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‘The Present’ – On Netflix – Makes Apartheid Visible

This year at the Oscars ‘The Present,’ directed by Farah Nabulsi, represented Palestine in the short live-action film category. It did not win. It did win, however, the best short film at the ‘British Academy for Films and Television,’ as well as at the Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Palm Springs Film Festivals. Incidentally, an Israeli film in the same Oscar category, ‘White Eye,’ also didn’t win. Maybe the two films had simply canceled each other out (more about it later).

What brings me to write about the film, which I recently watched on Netflix, is the question of Apartheid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in regard to the Palestinian people, very much in the news lately. Just earlier this month, according to the Times of Israel: “Poll finds a quarter of US Jews think Israel is ‘apartheid state’.” These numbers are higher in Europe and elsewhere, while Israel keeps rejecting this label as libel. However, for Israelis and Jews worldwide to bury our heads in the sand regarding this escalating sentiment won’t help matters, or change the terrible situation on the ground. Which is what the short film ‘The Present” had set out to show.

With limited success, in my view. As for the plot: The film centered on a father and daughter in the Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are trying to buy a wedding anniversary gift. From their small village they travel to Beitunia, a Palestinian town near Ramallah, where they buy some groceries and a new refrigerator. Their progress in both directions is impeded by roadblocks and checkpoints, culminating in a harrowing scene when at a checkpoint near their home, a group of young Israeli soldiers tries to prevent them from passing through with their present back home.

As for the film itself, I do understand why the Academy voters hadn’t selected it the winner. While as the story of the father and daughter (Saleh Bakri and  Maryam Kanj) rings true, is well-acted, and very emotionally engaging, some of what they go through—especially at the end—doesn’t make sense at all. In the beginning there is a scene at a real checkpoint, when the father goes to work in the morning, which is very real and horrifying. But the checkpoint near their small village is utterly ridiculous and cartoonish.

Yes, checkpoints are placed in the West Bank in strategic locations where Palestinians cross into Israel and coming back from Israel. There are roadblocks and such when military situations demand them. But no checkpoint, quite an elaborate one at that, is placed near a small Palestinian village of a few houses, separating that village from a nearby Palestinian town where the father goes to buy the groceries and the present. No Palestinian in the West Bank leaves his village to buy milk and toilet paper and has to pass through a checkpoint in order to do that. Checkpoints are bad, absolutely so, but this one was placed there artificially by the director just to score a point. She misses. *

The ‘bad’ Israeli soldiers (speaking Hebrew with an Arabic accent) aren’t real, just as the whole situation isn’t real. To make things worse, the little girl (who earlier peed in her pants just seeing the Israeli soldiers and their threatening behavior towards her father) now saves the day by wheeling the trolley with the refrigerator on the road. It’s no more plausible than if I’ll try to push an elephant off the road. For no apparent reason—another artificial plot point—the truck that brought the fridge had to stop, so that the father will continue his journey by wheeling his fridge back home on a trolley. Sympathetic as I am to the Palestinians’ plight and aspirations, the last scene at the “checkpoint” stretches the imagination big time, and it is just about ludicrous. It’s a pity that such a good idea, and overall a good film at its core, gets a propagandistic treatment at times, especially at the end. **

However, regarding the larger point the film tries to make (including, I assume, female empowerment), it is more successful. That the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own, was pointed out here in this blog plenty of times. That the occupation must end, likewise. The inhumanity of it all, of course. But concerning Apartheid, it was a close call for me so far. In fact, in my April post—”What’s Behind the Latest Buzzwords: ‘Israeli-Palestinian Confederation’?”—I termed it “an Apartheid-in-progress.” I stick by this definition, for now, though no doubt every day that passes without a solution brings the situation on the ground closer to a real Apartheid.

What Israel doesn’t get, not only regarding the Palestinian people and conflict but also about the increasing discomfort and doubts spreading among American Jews, is that the current situation is unsustainable. Just ‘managing the situation’ won’t solve anything and doesn’t work anymore. Calling it ‘unfeasible’ and ‘unsolvable,’ likewise. The last flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has shown, at least as to the ‘media wars’ and the opinions of most people around the world, that Israel is losing that war. And rightly so. A film like ‘The Present’ most definitely underscores this point, and helps spread the word. 

* According to the IDF, a Palestinian civilian in the West Bank can travel from the northern city of Jenin to Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, without encountering a single military checkpoint. (Wikipedia.)

** According to program director Col. Triber Bezalel, the IDF employs humanitarian officers at various checkpoints. These officers are tasked with making life easier for those who cross the borders and aiding the elderly and sick. (Wikipedia.)

