art of resistance, Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

(Interview) Eyal Sivan: God doesn’t exist, but he promised us the land.

izkor/Photo: Izkor/

Documentary filmmaker and theoretician Eyal Sivan was born in Israel, which he left in 1985 and settled in Paris. Known for his controversial films, Sivan directed more than 10 worldwide awarded political documentaries and produced many others. (Common State, 2012., Jaffa, 2009., Route 181, 2003., The Specialist, 1999., Izkor, 1990…).

He is the founder and was the first Chief Editor of South Cinema Notebooks – a journal of cinema and political critic edited by the Sapir academic college in Israel where he lectures regularly. In the last years Sivan was Reader (associate professor) in media production at the school of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI), at the University of East London (UEL) were he was co-leading the MA program in Film, video and new media.

Three of Sivan’s films were shown during this year’s Human Rights Film Festival in Zagreb and Rijeka, and he also held a masterclass lecture about political and historical documentary filmmaking. We talk with Sivan about the political behind the filmmaking, zionism and the use of memory, and the shift of paradigm in relation to Palestine and Israel, and the conflict that has been shaping the Israeli-Palestinian society for decades.

Doing documentaries the way you do them, engaging in direct political cinema, what are your biggest concerns and responsibilites? What do you need to “get right” when approaching the stories in an openly political manner and dealing with diverse historical narratives and alternative viewpoints?

I don’t think there are fears in doing what I do, but there is question of duty. The question is not to make propaganda, the question is how to provoke thinking, how to provoke debate. The contemporary society, the society we live in, values mediocracy and non-thinking. We have many examples, the most recent one is Trump, a star of a reality show becoming a president. It shows how we value the show before the content.

My biggest political critique is the question of equality. I wan to put together a notion of equality between me and the spectator – I believe that the spectator can think and is inteligent. I am trying to be coherent between my political demands and my ethical views. I am not afraid of discussion, I am not afraid of thinking. On the contrary, I am afraid of all the opposite. I am afraid when people are giving answers before posing the questions. That is why I believe that my films that were done twenty years ago are still alive in the debate. It’s not so much about the fact that the situation didn’t change in the Arab world, it’s because those are films that go beyond the actual momentum.

What’s interesting to me is that a lot of times in cinema, political cinema is discarded as less of an art. There is also an establishement agenda saying that the more openly political you get the less acknowledged you might be as an artist. Even in the documentary filmmaking, there is more and more emphasis on aesthetics, on the experimental in relation to the medium, and less regard for the content.

This is a part of the post-modern relation to art in general. First of all, the history of documentary filmmaking is very political. My work, especially for the last couple of years, as a director and as a teacher, deals greatly with the critique of documentary filmmaking, especially when it comes to colonialism and colonial anthropology. When we go back to the invention of cinema, look at the first films by brothers Lumière – they first sent their cameras to the Orient. In that sense, documentary filmmaking promoted the idea of otherness, it helped establishing “us” in relation to “them”.

Here, we could quote Godard – tell me what’s a non-political film? Animal documentaries are very political, pornography is very political. All the films are political, especially those that are presented as non-political. The question is not about the political cinema vs. the non-political cinema, the question is about making films politically, or not making films politically. The question is about the political conscience behind it. If we think about the history of documentary filmmaking, the masterpieces are the most politically made films. The point is, and this is what I always say to young filmmakers, to ask – why you on this subject?

Just an example – the easiest is me Croatian, me Israeli, me American, going to shoot the peasants, the traditions – that is humanitarian cinema. Political cinema is when I am bourgeois filming the bourgeoisie.

Let’s discuss you, Israeli, on Israeli identity. In Israel there seems to be a big emphasis on Jewish identity in opposition to Israeli identity. We can argue that emphasis on Israeli identity would be a more inclusive one. Why is that so, why wasn’t there a greater effort in creating a citizenship identity?

I’m not sure I would completely agree with that division. I think that the emphasis is not between Jewish and Israeli identity, the emphasis is on Zionist identity, which is very different. It’s important to remember that Zionism, i.e. Jewish national movement, was established against Judaism. If Judaism was characterized as religious and cultural identity, Zionism tried to transform that identity into a national one – what I call the nationalisation of Judaism. Israel is, in that sense, the nationalisation of Judaism.

Let’s rephrase the question – why the emphasis on the Zionist identity instead of the citizenship identity?

It is because Israel was established as a state for the Jews, which makes Israel a racist state. It’s not a state that practices racism, there are many states that practice racism. There is a difference between state racism and a racist state – in Israel we have both. In France we have state racism, but it’s not a racist state because it is based on the idea of citizenship.

Israel is based on the idea of a state for Jews only. What is interesting is that most of the founding fathers of Israel, coming from Eastern Europe, were secular and they called themselves socialist, although I wouldn’t call them that. They wanted to break with the religion and were atheist, and I would summarize their position into a sentence that is – “God doesn’t exist, but he promised us the land”. That is the internal paradox of Zionism.

Now, why aren’t there any efforts to change that – because the idea is all the time to keep the privileged, let’s call them the white society, the dominant ones, in power. It’s like asking the question why our society is a patriarchal society – it’s to keep the privileged privileged. It’s about domination. It brings us to the conclusion that Israel has the structure of the settler colonialist society, just like it was in South Africa, or in the USA until the 70s. It’s about the idea that segregation is a possibility to give the power to the certain parts of the society and at the same time maintain the status quo and pretend you are a democracy.

students/photo: Izkor/

In relation to that, one thing that’s interesting in your film Izkor, is that it touches on the issue of the lack of representation of the Mizrahim Jews in the Israeli society. So, yes, Israel is a Jewish state, but there are also differences in relation to what sort of a Jew you are, how you look like, where you come from.

Every segregated society has nuances to it, it’s never black and white. That was the case in South Africa and that is the case in Israel. It’s interesting to see two things in Israel – one thing is that we have a segregated society, we have a majority, European Jews, that are the dominant ones in power, then you have the so called oriental Jews, Mizrahim Jews, which are in fact Jews originally from the Arab world, then you have the Ethiopian Jews which are even lower in society, and in the end you have the Palestians at the bottom.

