The Agony of Not Being Jewish


other-israelThe Other Israel Film Festival Just as the vision of the Statue of Liberty once sent electrical shocks of joy through immigrants eying the emerald lady for the very first time, Zabar's now exhilarates lox lovers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

This unrivaled, landmark deli, with its hypnotic selection of cheeses, bagels, imported coffees, caviar, olive oil, blenders, and potholders, not unexpectedly has a queen. And as queens are wont to do, this feisty czarina of the rugelach has projects of her own that reside outside of her expected realm.

Yes, pushing aside shmears of cream cheese for more political platters, Carole Zabar, who's been a portrait painter, a photographer, and a family-court prosecutor, has founded the Other Israel Film Festival (OIFF), which lurched into its second successful year this past weekend.

The festival's goal is to spotlight the plight of the Arab citizens of Israel, who make up about 20% of Israel's population. As she told The New York Times, "I want people to see Israeli Arabs as human beings. Not just as human beings -- as citizens that contribute to the vibrancy, the cultural life of Israel."

And Mrs. Zabar is succeeding.

Until her smorgasbord of celluloid selections started hitting Manhattan, few films depicting Israeli Arabs as full-fledged human beings were screened here or anywhere, because they were seldom being made. Notable exceptions were the groundbreaking films of Palestinian-born director Hany Abu-Assad: Ford Transit (2002), Rana's Wedding (2002), and the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now (2005), plus Tewfik Saleh's classic The Dupes (1972).

To help remedy this situation, OIFF is screening episodes of the very first Israeli television series about Israeli Arabs, the comedy Arab Labor. Created, written, and directed by Sayed Kashua, the comedy, which is similar in ways to Curb Your Enthusiasm, focuses upon Amjad Alayan, a 35-year-old schlemiel of an Arab journalist working for a Jewish newspaper, and his family and friends.

In one episode, Amjad is blackmailed by an Israeli agency to spy on his Arab peers, his mother-in-law moves in and cuts the air conditioner cord, his father gets legal help because Jewish pizzerias won't deliver pizza to Arab neighborhoods, and Amjad's best friend can't get second dates because he's considered a traitor for being a soldier in the IDF.

At times laugh-out funny, and at times a bit unnerving, the show is acclaimed by all segments of the Israeli population and has earned a loyal weekly following of over half a million viewers. (Well, some Arabs are carping about airing their dirty laundry so openly. Remember the similar to-do about Portno's Complaint.) Accordingly, Professor Yitzhak Reiter of the Hebrew University noted to The Jewish Daily Forward, “Today the Arabs have become an important part of the Israeli reality. And the fact that there is a TV program on prime time relating to the Israeli Arabs as part of the society -- I think this is progress."

Mirey Brantz's superb 6.5 Minutes in Tel Aviv is a startling short that lasts as long as its title denotes. The plot is simple. A young woman dressed up as Queen Esther for Purim gets upon a Tel Aviv bus and finds a seat. Shortly thereafter, a young Palestinian man climbs aboard and sits next to her. Suddenly, he's fiddling with his knapsack. Then he receives a message on his cell phone. Then another. Is he a suicide bomber? The young woman, increasingly worried, gets up, runs for the door, and demands to be let off. Hurriedly, she runs out, losing one of her shoes. Then standing unevenly on the sidewalk, she watches, with us at her side, as the bus departs. The short ends.

Was the man indeed a terrorist?

Brantz's  concoction cleverly deconstructs the Israeli/Arab problem. To many Israelis, all Arabs are worthy of suspicion. To many Arabs, all Israelis are bigots who refuse to see them as human beings trying to lead normal everyday lives. Is anyone totally right or wrong here?

Going in another direction, Ada Ushpiz's eye-opening Desert Brides is a documentary that explores polygamy among the Bedouin population in Israel and its effect on the women who suddenly discover they have become the first, second, or third wife, often of a man who can't fully support one family.

Living in a tribal society where physically abusing a female is condoned, where a young woman must marry a cousin, where having only six children is frowned upon, and where love is not considered a basis for becoming wed, the heroines here try to survive as well as they can with limited choices. As one notes, "The day we were divorced was the day I was reborn."

Interspersed among the marital woes unearthed here are the neck slashing of numerous goats and sheep, causing one gleeful child to shout, "Yeah, that's how we'll slaughter the Jews one day."

Also of note is Chaim Yavin's ID Blues. OIFF is screening two of the five episodes of this documentary series that will broadcast later this month on Israeli primetime TV.

The first episode, "My Blood Is Red Like Yours," is concerned with the discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society. One interviewee states bluntly, "This is my home yet I'm treated like a guest, an unwanted guest."

Another argues, "The enemy is the racism that took over Israel. There is a big difference between a Jewish state and a Zionist state." He has no problem with the former.

Raging unemployment and poverty plus third-rate citizenship force several Arabs to ask, "When will it all explode?"

"The Land of the Negev" potently depicts the conditions the Bedouins must cope with, especially how they are forcefully being removed from the land their forefathers have lived upon. One unforgettable scene has a mother of ten screaming as the Israelis bulldoze down her home. "How can you do this? Where will my children sleep tonight?" she cries.

After many of the screenings, there are conversations with the directors and experts in the field. These often pack as much of a wallop as the films they ensue so hang around after the credits. - Brandon Judell brandon.jpg

Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.