*** The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

A Few Good Men & Women

As a dedicated, sometimes even astute (hopefully) observer of Israel and America’s relations and politics, I pride myself on some farsighted observations throughout the years of writing this blog. And yet, I didn’t see this one coming. Had you told me last year that in the space of a little over six months both Trump and Netanyahu would be gone, no longer in power, I would’ve found it hard to believe. But here we are, with the most surprising development of the two being the fall of the house of ‘King Bibi,’ after more than twelve years as Israel’s Prime Minister.

I’m in good company, not seeing it coming, though I gave it some 25% possibility before the elections. But let me tell you: On the first day after the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas had ended, I listened to my favorite Israeli political observer talking about the possibility of a new government being formed. Here is what he said, more or less: “The only question is whether Yair Lapid (head of Yesh Atid, who had the mandate from President Rivlin to form a new coalition, H.D.), would hand the president his mandate now, saying he’d failed to form a coalition, or he’ll wait the 14 days left for him and then give it back without any positive results.”

Well, you know the outcome. Bucking all predictions and expectations, Yair Lapid was able to go back to the president before the hour struck midnight and tell him that he had succeeded, where others had failed. He, and not the current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is the true, and first good man of this semi-political revolution. He started during the elections, when he directed his campaign, and asked his supporters too, not to attack the parties to his left, Labor and Meretz, since he wanted them to be able to enter the new Knesset. What a noble act. And he reaped the rewards, since they joined his coalition.

His second noble, and novel idea was to put aside his ego, and though he is the leader of the largest party in this coalition with 17 members in the new Knesset, he offered to hand over the premiership to Bennett for the first two years, even though Bennett has only six MKs in his party. Unheard off. And that despite Bennett declaring during the latest war with Hamas in Gaza that coalition talks with Lapid are practically dead, as far as he was concerned. And yet Lapid was able to pull him in yet again, and together with seven other parties—among them an Arab Party—to form a governing coalition. What a miracle: putting your ambitions aside for the sake of what’s best for the country and its shaking democracy.

Before moving on to the next ‘good man’ on my list, let me return to America and to the much welcomed, disgraced as it were, fall of former President Trump. Unlike other observers I read, and also what seems to be the common belief among the public at large, it was not the constitution that had saved American democracy from collapsing (though it was very close to it). It was a few good men and women who stepped up to the plate and defended the constitution, the rule of law, and the integrity of the elections. I won’t name them here (you probably heard of them plenty), but when push came to shove they—most of them Republican officials—stood by the walls of the castle and defended our fragile democracy.

Though the political process and system in Israel are different, in essence, the same happened there, and without a constitution. This brings me to the second ‘good man’ on my list. Benny Gantz, the Defense, or Security Minister. He is the only minister to remain in office from the previous government. He too did the right thing for the country and joined Netanyahu in government throughout the pandemic. He was supposed to become Prime Minister this coming November, but Netanyahu betrayed him, as he betrayed others. And then, when in the last moment Netanyahu offered to resign immediately, and to hand him the premiership for the three remaining years in the coalition term, he didn’t hesitate to refuse. He is the leader, also, of the second-largest party in this coalition, yet has put his ambition aside and didn’t demand to be a Prime Minister too.

Next must be Naftali Bennett. While he was regarded from the outset as the kingmaker, it was not clear at all that he would crown himself as king. Not the least because for the first time in Israel’s history, a leader of a very small party became the Prime Minister and leader of the country. So in a way he has the most to gain, but also the most to lose. The attacks on him from Netanyahu’s camp are indeed ferocious, and threatening with violence. He, originally an extreme right-wing leader, a supporter of not only the settlement endeavor but the annexation of a large part of the West Bank, now sits in a government with two parties from the left, and an Arab party to boot. The outcome of this government, however long it would survive, is of course unclear, and at the end of it he might find himself with a party without any significant public support.

His right hand throughout the years, from working together in Netanyahu’s office to forming their party and remaining united through thick and thin, is Ayelet Shaked, currently the Minister of the Interior. And while I’m as far as can be from being a supporter of her, she deserves some credit too. If for nothing else, then for standing by this coalition agreement, despite heavy threats from Netanyahu’s camp, including death threats to her and her family. Another woman worth mentioning here, in closing, is Merav Michaeli, the current Minister of Transportation. She resurrected the Labor party from the dead in an impressive fashion, didn’t hesitate to join this strange coalition, and seems like a safe bet for a leader with a bright future.

All in all, while the days ahead will provide answers as to how long this government will stay in power (the predictions are not for long), and how much good it will be able to do (the expectations are not high), it has already succeeded in its main and most important goal: kicking Netanyahu out of office and saving Israel’s democracy. Not bad for a start.

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

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