Israel, with its western ideology, played into the orientalist notions which are that the Orient is primitive, non-rational, etc. Which means that the for the Western Jews Jews from the Arab countries didn’t look Jewish enough. To be Jew would be to also be white, to deny the fact that you are oriental, to deny the fact that you are an Arab. Unfortunately, Oriental Jews were used against the Arabs in Israel.

In what way were they used against the Arabs?

First of all, they were used in order to deny their identity. If you look at the way the Israel presents itself to the outside world, it is very much western – even here in Croatia, I saw so many books by Amos Oz. Why is Amos Oz popular? Beacuse his wiriting is close to the West, it is familiar, there is a recognition between his writing and the western readers.

Now, with the Oriental Jews the story is different. There are two great catastrophies of Zionism – one is what happened to Palestinians, other is what happened to Mizrahim Jews. In the case of Mizrahim Jews, the tragedy is that they had to choose between two parts of themselves. What happened is that the masses of the Arab Jews, in order to prove that they are not Arab, became the right-wing masses. Obviously, this poses the question of the integration – for the future of Israel and any other state in the Middle East.

The question is how to become a part of the society? In Israeli case, the ones that can be the bridge, the ones that belong to the both worlds – are the Oriental Jews. They have the culture, they have the memory, even if it is a denying memory at the moment. It is stupid that we have to repeat all the time that the genocide of the Jews happened in the West. There was no genocide or persecution of Jews in the East, in the Arab world, in the Muslim world. Suddenly, the former anti-semitic countries are becoming the best friends of Israel and the Arab countries are looked at as the enemies. I always like to say – if there’s any fear in me as a Jew, it’s always from Europe.

What about the Arabic language, and the ways it was suppressed in the case of Oriental Jews?

Most of the Oriental Jews, second and third generation, they don’t speak Arabic at all. It’s not only that they don’t speak Arabic – they were ashamed of their parents, of the music of their parents, of the language of their parents. Why? Because what was valued was western culture. I was never ashamed of the fact that my grandparent talked Yiddish, I couldn’t be ashamed because in school the western writers in Yiddish were very valued. It made me feel acknowledged, I could recognize myself in school, while the Oriental Jews of my age, from Iraqi families – never found themselves in the books.

Another paradox is that the popular culture, even today in Israel, is the oriental, eastern culture. People are listening to that sort of music, for example. But it is important to make it clear that while it is the majority of the population – it is a minority culture. The culture of the state, on the institutional level, is western, and what Israel presents on the outside is western.

What’s really interesting in terms of shaping of the identity in Israel is the obligatory army service. You also deal with that in Izkor, posing the question do we raise people to be good soldiers, is that the aim of education? Maybe we could discuss that a little bit – how important is the obligatory army service in shaping the minds of the young men and women in Israel?

It’s fundamental. The army in israel is not a question of the military, it is the question of the making of a citizen. That is the collective element. I think that had a huge effect on me personally – I think I took such a perspective distance from Israel because I didn’t do my military service. The military service, coming at the age of 18, is castrating the critical ways of the youth.

What is means to be 18 or 19? It’s time to fuck around, to take drugs, to think you can change the world, to rebel… But if at that age, after high school, you end up in a system that allows you to cope only through obedience – it is castration of the critical element of the youth. It’s also the time of building up the illusion of fighting on the good side, of being only the victims – and that becomes a permanent position later on in life.

Imagine it, you’re 17, you’re at home, you’re fighting with your family, you’re challenging the hierarchy and authority – it is all normal, and then you go to the army and obey somebody who is a couple of years older than you. You are not a woman or a man anymore, you are a soldier. I remember the shock of visiting my sister in a military base when she was doing her service. Hundreds of girls, all looking the same, with the same clothes, with the same haircut – exactly the contrary of youth, of how things are supposed to be at that moment in their lives. It transforms you from an individual into a collective.

What are the experiences with your students, after they do their army service?

It happens that I am meeting my students after they did their army service and most of them go to Asia and South America to smoke dope and they are trying to liberate themselves. After that they go back to university and they say the same things, they have the same reactions, they are like robots of the system but they think that they think individually. Why? Because they were put in an uncritical system in the moment when they were supposed to be most critical.

And that is only one aspect of it. We can talk about all the others things – how it gets us into a situation were we have a society of traumatised people and we have a society with extremely high rates of domestic violence. When violence is legal, where will you draw the line? And all of this is not even talking about Palestinians – it’s only about the damage done for the Israeli society.

Izkor revolves around the question why do we (choose to) remember, what it serves, what is the purpose of it – talking about the collective memory. In the film, the protagonists don’t know how to answer that question – they know they need to remember, but can’t explain why.  We could maybe talk about the role of memory in Israeli society and compare it with the role of memory among Palestinians, like the memory of Nakba. Why is it, in the Palestinian case, important to remember and (how) does it differ from Israeli case?

This question is important because it raises a bigger discussion. A film that is only local remains a discussion anegdote, and that is not enough. The film has to be an example which reflects on the bigger issue. Izkor is produced in Israel, done in Israel, about the Israeli society, but at the same time – Israel is my lab. It’s the place to go from to talk about something bigger.

We can discuss the role of memory among Palestinians, or the role of memory in Croatia – how do we compare the memory of oppression in communism against the memory of Ustaša regime. Those are the questions we all face.

The question here is to understand what is memory. The idea of memory is that it prevents oblivion. That is rubbish. I am saying like Goethe said – when I hear the word memory, I wonder what was forgotten? Always when there is memory, there is something that is forgotten. That is the case with collective memory, but also with individual memory. You always forget certain things in order to keep others – that is how memory works. Memory is an interaction between keeping and erasing, just like cinema.

It’s like a frame – it is built of what is there and what is not there. You have to forget in order to keep, you have to hide in order to show. The question is what happens when power, social power, political power, comes into the story and considers that there is good and bad memory, that there are things that should be remembered and things that shouldn’t be remembered.

commonstate_pic2_en_copy97689/Photo: Common State/

That is where we see the difference between collective memory and individual memory.

