I had no idea what I was walking into when I parked my car on the street near Al-Midan Theatre in Haifa and started to look for the entrance to the small mall in which it is housed. I had come to see the controversial film, “Naela and the Intifada”. The screening was part of Haifa’s Beit HaGefen festival called Arab Culture Days, this year focusing on Palestinian culture.
The festival, and the screening of this particular film, raised the ire of many. An organization of bereaved parents of the children killed in the bus bombing on Moria Street in Haifa, members of the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu in Haifa, and disabled IDF veterans requested that Haifa Mayor Einat Kalish cancel the festival and Shai Glick, CEO of the human rights organization, Betzalmo, protested the screening of the film that “glorifies the terrorist, Naela” using public funds. Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev ordered Beit HaGefen to remove the ministry logo from promotional materials immediately. They did not. The unauthorized use of a government ministry logo is one thing and the fight to prevent the screening of a film is something entirely different.
The theatre is in the lowest floor of what was once proud of being the largest shopping-entertainment-office building in Haifa. Built in the 1980s it housed a movie theatre and that is where Al-Midan is now. The entire building has suffered from years of neglect and I felt like I was going into a cave when I descended the stairs to the theatre. Luckily the hall itself did not look so gloomy and the chairs were comfortable.
Slowly people began to come until there were about 60 men and women altogether, filling just under 1/3 of the hall. Judging from the languages people were speaking, I estimate that about 95% of the audience was Jewish. Their ages ranged from over 30 to 70, skewed a bit toward the older set.
I assumed I was the only right winger in attendance. But perhaps there were some others like me, who are not content to condemn a film they have not seen. I came to judge for myself. Was this film an affront to Israel? Was it guilty of incitement to terrorism?
In introducing the film to the audience, Festival Artistic Director, Rami Younis, asked the rhetorical question: “What can Palestinian women accomplish when we do not bother them?” He told the audience that he is constantly being asked when he will stop doing films on the occupation. I did not hear him offer an answer, but he talked about films providing intimate personal explorations of the experiences of individuals under occupation and then he posed another rhetorical question: “What is it like to be an artist under occupation?”
Against the background of the fuss made over this film in Israeli media, social and otherwise, plus Younis’ introduction to it, I braced myself for what I expected was coming: Jew hatred, IDF hatred, Israel hatred. I have faced it before in many different venues and it is never easy to bear. I expected to feel attacked, personally attacked, even though the film was not about me.
I was not prepared, therefore, for my initial gut reaction to the images on the screen: I was enchanted with the beauty and artistry of the production. It seamlessly wove together contemporary interviews with figures central to the story, documentary footage, home movies of the Ayesh family, and animations to bring to life events for which no film documentation existed. I allowed myself to be swept up by that seductive enchantment, simultaneously not setting aside my cognitive faculties in order to evaluate the film as it progressed, wondering when the hatred would come out.
But the film did not hit you over the head with Israeli brutality. Yes, there were examples of seemingly unwarranted beatings of some of the Arab demonstrators in the streets of Arab towns in Judea and Samaria (named The West Bank by Jordan during its occupation of the region), the demolition of the Ayesh family home was heartbreaking when told from the perspective of the 8-year-old child she was at that time, and, of course, the conditions of Naela’s interrogation and imprisonment that caused her to miscarry were horrid. If it were not for the intervention of Oren Cohen, the only journalist who believed his Arab sources and disbelieved Israeli authorities, she may not have gotten even the belated medical attention she needed; if true, and I have no reason to believe it is not, that is criminal, in my opinion.
At 57, Ayesh is an attractive woman. She speaks calmly and you believe her. If you know nothing else, you leave the film enthralled with her and the other women leaders of that time. If I set aside what I know, I might sign up to march alongside Ayesh. If the last scene of the film had not shown Ahed Tamimi and proclaimed her as Ayesh’s successor, I might have been able to remain totally awash in the feel-good ambiance so artistically engendered by this film. That is a lot of if`s.
We are never told why the Ayesh family home was demolished. We are never told why Ayesh was arrested and interrogated. We are never told why her husband was deported to Egypt. An article about the Brazilian director of the film, Julia Bracha, says all this was because of their “political activities”.
Some of the women’s political activities could be more aptly defined as community empowerment. With the men largely absent, either dead or deported, the local women’s committees set up medical clinics, secret classrooms after schools and universities were closed by Israel (rationale: to prevent students gathering and committing violence), and growing their own produce in order to boycott Israeli agriculture. Their more politically oriented activities included marching in huge rallies, unarmed. Women made executive decisions and one even led the PLO for about 18 months. We are not told of anything else.
