Update, June 22nd:
I'm putting a long post here, as part of my learning process. Readers may have arrived here thru a link posted today June 22nd.
Jerusalem, march 2006
The official website of the much acclaimed 2005 film “Paradise Now” prominently declares that “from the most unexpected place comes a bold new call for peace”. The director of the film, Hany Abu-Assad, explains that “the film is meant to open a discussion, hopefully a meaningful discussion, about the issues at hand”. Well, let’s discuss.
The film is the story of two young Palestinian men, Said and Khaled, in 2004 Nablus, as they prepare a suicide attack in Tel Aviv. It is a powerful film, riveting, cinema of high quality. The fact that it is blatantly one-sided in its depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian war is not fundamentally wrong: story-tellers, unlike historians, are not required to be balanced, and if their audience comes away feeling they have seen the whole truth, they have only themselves to blame. When it impresses upon us the hardship of Palestinian life in the war that began after the failure of peace negotiations in autumn 2000, it does so in a plausible way; any Israeli concerned about truth and facts knows that the Palestinians are suffering under Israel’s yoke.
Were the creators of the film careful with their facts? Not always. The attackers are apparently brought to Tel Aviv by a venal Jewish Israeli. Such a case has never happened, and probably never will, and one wonders why the screenwriter thought it important. The many anguished discussions for and against martyrdom never quite manage to say that the victims will be innocent non-combatants; instead, the implication is that Israeli soldiers are legitimate targets. When an opportunity to kill women and children arrives, Said recoils. His eventual victims, on a mid-day bus in Tel-Aviv, are almost all soldiers – indeed, armed paratroopers. Most viewers might not notice this, but the Israeli-born director had to know that his portrayal of the purportedly random passengers of a bus is actually quite improbable. Coincidence from an otherwise rigorous director?
At one point the commander tells Said and Khaled that this is the first attack he has launched in two years. It is hard to know what to make of this, given the many dozens of attacks that were prepared in Nablus alone in 2002-2004. Admittedly most were foiled by the Israelis, and thus went unreported in the Western media, but quite a number succeeded. Instead, the film would have us believe that while the Israeli siege is omnipresent, the attacks on Israelis are both rare and retaliatory.
Once in Tel Aviv, the staging area for the final bout of doubts is the parking lot in front of the Dolphinarium nightclub – the exact spot where two-dozen Israeli teenagers were murdered in 2001. Their names are etched into a marble plaque, but the cameraman managed to cut it out of his frame. It seems a gratuitous poke in the eye.
The political situation presented by the film may well be an accurate depiction of what the citizens of Nablus and the Palestinians in general believe to be the truth, but this can be read in more than one way. All of them, from the peace-activist young woman to the recruiter of the attackers, agree that the Israelis are intent upon destroying the Palestinian nation, thwarting all their national aspirations, and controlling all their land. Moreover, although they disagree sharply about what can be done about this, it never occurs to any of them to engage in positive, constructive actions. The most they have to offer is that Israel be fought by legal and political measures. This, at a moment in time where an Israeli prime minister – Barak – had already offered to dismantle most settlements as part of a peace treaty that would create a sovereign Palestine, and where polls were unanimous that a large majority of Israelis were eager to end the occupation. Indeed, during the very months when the film was being made, this majority of Israelis was strengthening the determination of Ariel Sharon to unilaterally move out of Gaza.
At one point Said tells us that he has spent his entire life in the prison of the West Bank, having been permitted out only once, at age six, for medical treatment. This may well wash with a gullible Western audience short on facts, but the reality was otherwise. The Israelis occupied the West Bank in 1967, and until the late 1990s there was practically unrestricted movement between the two geopolitical units, sometimes as an expression of Israel’s wish to erase the erstwhile border, and later because of ineptitude. Large numbers of Palestinians worked legally in Israel until the second Intifada. Israeli reluctance to use full force enabled the suicide attacks of the mid nineties – the heyday of the Oslo process – and those of 2001-2002; the repression depicted in the film, appalling as it is, has successfully stemmed the flow of attacks. The horrendous conditions of contemporary Palestinian life are the result of the war, not its cause.
What then are the motivations of the suicide bombers – or, more accurately, the suicide murderers? The movie makes clear there is no expectation Israel can be beaten by them. Interestingly, Islamic motivations are not given much credence, either. Theological considerations seem mostly to be a backdrop, as one might expect from a film meant for Westerners who cannot conceive of a religious motivation strong enough to lay down one’s life for. What is left is the disturbing understanding that the motivation is an unrelenting hatred for Israel, not for its policies in the second Intifada, but for its unforgivable crime of humiliating the Palestinians. Again and again the talk is of the need to redeem Palestinian honor, even if by killing and dying. And the humiliation as it is described is not new, nor ephemeral, it is longstanding; it is the humiliation of 1948 as much as of 1967 or 2002. It is the insolence of Israel’s existence, not its repressive policies. Said and Khaled do not set out to kill themselves in Tel Aviv because Israel has just assassinated one of their heroes; they signed up long ago, and have merely been waiting for the excuse. In all of the ensuing deliberations, that assassination is never again mentioned, not once.
On this, the central thesis of the story, the film may well be telling the truth. Certainly, a large majority of Israelis are convinced that the Palestinian hatred is so deep-seated and irrevocable that there is nothing to discuss, which is why the peace-camp has diminished into political irrelevance, while Ehud Olmert is poised to win an election from a platform of continued unilateral disengagement. Nothing so underlines the existential chasm between Israelis and Palestinians as their contradictory understanding of the moral obligations of victimhood.
The Palestinians have convinced themselves that they face a fiendish enemy intent upon their destruction, and therefore it is moral for them to consider any action; what remains is to deliberate the usefulness of murder. The many Western bystanders who helped create the film or heaped their praise upon it, accept the basic premise which is that there can be conditions in which such deliberations are acceptable, and the Israelis seem indeed to have created them.
Jews find this line of thinking unacceptable, precisely because they can remember being persecuted, and remember their deliberations at the time. Take, for example, the mediaeval Jewish discussion of Moser. What is the community to do, the Rabbis asked themselves, when a ruler threatens to kill innocent Jews unless the community hands someone over? Is it permissible to assist in the murder of one, in order to save others? The rabbinical decision was that moser – the handing over – is forbidden.
The point being that morality is not affected by circumstances. In a just world, Moser would never be an option. The starting point of the entire discussion is that there can be an external evil so great that it will murder innocent Jews for its own purposes; and that the Jewish helplessness is so complete that innocents will inevitably die. (The rabbis had no illusions about the world they lived in). Given such conditions, the rabbis then discussed not the limits of harm they were allowed to inflict upon their tormentors, but the demands of morality upon themselves.
Seen in this context, Paradise Now well explains why mainstream Israel has written off the Palestinians as potential partners for any kind of rational discussion, let alone as partners in peace. If one assumes that many of the accolades given the film truly regarded it as a bold new call for peace, what, precisely, does that mean? And what does it tell us about the commentators?
Finally, a comment on the dishonesty that underlies the entire film. The story is of helpless Palestinians being ground under by a near-genocidal Israeli occupation. The film was made – under the eyes of Israeli troops – in Nablus, in the heart of the occupation. Eventually, when the situation in Nablus became too dangerous, the cast relocated to Nazerath, within Israel itself, where there was no danger. What a peculiar genocidal power Israel is.