Exactly. Individual memory doesn’t regard anyone beside itself, while collective memory is imposed, it’s always a tool. Collective memory, always in the history, is between two figures – victim and hero. Where are the collaborators, the cowards, the perpetrators? They don’t exist. In Israel it is obvious. We have the memory of shoa, the memory of us as victims of Second world war, and the memory of Ghetto uprising and the heroes of the wars. It’s like in Hollywood cinema, were you also only have victims and heroes. But real life isn’t like that.

Through Izkor, which is a sort of climax of memory in Israel, it becomes obvious that the problem is when you build your national memory or your collective memory, you end up in a binary division – “you” vs. “me”, “they” vs. “us”. In relation to Palestinian memory in the Israeli society, we have to look at what is being erased. The question is to emphasize not what is remembered, but what is forgotten in the process of memorization. It is also important to understand something that is an illusion that was built up after the Second world war, a total western illusion, that memory is like a vaccine, that people will give memory to young generations and they will be vaccinated against doing what was done in the past.

That is not correct. If we look back in recent history and recent wars, we see that people fought in the name of their memory. Because of the memory they felt they were victims and they allowed themselves to be perpetrators and considered that all that they are doing is self-defense, like the Israelis. If I am building my identity on the fact that I am a victim, even if I am the attacker, it shows that memory can be a tool of violence, and not a tool against violence.

You’ve talked now how the stories we tell have been changed after the Second world war, and your film Jaffa: The orange’s clockwork deals a lot with that. Through this product, a brand that was formed, the whole history of the land and the people was also changed.

With the process of building a national memory there are objects, there are symbols, there are places, etc. In the history of Zionism a build up of the national identity is verly linked to the question of image. There are many reasons for that. Zionism appears almost in the same time as the invention of cinema and photography, so it used a very contemporary thing which was the image in order to build itself.

That is interesting because if you think about the national revolutions that proceeded Zionism, we don’t have a trace in terms of image, and if you think about those that came after – they are completely linked to image. In the case of Israel and Palestine, orange became a symbol, and what is interesting to observe – it’s a round thing, and from every side you look at it, it looks the same. The orange is both an object of rupture, because there are two completely different visions around it, but it’s also the common one. What was interesting to me was to use this element, which carries the memory of the division, but also of commonality – so it can become the key of memory for the future.

Talking about the future – most of the thinkers, activists, artists, that deal with Israeli-Palestinian conflict in depth, have come to terms that one-state solution is the only solution, considering the reality on the ground. You made the film Common state: A possible conversation, and it is very much connected to that idea. Could you talk about, how embraced is the idea of one-state solution?

In order to talk in terms of solutions, we have to ask what’s the problem to solve. One of the things to consider is that the history of the Palestine question since the beginning of 20th century was always looked at through the paradigm of division, of partition. There is a problem and we will solve it by division. The idea of separation between the population or division of the territory is the paradigm that brought the war, each and every time – in 1948, in 1967, etc.

Maybe the mistake is this paradigm of the solution because the problem is not how to divide Palestinians and Israelis, or Arabs and Jews, the problem is how to make people live together peacefully. If the partition paradigm didn’t work it’s maybe because it is the wrong paradigm to solve the problem. If everybody agrees on two-state solution, the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, the UN, the Arab League the EU, the whole world – why isn’t it happening?

The problem is that what you are posing as the solution is actually a problem. The paradigm should be how to find a way to make this territory the territory for all, and the question then is the question of citizenship. I am not coming from the utopian solution, I am coming from reality. There is no way to divide the population – in every place that lives an Arab, lives a Jew. There is no way to divide the population physically, there is no way to divide the territory – who will have the water, who will have the desert?

This is why there is more and more people thinking about the shift of the paradigm. I am not necessarily talking about one state, I am talking about a common state. It could be a federal state, it could be a regional state, one state doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody. Is it a secular democratic state, is it a binational state?

For me the documentary is not a genre, it’s an attitude. It’s about looking at reality and constructing with reality. I am looking at the reality of PalestineIsrael, and I am intentionally using that word instead of Palestine and Israel, because I see that the same place for one is Palestine and for the other is Israel. In cinema terms, that is what we call point of view. The question is how can I put two points of view into one frame?

jaffa_10_copy51688/Photo: Jaffa – The Orange’s Clockwork/

You left Israel, but you visit constantly and you are making films there. How are your films received in Israel?

My films are more discussed than seen. That is because I refuse the division between a politcal stand and my films, so the question is often who is Eyal Sivan, and not what he is doing. People are talking about my films like they’ve seen them, but they didn’t. For every person who likes me, there are at least fifty that hate me. There is a consensus that I am not a bad filmmaker, but I am bad person politically.

But still, films like Izkor remain a reference point, twenty-five years later. It’s a films that was forbidden in cinemas at the time, but is now thought in most of the schools, education departments, cinema departments. We could pose the question of the impact of cinema here – young filmmakers today are very occupied with that idea, due to the social media and everything. For me, the question of the impact is like a stone in the lake – you throw it and it makes a kind of waves that you cannot know what and when will happen. If I am looking back at my work and the situation in Israel and Israeli cinema, I see that there is a dialogue between what’s happening. Basically, I think that my cinema posed a line of radicality. Not many young filmmakers were radical enough.

Why weren’t they radical?

Because they went to the army. Because it is more difficult to be in the margins than in the mainstream. Because many people are making political films, but they are not making films politically. There is a gap in the art form, in the cinema world – artists care more about their asses than about what’s going on around them. But mostly because when you are on the privileged side you risk much more than when you are on the oppressed side.

Why is women cinema much more radical with the question of feminism than the male cinema? It’s much more difficult to renounce on privilege when you have them. This comes back to the very beginning of our discussion – what is the big Israeli question? The Israeli question is to renounce some of our privileges. Why am I using the feminist example – because it is the most political one, and the most universal one. At the end of my film Common state, an important feminist, 80-year- old activist says: “The question is the willingness to share power or not” . It’s not about equal rights, we’ve gone beyond that discussion, sharing the power is what is important. It means men have to renounce some of their power.

