wanting to spend my free hours helping his projects to come true? You got the point, right?)

Today, Craig and his team are in Israel. It’s not the first time and safe to assume that it’s not the last either. They were born under the Hamas rockets, back in 2009. Since then, they have been to Israel for quite many times with a rich pool of ideas as to how to support the cultural freedoms of Israel through direct social service actions. This is how they ended up beautifying Netanya’s crumbling shuk or rebuilding the communities affected by Hamas’ attacks in Ashdod, Beer Sheva, Kerem Shalom, and Dolev.

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Netanya shuk by A4I

The set up is always the same: bring together the world’s greatest artists and without a political agenda take them to Israel and create something for the local community. This apolitical but firm stand for the freedom of art, creativity, and expression creates an extremely strong and bonding community. Artists, Jewish and non-Jewish, get the chance to visit Israel (and no, not only the smoothened tourist paths) and learn more about the real Middle East. After all, they say, you should only believe in what you see.

So these guys come, see and leave with a giant hole in the convenient misconception bubble that we all learn from here and there (yes, I refer to the media).

But there is the other side of this group: the one that puts its efforts to fight PTSD and let me type it out to get the heaviness of it: post-traumatic stress disorder. In children.

I know that if you live in Israel, these words don’t carry the weights anymore as they should, but I never forget the first time I heard: ‘Azaka.’

Today Artists 4 Israel is in the Kibbutz of Kerem Shalom, and as I can’t be there, I asked Craig to tell me more about what they do.

“‘Qassam’ ‘Tzeva Adom (Red Alert)’ those were the first two guesses while playing a warm-up game of Pictionary with children in the Kibbutz of Kerem Shalom on the border of Gaza. There is very little else to say about the fear and suffering of these youth when those are the words of our children.”

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Healing Art Kits prepared by A4I supporters in London

Last week Craig and the team called for some enthusiastic manpower in New York to help to pack their Healing Arts Kits, a groundbreaking therapeutic system that helps kids to overcome their fear and reduce stress when things happen. And we all know: they do happen.

“Delivering Healing Arts Kits to every single child in Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Zeelim was our greatest investment. Not only did our art therapy on this trip lift their spirits now but the protective and preventive nature of our Kits will protect them in the future,” continues Craig.

Healing Arts Kits are the result of years of cross-professional work: psychiatrists, emergency first responders, art therapists, artists, teachers, and parents left their experience, know-how, and personal mark on the kits. This time, A4I went to Israel to distribute more of these Kits, and to work with children. The seemingly simple kits are extremely powerful, and I am aware of the messages we get from the United Hatzalah and others saying how the kits work by distracting and calming the kids.

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Healing Art Kits in action

If you look at some hard-core facts, you understand that these kits are not for nothing: Over 40% of Israeli children are believed to suffer from some form of PTSD. This number reaches 80% in children living in Israel’s south areas.

“Watching graffiti artists from Tel Aviv join with art therapists from Jerusalem all to help their brothers and sisters on the border of Gaza reminded us that the Israeli people are one; that they are diverse and that they are unconquerable when united.”

As Craig continues, I am reminded once again why I reached out to them and why I wanted to share with you something about this bunch of extravagant artists, who, as I was once told, only look rough on the edges.

Over the years, Artists 4 Israel delivered over 300 kits into schools, homes, and bomb shelters. And while the outpouring love towards and within the A4I community is exceptional, here is why it works: because everything is reciprocal. When I asked Craig what is the one thing he really wants to tell here, he said: “my thank you”.

“Special thanks to Ram, Or and Sol of Tarbut, Spankism and Sunny Souza and our team of art therapists who came out on short notice to assist us led by the passion and expertise of Ariela Robinson. Thank you to Jeff Aeder, his daughter Sadie, Team Daniel and United Hatzalah for having the generosity and vision to make this program a reality.”

This is Craig. This is Artists 4 Israel. A group that actually walks the talk and stands for something we all cherish: Israel.