‘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.

Friendship in Time of Conflict

goldsborobooks.com

Let me tell you a story. A story about friendship, a story about war and peace, a story about a book. I’ll start with the friendship: When I arrived here in Sacramento almost twenty-four years ago, right away I got involved with a small group of people from different backgrounds (but mostly Jews), who called their group ‘The Middle East Peace Project,’ and who were dedicated on educating the public at large about all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more so even, on spreading the word that peace was possible to achieve.

Among the group activists was a Palestinian named Akef Shihabi, who was a mild-mannered, middle-aged man, educated and very pleasant to be around. We struck friendship soon after I joined the group, I visited his house and he mine, and though his family was expelled from East-Jerusalem in 1948; and though my parents arrived to then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1946, refugees and survivals of the Holocaust, we not only fast became friends, but on behalf of our group we began appearing together around the city and county, universities, congregations, Jewish and Christians and Muslims, where we shared our different experiences but common belief in the possibility of peace.

At some point we drifted apart, due to life’s other obligations, necessities, and misfortunes. Also, due to my realization that at some point we were just treading water, and had exhausted all the open venues in this area. Still, on occasions I would think of him. None more so than nowadays, when for the last three weeks I was consumed by a new book—’Apeirogon,’ by Colum McCann—which was published last month to great acclaim and much interest. So much so that one book reviewer I’ve read, in ‘The Guardian’ of London, concluded by saying that if ever a book can bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is the book.

I was immediately intrigued: Can a book bring peace? Not only that: At the center of the book—the author is calling it a novel, yet it’s really a novel in name only since it’s mostly a nonfiction, biographical, historical book using real people, real names, and real incidents—are an Israeli and a Palestinian, from Jerusalem and Jericho, who both lost young daughters to the conflict. They form an everlasting friendship, first through an organization called ‘The Parents Circle,’ and then through an organization called ’Combatants for Peace.’ Both organizations are also real and active presently.

At the core of the book is the story of these two men. How their daughters were killed—the Palestinian man, Bassam, ten-year old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back of her head by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier riding in a Jeep, just as she came out of a small shop on a break from school, a candy in her hand; the Israeli man, Rami, his daughter Smadar, only fourteen, was walking with her two best friends on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers exploded themselves one afternoon. The book tells their stories, their families’ and daughters’ stories, how they deal with the constant grief and loss, how they became friends and active in peace and reconciliation efforts, appearing and lecturing together not only in Israel-Palestine, but in Europe and America.

This ancient conflict, they believe, won’t end until we talk. (A side bumper-sticker on Rami’s motorbike says just that in Hebrew : (זה לא ייגמר עד שנדבר. And the book indeed talk. And talk for long about them and about other things. It’s all those other things, unrelated to their friendship, peace activities and personal stories that obscure and dull the effect of the book somewhat. They hold our attention, the two men; their stories original and painful enough for the book to sustain interest and emotional resonance throughout. The author though, it seems, wanted to write the “ultimate” book about the Middle East at large, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Which takes away from the impact at the core of his book.

Nonetheless, it’s an admirable effort. But can it bring peace? No, it cannot. Still, it’s an important book. And it’s important not only because it shows the historical depth, and current magnitude of the conflict—as other books had done already (not to mention the Bible)—but also because it gives voice to the possibility of friendship in time of conflict. The possibility of shared experiences and shared humanity and efforts working, united, for the common good. And it makes clear that peace is possible to attain.

Therefore, in conclusion, I suggest that anyone who’s connected to this conflict in any way, to the ‘land of milk and honey’ and to its people, whether closely or remotely, would surely find this book of great interest. As Rami thinks to himself when he first joins ‘The Parents Circle’—an organization of bereaved parents from both sides—“It is not a decree of faith that we should live forever with a sword in our hands.” And equally so Bassam (who experienced seven years of humiliation and torture in an Israeli prison) thinks that “The only revenge is making peace.” So ultimately, and persuasively, their story renews the hope that someday in the future, sooner rather than later, driven by the people more than by their leaders, a peaceful resolution to this endless war would be found.

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

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