We can compare that with the current situation with refugees in Europe – it’s also about the unwillingness to share power, to be able to renounce some of our privileges if necessary.

Of course. The problem is not the refugees, the problem is that we don’t want to share. Suddenly, a middle class person acts like a multi-billionare, not wanting the share with refugees, the same way a multi-billionare doesn’t want to share with a middle class person.

If we take Europe today and the gap between salaries of men and women – you often hear there’s not enough money to raise the salaries for women. To that I say – ok, then the solution is that men should get lesser salaries and there would be enough money for equal pay for women. The same thing goes for refugees, and the same thing goes for Israel and Palestinians. All the time we hear this “we will give you rights” talk. What does that mean? Who is the one giving the rights? Who has the power? Can the Palestinians give Israelis rights? Women to men?

And back to the Israeli filmmakers – they are among the most privileged ones.That is why I am for the cultural boycott – I believe that is the only way for the Israeli cultural and academic institutions to understand the lack of privilege and that is the way they will become more critical and radicalised.

Why do you have to radicalise? Let’s mention Amos Oz again. His discourse is a mainstream discourse, and everybody around the world is amazed – Oz talks about peace, Israel is a great democracy because there are people like Amos Oz representing it. But that is not the way to look at things. It’s a twist on reality. If we look at the history of 20th century – evil always came from the mainstream, never from the extreme.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

 

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art of resistance, Israel, Morocco

Remembering Ronit Elkabetz: A Thing Of Soul & Beauty.

ronit/From the film The Band’s Visit/

Ronit Elkabetz died. It’s hard to believe it, but it’s true – there will be no more films featuring the lovely and talented, bright and insightful, funny and beautiful beyond words – Elkabetz.

She was only 51, the cause of her death cancer. During the last twenty-five years she became a true diva of Israeli cinema, one of Israel’s most respected artists – she was an actress, director and screenwriter.

Elkabetz was born in Beersheba, to a religious Moroccan Jewish family originally from Essaouira. She became an important voice for Mizrahi women – her uncompromising and daunting work helped push Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront. The ethnic, class, and gender oppression of the Mizrahi women was an issue Elkabetz deeply explored in her work.

Michal Aviad, who cast Elkabetz as the lead in her film Invisible, said Elkabetz taught her film. Speaking to Haaretz, Aviad said:

“She had an enormous heart, she was terribly funny and she knew how to distinguish good from bad with brilliant clarity. And her heart was in the right place – politically, morally, as a feminist, as a Mizrahi, whatever it was.”

From 2012, Elkabetz served as president of Achoti (Sister), an organization set up by Mizrahi feminists. She worked as a volunteer, before the group asked her to be its president.

Gett/Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem/

In 2010, Elkabetz received a lifetime achievement award from the Israeli Film Academy for her contribution to Israeli cinema. During her career, she played the roles of single mothers, prostitutes, immigrants, hairdressers – those who are struggling, those who choose to live differently, those stuck in the middle of nowhere, those at the margins of the society.

I will never forget her as Dina in The Band’s Visit, Ruthie in Or and Viviane Amsalem in the trilogy To Take A Wife, Shiva and Gett. Her witt, smile, her broken china voice and the way I believed her from the first moment she appeared on the screen – it was magic, a thing of beauty that is joy forever.

ttaw1/To Take A Wife/

She believed that the cinema has to build a new world and bring about change. She wanted to be involved in projects that investigate the soul, to act and direct only things that can influence and change reality and society.

Alongside her dominant role in Israeli cinema, Elkabetz also starred in French films, including some directed by André Téchiné and Fanny Ardant.

She will be truly missed and remembered as one of the greats –  her soulful ways made all the difference. Elkabetz was human, and in her case – that word should be taken with all the romance and beauty that it entails.

• • •

Previous Remembering… sessions:

Remembering Leila Alaoui: The Moroccans

Remembering Mahdi ‘Amel: The Importance of Resistance

Remembering Samir Kassir: Life as Courage, Death as Silence

Remembering Hassan Fathy: To Build With The People

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art of resistance, Israel, Palestine

(Interview) Iris Zaki: Between Black & White.

women in sink/Women in Sink, photo courtesy of Iris Zaki/

Iris Zaki is an Israeli documentary filmmaker, living in London since 2009. She shot her first short documentary My Kosher Shifts (2011) at the hotel where she worked at the reception desk in order to pay her rent. In 2013 she commenced a practice-based PhD in documentary filmmaking.

Her latest documentary Women in Sink (2015) takes place at Fifi’s, beauty salon in Haifa, owned by a Christian Arab. The film is highly praised and currently showing on festivals around the world.

I’ve talked with Zaki about Women in Sink, her beginnings in filmmaking, reasons why she likes to keep the camera rolling while she works and chats with people she is filming, and the surprising ways which made her love the colour gray.

After several years of working in the Israeli music media industry, you moved to London and started a Masters degree course in documentary filmmaking. Why documentary filmmaking?

I was working for the Israeli music television, in an office, from 9 to 7. I was really bored and I realised that there is something I need to do in my life, that I need a change. I went to London for a holiday and really liked it so I decided to move there. I applied for studies and was accepted, but it wasn’t documentary filmmaking. However, my friend took the documentary filmmaking course and I went to some of the classes and really liked it, so I switched.

Working to pay the rent at the reception of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish hotel in North London, you decided to make your debut film, My Kosher Shifts. How was that experience like?

I love to talk so I was just talking with these people, and I had never before had any communication with ultra-orthodox Jewish people. I found myself talking with them so openly and they opened up to me, and I decided to make my final film about my conversations with them. I was very cautious when directing, I didn’t want to change the way it is.

I thought that bringing people to do camera and sound and all of that would ruin the atmosphere, the natural flow of things. So I just decided to leave the camera filming and communicate normaly. So, with that film, the technique of “abandoned camera” developed and I continue working that way.

The technique of “abandoned camera” functions very well in your films, and you mainly film in closed communities, communities you don’t know well. How does it work, tell me more about it?

