The Seventh Annual “Other Israel Festival — Films By and About Israel’s Minority Communities” was held last month and was sponsored primarily by the JCC in Manhattan. There were more than 30 cosponsors representing a large part of the Zionist Left, including the New Israel Fund, Ameinu, J Street, B’tselem USA, and the Forward newspaper, as well as centrist non-political organizations like the Taub Center for Jewish Studies at NYU, Yediot Ahronot, Hillel, and American-Israel Cultural Exchange. Nineteen documentaries and features were shown, most followed by a Q and A with people involved in their production.
Considering that there are 1,670,000 Arabs living in Israel (many of them living in villages without movie theatres) and that Arab countries boycott Israel’s cultural output, this is a very significant amount of cinematic activity in just one year. As none of these films are likely to make money, they are supported by NGO’s and quasi-governmental institutions.
I saw three films: Arabani and Apples of the Golan, both of which take place in Druze villages, and It’s Better to Jump, a documentary about the old city in Acre.
The Druze are a religious minority living in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. Their survival depends on loyalty to their host country. Before Israel’s capture of the Golan in the Six-Day War, the Druze in the Syrian-held Golan were not mistreated by Assad. Some studied at Syrian universities, and they were left to govern their own villages. Hence, when Israel conquered and, under Begin, proceeded to annex the Golan, the Druze rejected Israel citizenship and even rioted. Today, some 45 years later, the older generation still maintains its loyalty to the Assad family while the younger generation, who never knew Syrian rule, is beginning to have doubts and, in some cases, have opted for Israeli citizenship. Unaffected by the civil war in Syria, they are beginning to realize that living under Israeli rule provides a security unknown in Syria today.
Arabani, the first feature film made by a Druze, takes place in the fictional Druze village of Sumaky. Its central character meets an Israeli Jewish woman while studying at university, leading him to break off an engagement from a young woman in his home town. The new couple marries and settles in Yerucham in the Negev. He opens a pharmacy and they have two children. All does not go well: They divorce and he gets custody of their two teenagers. He returns to his birth village where his mother greets him with a slap in the face. He tries to make a go of it but is ostracized and threatened, his kids don’t fit in and finally, after meeting with a religious elder, he leaves town with his children to parts unknown. Through marrying a Jew, he crossed a taboo from which there was no return.
It’s Better to Jump centers on the old city in Acre, one of the ancient cities of the Middle East. In the 20th century, with the return of the Jews to Palestine, the Arabs launched a pogrom in 1929. During the Arab riots of 1936-1939 (which took place throughout Palestine), the Jews were force to evacuate Acre.
During Israel’s War of Liberation, 13,510 out of a population of 17,395 Arabs fled to Lebanon. Yet the population kept on shifting. New immigrants from North Africa were settled in Acre but many of them moved to Nahariya in the 1990’s. Meanwhile, many Arabs left their villages for Acre. Today, there are 46,300 residents, two-thirds of whom are Jews. The Old City, however, is 95 percent Arab; only 15 percent are descendants of those who lived there prior to 1948.
The Old City is going through a process of gentrification. Jews are purchasing homes in former slums at astronomical prices and Arabs are reaping the rewards. Many are taking the money from their apartment sales and are settling in other cities. Other Arabs, who own businesses, stand to make a tidy income from the new, wealthy Jews who are moving in. Yet, there are nationalist Arabs who do not want Acre to become a Jewish city like Jaffa, which has also gentrified. These nationalist Arabs tend to be western-educated and Hebrew-speaking.
In between are those like actor Makram Khourie, a recipient of the Israel Prize (the nation’s equivalent of an Oscar), who in a discussion following the film explained that he sold his home in Acre and moved to Haifa. Yet, he is angry at what he called the “Judaization” of Acre and blames the Israeli government.
The Other Israel festival portrays attempts at adaption by minorities living in a Jewish state. Their challenges are compounded by their being surrounded by Arab states whose populations are hostile to Israel. The tumult brought on by the Arab Spring has not made their situation any easier. The festival provides an important outlet for their predicament, and a valuable forum for the cultural expression of an Israel too little noticed by Israel’s supporters, and even Israelis themselves. By letting us into their lives, the festival deepens our understanding of Israel and appreciation for the challenges it faces.