PBS Documentary About Early Palestine Substitutes One Myth For Another

tags: Palestine, Jews, Muslims

The documentary “1913: Seeds of Conflict,” which airs on June 30 on the Public Broadcasting Service, disputes the idea that Muslims and Jews have always been enemies; it also challenges standard Zionist narratives about Jewish settlement in prestate Israel. Though “1913” is the first major American-Jewish film to take these positions, it is not unique in the Diaspora. French-Jewish filmmakers have released a slew of analogous films in the past 15 years. These include films that show relationships between Jews and Muslims historically or in the present, such as Karin Albou’s 2008 movie “The Wedding Song,” which examines the close friendship between two 16-year-old girls — one Jewish, the other Muslim — in Tunis in 1942 before historical circumstances begin separating them, and Jean-Jacques Zilbermann’s “He’s My Girl,” from 2009, a romantic comedy about a gay klezmer musician and his cross-dressing Muslim lover. French-Jewish filmmakers have also made documentaries critical of Israeli policies and historiography, such as the 2004 movie “Wall,” by Simone Bitton, and “the 2013 film Where to, Israel?” by Camille Clavel, the grandson of Holocaust survivors.

Why haven’t American Jews made films like this before? One reason may be demographic. In France, the majority of Jews are of North African origin and have more shared experiences with Muslims, whereas in the United States, Ashkenazim predominate. The political climate also plays a role. J Street’s exclusion from the Council of Presidents is just one sign of the challenges facing American Jews who might offer critical perspectives on Israel or Muslim-Jewish relations. While American Jews have made a few films that treat similar themes (for example, Anna Baltzer’s documentary “Life in Occupied Palestine” and Stefan Schaefer and Yuta Silverman’s drama “Arranged,” which celebrates the friendship between two teachers in Brooklyn, one frum, the other devoutly Muslim), they have not been widely screened. American Jewish filmmakers have been more likely to celebrate Zionist history than to challenge it, whether in films like Roberta Grossman’s and Nancy Spielberg’s 2014 “Above and Beyond,” about American Jews who fought for Israel in 1948, or in polemical documentaries like the anti-J Street film “The J Street Challenge.”

“1913: Seeds of Conflict,” with its high-profile national airing on public television, is thus a milestone in American Jewish film. Director Ben Loeterman (“The People v. Leo Frank”) explained at a recent screening that his direct inspiration for making the film was journalist Amy Dockser Marcus’s book “Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” But he was also motivated by debates in his family — between one relative who has made aliyah and another who is more hostile to current Israeli policies. Like his French counterparts, Loeterman sought to imagine a time before the current conflict.

“1913” seeks to educate viewers who still believe that Palestine was a “land without a people” before 1948. Like Marcus’s book, it adopts as its foil a 1913 documentary, “Life of the Jews in Palestine,”.) by Zionist pioneer Noah Sokolovsky. That film sought to show the great successes of the Zionist movement. However, as Marcus and others have pointed out, “The Life of the Jews” presented a sanitized picture of Palestine — one that excised non-Jews from its frames. Combining archival footage, re-enactments and interviews with experts (American, Israeli and Palestinian), Loeterman aims to restore what was missing from Sokolovsky’s film.

“1913” portrays Ottoman Palestine as a land of peaceful coexistence. It presents integrated coffeehouses in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim men socialized, and a music ensemble in which they played together. “1913” also shows how residents of Palestine (including Ottoman Jews) viewed the Zionists who began arriving in large numbers in the 1880s. Where Zionist narratives traditionally discuss these Russian olim as coming to a barren desert, “1913” treats them as illegal immigrants who violated Ottoman immigration laws. Loeterman traces the disruption they caused. The film explains that Jews bought land from absentee landlords and then ejected Bedouins living there without offering them compensation. ...

Read entire article at Forward

comments powered by Disqus