I really like to work this way, it suits me. After finishing my masters, I decided to do a PhD and continue filming that way. I like to go into communities that I am not a part of, that is what is very interesting to me. I am not a great cinematographer or a director, and this techinque allows me to find my place in documentary filmmaking. If I am talented for something, then that is first and foremost my communication with people.

This technique allows me to capture this very sensitive and interesting interaction with the people, instead of staging something or doing interviews. I want to get the normal, everyday flow of conversation, that is my main interest.

iris zaki/Zaki and her abandoned camera/

You are from Haifa, usually portrayed as a model of co-existence between Arabs and Jews. Growing up, did you interact with Arabs/Palestinians/Muslims living in your neighbourhood? Was there segregation and was it obvious?

No, there was absolutely no interaction. The educational system separates children by their religion, so there was no possibility for interaction in school. In Haifa, segregation is actually very obvious in relation to the class – rich people live on the top of the mountain, and under it, around the sea, are the poor people, and mostly Arabs live downtown.

In Haifa the difference might be that there is more respect between people, more respect for otherness, even though it is not ideal. You can’t really look at it in a black or white perspective, it’s complex. The biggest issue is the social mobility – when an Arab wants to buy a house in a Jewish neighbourhood, there can be a problem. The same thing goes for jobs.

You ended up doing a film, Women in Sink, in a mixed hair salon where Arabs and Jews come to get their hair done. What were your thoughts when coming into that film, what did you want to find out?

I actually didn’t go there because it is a mixed hair salon, I didn’t want to talk to Jewish women, my aim was to talk to the Arab women. I wanted to find a place that will let me do this crazy thing. When I came to Haifa, I ended up at Fifi’s hair salon, and I really liked the people and the atmosphere of the place. The energy was great, and I didn’t think about anything else, I decided to film there.

But yes, in the beginning in only wanted to talk to Arab women, it was important to me as a Jewish girl from Haifa, to hear how they feel living in the city where I grew up and felt very welcomed. I wanted to know how different our experiences were.

/Fifi’s hair salon/

What happened and changed during the shooting of the film? How did you end up filming Jewish women too?

There were two things that happened at the same time. The first one is that I didn’t have a lot of Arab women that wanted to be filmed nor women who allowed themselves to be very political. Living in Israel, I think that everybody is political, but I think the issue here was that some of the women didn’t want to share it with me.

At the same time, when I started washing Jewish women’s hair and talking to them, they turned out to be very political, very opinionated. Also, I felt more comfortable to confront Jewish people than to confront Arab women. Jewish women felt more comfortable to criticize Israel, because when you are the priviliged one you can complain, but as a minority it is more complicated and that is what came to surface when I started filming.

Did Women in Sink surprise you? Have you expected more extreme positions from the women you talked to? What can we learn from that?

I think that a lot of documentary filmmakers, most of them really, go into filming with a certain agenda and then they find characters that fit their agenda. I put myself in places and just hang out with people, and I let the film develop in its own way. Of course, with Women in Sink, I did have my position and expectations from day one and I was very open about it. During the shooting, I learned a lesson, and I decided to let people say what the want to say.

What is surprising to many people, and it was also surprising to me, is that most of these opinions are very light, altough they are very different. There’s no extremes. A lot of filmmakers look for extremes, they want black and white, and the gray area is not interesting to them, it can even be disturbing to many. It’s the same with news and media. While making this film, I became really interested in the gray area, because that is where majority of the people fall into.

Were you afraid that, after watching your film, people would generalize and take it as a representation of the whole community?

I was worried and I am worried about that. Whenever I am doing Q&A, I say that it shouldn’t be taken that way, I already feel like a lawyer who worries about being sued. These are individual stories and they should be seen that way and that’s it. But yeah, I am still worried.

WOMEN IN SINK - Official/Women in Sink/

You live in London now. When you visit Israel, how do you feel, do you feel the changes in the atmosphere, how is the situation now? Would you like to go back and live in Israel?

I feel it is going in a very bad direction, I am very sad about it. When I finished Women in Sink I went back to London a little hopeful, but then there was the war in Gaza. The goverment now is so racist and the atmsophere is the one of creating fear.

I want to go back to Israel at some point, but as long as this goverment is in charge, as long as Netanyahu is in charge, I am not going back for sure. They don’t offer any solutions, they see war as the only solution. The word peace used to be something that every party included in their manifest, and now they don’t even mention it, it’s not even on the agenda.

To end this conversation on a more positive note – what are your plans for the future, what are you working on at the moment?

I am working on my next film for the PhD, this time I want to do it in a settlement. I already chose a settlement where I’ll be living for a month and filming the people. I don’t know anything about settlers, all I have is black and white stories about them, and I want to find out more. I am doing that this spring and we’ll see what happens.

• • •

//all photos courtesy of Iris Zaki//

Find out more about Women in Sink here.

This interview was also published in Croatian, on Libela.

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art of resistance, Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

A Year Later: Rebuilding Gaza.

Jehan_Abu_Dagga-children/photo via IMEU/

Institute for Middle East Understanding has a powerful new story out – it features six out of the tens of thousands Palestinians struggling to rebuild their lives a year after the Israeli summer assault on Gaza.

The following are the fragments of some of those stories.

Jehan_Abu_Dagga-family2/Jehan and her family, photo via IMEU/

Jehan Abu Dagga is a lawyer. Her home was seriously damaged by Israel’s most recent offensive in Gaza.

We weren’t able to leave so we decided to wait for the situation to get calm. When the dark came, I thought ‘We have to escape. We can’t be trapped here. They want to kill everyone.’ We tried many times to get out from our home to a safe place but we couldn’t get far in such dangerous conditions.

The kids wanted to sleep but we prevented them because if something happened, we were afraid we would not have time to wake them up. The situation started to get more serious and dangerous from all directions. We knew that we were stuck and could not get out with all the shelling and gas bombs. We spent one week under the shelling.

In the first ceasefire after that terrifying night, which was only for three hours, I asked my husband to go to our house to bring our official papers, IDs, and passports. When he returned, he told me that our home was bombed but it wasn’t completely destroyed.