There are no images of the male stone throwers that usually accompany films or articles about the Intifada. There are no images of cars or buses burning after having been the target of a Molotov cocktail, no roadblocks or tires burning. Bracha purposefully avoided use of such images. This was a feminist story, a story about the women, she said, not the men. (But the women, Ayesh among them, glorified the rock throwers and the Molotov cocktail throwers.) Bracha says that Ayesh:
… secretly distributed bulletins with calls to action including demonstrations, general strikes, and the boycott of Israeli goods.
and we see this in the film animation. But nowhere does it say that the calls to action also included incitement to continue the violence, the rock and Molotov cocktail throwing, the killing of Jews. For that incitement, Ayesh was imprisoned, according to a member of the bereaved parents’ group I spoke with.
What would naïve viewers have thought had they known she supported terrorist acts and actively promoted them? Perhaps it would not have had much of an impact. After all, we do not see many people getting behind Arnold Roth who is trying to get Ahlam Tamimi, his daughter’s terrorist-murderer, extradited to the USA to stand trial. Instead she is raising a family in Jordan, where she is regarded as a hero and has her own TV program. I can only imagine what kind of feminist Julia Bracha would paint Tamimi were she to make a film about her.
Strangely enough, while the Israeli occupation was the reason given for Arab Palestinian misery and lack of freedom, that is not what I came away with from the film itself. It is obvious that the film is a protest against “The Occupation”. And Younis set us up for seeing it through that filter when he said in his introduction: “What can Palestinian women accomplish when we do not bother them?”
However, we can easily see in the film itself that we, Israel and the IDF, were a constant “bother” throughout the five years of Intifada. So if Israel is not the “we”, who is? Their own men, that is who!
What I saw in this film, what was so impactful, was seeing what is possible for women to accomplish when the men are taken away in large numbers and they are left to rely on their own intelligence, resourcefulness and creativity to make decisions and lead. I applaud the establishment of their own medical clinics, secret classrooms and food production. Left without the men for long enough, they may have begun to build roads and other infrastructure as well. In other words, they may have begun to set down the foundations for a viable state. And perhaps then they would have stopped murdering Jews/Israelis and committing other acts of terror. They may even have stopped killing each other (almost 1000 Palestinian Arabs were killed in the First Intifada at the hands of other Palestinian Arabs).
In fact, as the film also makes clear, the grassroots Palestinian Arabs sent a team to Madrid to negotiate directly with Israelis, with Hanan Ashrawi as their spokeswoman. Unbeknownst to them, however, the men folk were tunneling under the surface beneath the very ground they walked on: there were secret meetings in Oslo while Madrid was on the public stage. These secret meetings led to Arafat coming in from the cold, back from Tunisia, to take the leadership away from the people and lord it over them. In the film, Naela says that Oslo gave them less than was on the table at Madrid. I think she was trying not to sound bitter about this, but I get the sense that she is.
It is funny that current Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, says that if he were to make peace with Israel, he would be assassinated (like Sadat?). But the local leadership was in negotiations in Madrid. THEY could have made a deal and nobody would have been assassinated. But because of international intervention (meddling, interference – pick your synonym), and how everyone wants to be the one to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the conflict has been prolonged with tragic results for both main parties who are treated like kids who cannot solve their own problems.
“Naela and the Intifada” is a powerful film, as much for what it does not say as for what it does. It seduces you in its artistry and, perhaps, it can be seen as incitement to terror. When your heroes are Molotov-cocktail-murderers, suicide bombers, stabbers, and those who plan such attacks (such as Ahlam Tamimi) or spur them on with secret brochures delivered in bundles of food (such as Naela Ayesh), then it does not take much to tip the scales and incite young people to commit murder. We have seen a number of such instances, carried out by Israeli Arabs as well.
My biggest take-away from having seen this film is how it could have been used to encourage critical and independent thinking regarding the Israeli situation vis a vis our Arab citizens and our neighbors in the Palestinian Authority. From the Beit HaGefen website, it appears that such an approach could be considered in line with their own mission. They claim to be a cultural and educational organization. Here is what they write on their “About” page:
Beit HaGefen promotes a shared society in Haifa and in Israel by organizing intercultural and dialogue activities. The Center seeks to provide tools for navigating the complex issues of a multicultural society.
Just showing a film cannot be considered “dialogue” or providing tools for navigating anything. Just showing this film — without any opportunity for synthesis and analysis — is provocation pure and simple. Just showing a film that glorifies a major player in the incitement to violence during the First Intifada is essentially spitting in the face of Israeli Jews and non-Jews who are truly looking for positive pathways to respectful and, for many, warm co-existence. It should not have been “just” shown. It should have been used as a trigger for discussion.
I do not agree with censorship and therefore I do not agree with those who asked for the screening to be cancelled. I do agree that events supported by our municipal or national taxes should maintain a high standard of programming and should aim at improving our understanding of our shared society. This could have been accomplished by showing the film followed by a panel discussion; panel members would have had a diversity of opinions and would have been able to debate respectfully and to lead the audience in respectful exploration of the important issues. THIS would be a great use of public funds. But it seems Beit HaGefen just likes to say that they are for dialogue because it sounds nice.