The Common Good

The Power of Attention in East Jerusalem

The problem with peaceful protests is that they lack all the headline-grabbing horror of wars and terrorist attacks. They lack the “power of attention” as filmmaker Julia Bacha likes to say, and that is part of what compelled her and others to produce the documentary, “My Neighborhood,” premiering this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Photo of Mohammed and Zvi, Courtesy of Just Vision
Photo of Mohammed and Zvi, Courtesy of Just Vision

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Bacha and her team from Just Vision are best known for their award-winning film “Budrus,” the story of a peaceful protest by Palestinians against the Israeli “security wall” that was planned to bi-sect their village.  The film, shown in theatres, churches and on campuses, has helped create a dialogue not only about peaceful Palestinian protests, but also about the Israeli activists who have allied with them.  

On one level, “My Neighborhood,” is a simple story of an unlikely friendship between a precocious Palestinian boy named Mohammed and Zvi, a young Israeli man.  But it is also the story of awakening among some Israeli citizens to injustice in their government systems and among Palestinians to the unexpected compassion and solidarity of their Jewish neighbors.

My Neighborhood,” documents the movement of ultra-orthodox Israeli settlers to seize the homes and property of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.  

Says Yonatan Yossef, spokesperson for the settlers in the film, “ The Bible says that this ... country belong to the Jewish people. ... This is Jewish land, and the Jewish need to live here. … We are not finished the job, we are going to the next neighborhood, and after that we’ll go more.”

The film includes tender and humorous moments as well as scenes that moved many in the audience to anger and tears. Executive producer Ronit Avni, herself an Israeli citizen, said, “As an Israeli, it is not easy for me to watch this film.”

One of the strengths of the short (25 min.) film is that it lets the audience hear the many voices of those involved in the struggle over East Jerusalem:  The Palestinians, displaced by the 1948 war and moved by the United Nations to their neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where they have lived peacefully for more than 50 years; the settlers, who believe God has promised them all of Jerusalem regardless of the price the Palestinians must pay; and, the average Israeli citizens, who must decide if they will give up their comfort and privilege to join in peaceful protest.

Some of the most poignant moments of the film come from the wrenchingly honest comments, like Mohammed’s grandmother, who remains skeptical that the Israeli protesters will really side with them against the Jewish settlers, or Zvi’s father, who holds back while the rest of the family joins the protest.

The film documents two years of life, from the time Mohammed’s family is forcefully evicted from their home by settlers, through the beginnings of a peaceful protest movement, to the growth of a weekly march that swells to 3,000 protesters (including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sister-in-law) and makes the evening news in Israel.

Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the film is that American audiences learn more about the diversity of Israeli society and hear even Mohammed’s belief that he can grow up to be a lawyer and one day appeal his case to an Israeli judge.   His anger and frustration does not lead him toward violence but rather a belief in changing the very system that is working against his family.

The issues are not simple and those involved are not portrayed simplistically.  The Just Vision filmmakers are Israeli and Palestinian as well as American and Brazilian.  Their aim is to “provoke people to ask questions,” according to Avni, not to divide the conflict into perpetrators and victims.

While the film ends with a sense of hope, the situation is far from resolved.  Today, settlers remain in Mohammed’s family’s home and many neighborhoods in East Jerusalem are being targeted by the settler movement.

At a panel discussion in New York after the film, Zvi appeared as a guest along with Bacha, Avni, and others from Just Vision. While grateful for the attention the film is receiving (including the personal appearance of Queen Noor who introduced the film) the group was tempered in their remarks because of what they see as a notable escalation in the forceful evictions in East Jerusalem and support by the Israeli government for the settlers.

They pointed out that the settler movement in Israel is heavily financed by Americans and that the Palestinians have neither the same rights nor the resources to represent themselves in court. They also acknowledged that many Israelis are more comfortable living their lives and ignoring the situation and Americans tend to suffer from issue fatigue and a sense of hopelessness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So why should Americans care? Perhaps the best reason is summarized by Zvi’s father in describing why he finally joined his family in protest: “I’m the child of Holocaust survivors ... the few people in my family who survived were helped by righteous people. We grew up very much knowing that just, and righteous, and brave people can make a difference.”

 

 

Watch this film on Al Jazeera English at the following times:

Monday, April 23: 1830 DC, 0630 KL, 0130 Doha, 2230 GMT
Tuesday, April 24: 0530 DC, 1730 KL, 1230 Doha, 0930 GMT
Wednesday, April 25: 2330 DC, 1130 KL, 0630 Doha, 0330 GMT
Thursday, April 26: 1230 DC, 0030 KL, 1930 Doha, 1630 GMT

Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis and The Skeptic’s Guide to Global Poverty (IVP).  Her next book, The Skeptic’s Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict will be released early next year.

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