I sold my jewelry to build the house we wanted and now we don’t have enough to rebuild it. My husband is a farmer and we don’t have that kind of money. I studied law and I worked as a lawyer but I stopped to stay with my children. Now I wish I didn’t study law. Maybe if I was a nurse, it would be better so I could help in these situations.

The most challenging moment of my life was when I had to choose a safe room in the house to put my children in for the many days while we were stuck inside during the attacks.

Yassir_Mahmoud_El_Haj4/Yassir and his family, photo via IMEU/

Yassir Mahmoud El Haj, 25, is from Khan Younis Refugee Camp in Gaza. His family’s house was struck by Israeli warplanes without warning during the first week of Israel’s 2014 attacks. Yassir’s parents, Mahmoud Lutfi El Haj and Basma Abd El Qader El Haj, and his six brothers and sisters — Najla, 28; Asmaa, 22; Omar, 20; Tareq, 18; Sa’ad, 16; Fatma, 14 — were all killed.

Then they took me to the hospital and I started to search for my family between all the injured people and I didn’t find any of them there. I lost control of myself and screamed, ‘Where is family?’ The doctor came and gave me a sedative and some of my relatives told me that my family is fine and that I could see them when I felt better. When I woke up, they told me that they were all killed. Then, my brother-in-law took me to my house again and I found that they were still taking out the bodies there and I saw my father’s and brothers’ bodies being removed.

After the war, I lived in my uncle’s house and then in my sister’s house in Rafah. Then I rented a house, and I faced many problems in finding an apartment. I don’t work and I don’t have the ability to rebuild the house, especially since I was living inside a refugee camp where the houses are very close to each other and full of people. Thirty people were injured that day and seven houses are unsuitable for habitation in addition to the many partly damaged houses around my house.

I have no one now. I lost my family in this life so I don’t expect any good days in future  — I’m only waiting for time to pass. The hardest moment in the war for me was when I came back from my friend’s house and I didn’t find my home. I just couldn’t understand that I just left all my family inside for only one hour and then found it destroyed. I regret that I went out; I wish I was there with them.

I want the world to know that Israel targets civilians’ houses directly. The children and the families who were killed during the war are the evidence of Israel’s crimes toward civilians in Gaza, so I ask the whole world not to support Israel. All my sisters and brothers were smart and had good grades in school and they were still so young. None of them were involved in any political or resistance parties. Fatma, my sister, and Sa’ad, my brother got 98% averages at school. My eldest sister, Najla, was first in her class in college and and she worked as a teaching assistant at her university.

I remember when we had our last dinner during Ramadan and gathered on one table and talked about the news and situations as any normal family. I wish I knew the reason why they bombed my house and killed my family. I still want to know why.”

Aysha_Saeed_Owda_El_Kurd2/Aysha among the ruins, photo via IMEU/

Aysha Saeed Owda El Kurd, a mother of five from Rafah, works as a nurse. Her husband was a prisoner in Israeli prisons for 14 years. In 1988, shortly after Israel freed him, he was killed.

“I play the role of mother and father in my family. I have a lot of responsibility because all but one of my sons can’t find work. After my husband was killed, I lived with my five children in a rented house until we were able to buy a new house.

When the war started in 2014, my son Ibrahim was supposed to come to Gaza and tried twice but the closure of the borders prevented him from coming and he wasn’t here when his brother was killed. My other three sons came to my house with their families in Al-Shaboura neighborhood because it was safer than the eastern areas where their house is beside the borders. During the ceasefire, my son Yasser went to check on his house like everyone else, to see what happened in the area and suddenly the ceasefire was broken and the Israeli army started to bomb randomly. The house was bombed with two missiles and Yasser was killed with two other people.

When I heard my son was injured, I remember that I walked the street at night under the continuous bombing to search for him. I tried calling him on his phone. I just couldn’t believe that he was killed. I asked my colleagues in Abu Yosef Al Najjar Hospital to ask about him and they told me that they didn’t know anything because the hospital was bombed. I felt they were also afraid to tell me the truth.

When we arrived, they told me the full truth, which I already knew in my heart — that he was killed. I asked to see him and went into the mortuary in the hospital and I saw him for the last time. I kissed him and said goodbye. It was extremely hard for me. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t save him with medical treatment as I did for so many other people.

We’re currently 22 people living in the same house and we don’t have the ability to rebuild my sons’ house again because our income is not enough and because of the blockade.

• • •

For more – see the full article on IMEU.

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Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape.

Today is the 67th anniversary of the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus. In a poem written forty years after he fled his village, Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali described that evening of the catastrophe:

We did not weep

When we were leaving

For we had neither

Time nor tears

And there was no farewell.

We did not know

At the moment of parting

That it was a parting,

So where would our weeping

Have come from?

occupied pal/Nakba, photo via Occupied Palestine/

To mark the 67th Nakba anniversary, I am posting an excerpt from Ilan Pappé’s essay The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape. This essay can be found in the book After Zionism: One State For Israel and Palestine.

Pappé writes about Nakba denial in 20th century (in Israel), and the way it changed in 21st century. I think it captures the essence of Nakba issues today – today we all know about Nakba, we know what happened and how it happened, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that differentiates us. What’s being done with what we know is what we should focus on.

Nakba Denial and the Israel/Palestine Peace Process

“Even before the U-turn in American pulic opinion after 11 September 2001, the movement of academic critique in Israel and the West and its fresh view on the 1948 ethnic cleansing was not a very impressive player on the local, regional or international stages. It did not in any way impact the Israel/Palestine peace agenda; and Palestine was the focus of such efforts at exactly the time when the fresh voices were heard. At the centre of these peace efforts were the Oslo Accords, which began rolling in September 1993. The concept behind this process was, as in all the previous peace endeavours in Palestine, a Zionist one.

