“I’m one of the few Israelis who will call it an occupation,” Lior Elefant tells me over wine. She’s a blogger from Tel Aviv, and she says that she has started Israel’s first feminist film blog. Our conversation has turned, as many conversations in Jerusalem do, towards the Palestinians.
Sitting on the roof deck of the Jerusalem Press Club, drinking a red wine, you can see the walls of the Old City, minarets and towers peeking over the battlements. But you can also see another wall, the long and sinuous concrete wall built to separate Jerusalem from the West Bank. Over the wall you can see rickety-looking buildings and, for a couple of days now, steady puffs of black smoke. One night fireworks exploded on the other side of the wall, frankly startling me.
Coming to Israel means confronting one of the most problematic situations in the free world. For some the situation is too problematic, and earlier this year Ken Loach and Mike Leigh were among 600 who signed on to support the anti-Israel BDS movement - Boycott, Divest, Sanctions. They pledged to not come to Israel and to not accept awards or honors or attend events thrown by Israeli state-sponsored organizations, such as the Jerusalem Film Festival. The comparison has been made to the artistic boycott of South Africa in the 80s, although drawing a line between Israel and South Africa does feel hyperbolic.
I had to confront my own feelings on the issue when I accepted an invitation from the JFF; I generally stand opposed to Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians and the West Bank, and I am infuriated by the problem of Jewish settlements and the cruelty often shown by the IDF. At the same time I feel more than slightly hopeless - the history of Israel is one of conflict, and has been for three thousand years, ever since King David showed up and conquered the Jebusites. I attended a spectacular light show about the history of Israel at the Tower of David in the Old City and one of the workers there told me it would cover the invasions of Israel. “It must go on for days,” I joked.
But if I only dealt with nations whose policies I agreed with and who weren’t inherently racist and violent I would have to move the fuck out of the United States in a hurry. And I’m not exactly sure where I could even go. This is no way excuses Israel, but it’s a practical consideration that must be taken into account; I’m sure Mike Leigh will happily travel to the USA despite the fact that American police have killed two people per day so far in the month of July.
The practical considerations are the least of it, though. Boycotting the arts of a nation strikes me as incredibly pointless and counterproductive. While attending the Jerusalem Film Festival I have made a point of seeing as many Israeli films as possible because I want the point of view from this nation and this culture. I wish there were Palestinian options, as I would go to those films as well. I’m looking to hear voices that speak to me about this part of the world, and that doesn’t always have to be explicit when it comes to the conflict, which forever boils in the background of all things in Israel.
I wouldn’t say that Israel is in the middle of a new wave - there was actually a fascinating panel about this subject at the festival, with foreign journalists talking about their perception of the Israeli cinema - but we have seen interesting films come from this country for almost a decade, starting with The Band’s Visit and Waltz With Bashir and continuing through Gett and the terrific genre film Big Bad Wolves. Israeli cinema is on the upswing, and I believe filmmakers like Talya Lavie, who made the female soldier comedy Zero Motivation, and Rama Burshtein, director of the Hasidic arranged marriage drama Fill the Void, have a lot to offer moving forward.
The long history of conflict in Israel makes me think that there won’t be a political solution, but my unwavering belief in cinema makes me think there can be a cultural one. Roger Ebert famously called the movies an empathy machine, and a good film from a good filmmaker can change your entire worldview. That is why it’s important to support films coming from troubled places, and to support the filmmakers behind them - filmmakers who, in many of these nations, must work through ministries of culture to get their films made, thus making their films de facto state sponsored art. Would BDS supporters rather that we not see art produced by people living within this conflict daily? Would they prefer that we ignore these voices? Isn’t it better to find the smartest, most talented and best voices and amplify them so they can speak not only to their own people but the world? To truly support artistic freedom and diversity we must, on some level, ignore national boundaries and politics in order to better understand national boundaries and politics.
Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have strong points to make about their claim to the region, and both are stubborn and bull-headed about it. Movies and music and other art can cut through the political posturing and senseless violence; well made films with good human stories can impact the hearts and minds of both Israelis and Palestinians. This won’t happen this year, or the next, but it can and I believe it will, eventually. When I look at that wall dividing Jerusalem and the West Bank I know it will be bulldozers and politicians who eventually bring it down, but I also know that it will be compelling art and cinema that changes the way people on the Israeli side look at it, forcing those bulldozers and politicians to make a change.