Hence, the peace process of the 1990s, the Oslo Accords, was conducted according to the Israeli perception of peace – from which the Nakba was totally absent. The Oslo formula was created by Israeli thinkers from the Jewish peace camp, people who have played an important role in the Israeli public scene ever since 1967. They were institutionalised in an ex-parliamentary movement, ‘Peace Now’, and had several parties on their side in the Israeli parliament. In all their previous discourses and plans, they had totally evaded the 1948 issue and sidelined with the refugee questions. They did the same in 1993 – this time with the dire consequences of raising hopes of peace as they seemes to find a Palestinian partner for a concept of peace that buries 1948 and its victims.

It is noteworthy that the potential partners withdrew from the process twice at the last moment; ultimately, they could not betray the Palestinian Right of Return (nor is any leader empowered to do so, as the right is an individual one). The first was Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. He was later followed by Abu Mazen in the various, admittedly much less significant, attempts to reach a solution  with the Israeli governments of Olmerr and Netanyahu.

AlNakbaExpulsion3/Expulsion from Ramie, November 1948. Photo via Desip/

When the final moment came, and the Palestinians realised that on top of not witnessing a genuine Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, there was no solution offered for the refugee question, they rebelled in frustration. The climax of the Oslo negotiations – the Camp David summit meeting between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat in the summer of 2000 – gavethe false impression that it was offering the end of the conflict.

Naive Palestinian negotiators located the Nakba and Israel’s responsibility for it at the top of the Palestinian list of demands, but this was rejected out of hand by the Israeli team, which succeeded in enforcing its point of view on the summit. To the Palestinian side’s credit, we should say that at least for a while the catastrophe of 1948 was brought to attention of a local, regional, and, to a certain extent, global audience. Nonetheless, the continued denial of the Nakba in the peace process is the main explanation for its failure and the subsequent second uprising in the Occupied Territories.

Not only in Israel but also in the United States, and even in Europe, it was necessary to remind those concerned with  the Palestine question  that this conflict entailed not only the future of Occupied Territories, but also that of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced from their homes in 1948 (and indeed from the whole area that was once Palestine). The Israelis had earlier succeeded in sidelining the issues of the refugees’ rights from the Oslo Accords, an aim helped by ill-managed Palestinian diplomacy and strategy.

The Nakba had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of the peace process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the Israelis felt as if a Pandora’s box had been prised open in front of them. The worst fear of the Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue; this ‘danger’ was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, the Knesset, a position was formulated, no Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to dicuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Ehud Barak made a public commitment to it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.

The mechanism of denial therefore was crucial not only for defeating counter claims made by Palestinians in the peace process, but, more importantly, for disallowing any significant debate on the essence and moral foundation of Zionism.

The struggle over Nakba denial in the 21st Century

When the twentieth century came to an end, it seemed that the struggle against Nakba denial in Israel had had a mixed impact on the society and its politics. The appearance of the ‘new history’ and a far more concentrated effort to protect the Nakba memory by the Palestinians in general, and those within Israel in particular, did crack the wall of denial and repression that surrounds the Nakba in Israel. The new atmosphere has also been helped by a clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue towards the end of the Oslo peace process.

As a result, after more than fifty years of repression, it became more difficult for Israel to deny the expulsion and destruction of the Palestinians in 1948. However, this relative sucess  has also brought with it three negative reactions, formulated after the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The effect of these reactions is still felt today, and it characterises the state of the Nakba denial in Israel in this century.

45190f/An early refugee camp. Late 1940s, Palestine. Photo via Jacobin/

The first reaction was from the Israeli political establishment, led by Ariel Sharon’s two governments (2001 and 2003), through the Ministry of Education, to expunge the actual history of 1948 from the education system. It began systematically removing any textbook or school syllabus that reffered to the Nakba, even marginally. Similiar instructions were given to the public broadcasting authorities.

The second reaction was even more disturbing and encompased wider sections of the public. Although a very considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academiccs ceased to deny what happened in 1948, they were nonetheless wiling to justify it publicly, not only in retrospect but also as a prescription for the future. The idea of ‘transfer’ entered Israeli political discourse openly for the first time, gaining legitimacy as the best means of dealing with the Palestinian ‘problem’.

Transfer was and is openly discussed as an option when the captains of the nation meet annually in one of Israel’s most prestigious academic centres, the Centre for Intersdisciplinary Studies in Herzliya. It was openly discussed in the early twenty-first century as a policy proposal in papers presented by senior Labour Party ministers to their government. It is openly advocated by university professors and media commentators, and very few now dare to condemn it. As the very end of the last century, the leader of the majority in the American House of Representatives openly endorsed it.

There was a third reaction that followed in the footsteps of the renewed denial and worse disregard for the Nakba; this was the appearance of a neo-Zionist professional historiography of the war, some of it written by a former new historian. This U-turn was led by Benny Morris, formerly one fo the most important new historians of the 1990s. Murris has not changed his narrative: Israel was still in his eyes a state that was built with the help of ethnic celansing of the Palestinians. What he changed was his moral attitude towards that policy and crime. He justified it and did not even rule it out as a future policy. This justification appears also in his latest book on 1948, aptly called 1948: every means is justified in a war against a Jihadi attempt to destroy the state of Israel.

Morris’s retraction was typical to the whole professional historiography of the 1948 war in Israel in the twentieth century. As I have shown elsewhere, the pattern in the new century is very much the same. The facts that the ‘New Historians’ exposed about 1948, in particular those concerning the depopulation of the indigenous people of Palestine, are not doubted any more.

What changed is the total acceptance of the moral validity of this policy. In many ways, the professional historiography in Israel once more regards 1948 as the miraculous pristine moment of the state’s birth.”

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art of resistance, Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Victor Klemperer’s Diaries: Palestinians and the Red Indian fate.

Victor Klemperer’s diaries I Will Bear Witness (1933 to 1941), To The Bitter End (1942 to 1945) and The Lesser Evil (1945 to 1959), provide a unique insight of the day-to-day life under the tyranny of the Third Reich.

It is incredible to go through his story (and the story of his wife, Eva), the story of a German Jew in Dresden and the efforts to survive as the Nazis gain power and the years of terror unfold upon Klemperer and his family. Paying attention to many details, Klemperer presents the war reality in all of its aspects – from food and diet, medical care, transportation, finances, suicides, household searches, restrictions and evacuations to the language of war propaganda.

Victor KlempererVictor Klemperer /photo via Bundesarchiv/

That is all very much known and Klemperer’s diaries have become standard sources when it comes to Third Reich. Cristopher Hitchens is just one of many who praised Klemperer’s work. In his review, Hitchens wrote: “There is a horrid fascination in reading this day-by-day chronicle as it unfolds, along with each cuff on the head and gob of spittle, because we know what’s coming, and he is only beginning to guess.” He goes on to describe Klemperer :

He is intensely aware at all moments, perhaps because of his consciousness of being a ‘survivor,’ that death is only a breath away. He is one of the great kvetches of all time, endlessly recording aches and pains, bad dreams, shortages of food and medicine, snubs and humiliations. And, like everyone else, he wants everything both ways. In particular, he wants East Germany to be an open democracy with a real intellectual life, while insisting that all manifestations of reactionary and racist spirit be pitilessly crushed. This double-entry bookkeeping is something that he usually has the courage to confess (‘between two stools’ becomes his preferred cliché) even when he knows that the contradiction is not resolvable.

What is little less known and less talked about when it comes to Victor Klemperer and his writings is his criticism of Zionism.

“Until 1933 and for at least a good century before that, the German Jews were entirely German and nothing else,” he writes in January 1939, six years after Hitler came to power. Nazis insisted on the concept of blood and race, and that was the biggest evil, Klemperer thought.

In that aspect, he often compared Zionism to Nazism, saying that  like Nazism, Zionism turns the Jews into a separate racial category. He was a man who very much believed in assimilation, in the peaceful coexistence of different identities, so Israel as an exclusively Jewish state was not an option he would support.

In I Will Bear Witness, Klemperer writes:

“To me the Zionists, who want to go back to the Jewish state of A.D. 70 (destruction of Jerusalem by Titus) are just as offensive as the Nazis. With their nosing after blood, their ancient ‘cultural roots’, their partly canting, partly obtuse winding back of the world they are altogether a match for the National Socialists. That is the fantastic thing about the National Socialists, that they simultaneously share in a community of ideas with Soviet Russia and with Zion.”

In 1933, he writes: “I cannot help myself… I sympathise with the Arabs who are in revolt (in Palestine), whose land is being ‘bought’. A Red Indian fate, says Eva.

In the times when the horrors of holocaust are wrongfully used, as Norman Finkelstein puts it “to justify criminal policies of the Israeli state and US support for these policies”, it is extremely important to read Victor Klemperer’s diaries, diaries of a Jew who, in the midst of the greatest atrocities and injustice done to his people, found it in his heart (and mind) to criticize the injustice done to other people (people far away, with whom he shared no blood, no language, no history), the injustice done by Zionist while establishing the Jewish state of Israel. It’s a history lesson we ought to pay attention to, for future’s sake.

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art of resistance, Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

The Book To Read: Suad Amiry and the Absurdity of life under Occupation.

I just finished reading Suad Amiry’s Sharon and my Mother-in-Law. The book is a result of her Ramallah diaries (from 1981 to 2004), where she described her everyday life under occupation. Absurdity and agony would be the words to describe this book (the feelings it ewokes), spiced with a lot of humor. For example, there is the situation when Amiry’s husband Salim gets arrested during curfew , but not because he was breaking curfew. The reason for the arrest was  that Amiry was refusing soldier’s orders to stop staring at him. Then there is Amiry’s dog, Nura, toy Manchester terrier who enjoys more political rights than her owner (Nura was granted a coveted Jerusalemite passport by her Israeli veterinarian in a settlement nearby Ramallah). Amiry decides to laugh about it all! To stay sane – you must find a way to laugh at things, otherwise – it’s easy to fall into the circle of depression and anxiety.

suad amirySuad Amiry

Another quality of the book lies in the fact that Amiry is not focused exclusively on criticizing Israel, but opens up about the issues in the Palestinian society.  All in all, Sharon and my Mother-in-Law is not a literary masterpiece, but it’s not aiming to be one either. However, Amiry succeeded in capturing the everyday absurdity of life in the Occupied Territories, and that is a great achievement.

The book has been translated into 19 languages, the last one in Arabic (which was a bestseller in France), and was awarded  the prestigious Viareggio Prize in 2004.  Here are some of the excerpts:

„I’d definitely have to hide Nura’s passport from Samir Hulieleh, who after twenty-four years of marriage to Sawsan, Jerusalemite, had not yet succeeded in getting a Jerusalem ID. I did not want to think about adorable little Yasmin, Sawsan’s and Samir’s only child. The Israelis would not give her a Jerusalem ID because her father had a Palestinian Ramallah ID, and the Palestinian Authority would not give her a Palestinian ID because her mother had an Israeli Jerusalem ID. If Jewish and Arab traditions were respected, Yasmin should have two identity cards, one of her mother and one after her father. But she has none.

Every few days they would lift the curfew for ‘humane reasons’, so that civilians could go out to buy food and medicine. Ramallah would become an absolutely frantic town, with everyone running like crazy to do their shopping before the three hour respite was over. Every now and then, I used to refuse to leave the house in defiance of Israel’s decision: ‘Now you can come out of your houses and run like crazy as we watch you, while pointing our guns at you just in case.‘“

„’What a pity we didn’t carry the begonia pot with us that you gave me on Easter Sunday.’ This was the first thing my mother in-law said to me as I got out of bed at 7.30 to open the door for Nura. ‘It’s OK, Um Salim, our hand were full of more important things’, I answered back with half-open eyes. ‘Khsarah (What a pity), it will die,’ she mumbled. ‘People in Nablus and Jenin are dying under the rubble of their houses,’ I mumbled back quietly, so as not to depress her even more.“

Suad Amiry is an author and an architect living in Ramallah. She is engaged in many peace initiatives of Palestinian and Israeli women. She is director and founder of the Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation (the center was founded in 1991 and is the first of its kind to work on the rehabilitation and protection of architectural heritage in Palestine).

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