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Israeli-Palestinian film series launched in Maplewood
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Israeli-Palestinian film series launched in Maplewood

Ethical Culture Society hosts screenings aimed at promoting peace

Filmmaker Shlomi Ben Yair discusses his work at the opening event of a new film series at the Ethical Culture Society in Maplewood. Photo by Elaine Durbach
Filmmaker Shlomi Ben Yair discusses his work at the opening event of a new film series at the Ethical Culture Society in Maplewood. Photo by Elaine Durbach

With the aim of bolstering efforts to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a new film and discussion series was launched April 9 at the Ethical Culture Society of Essex County, in Maplewood.

Organizers of the new venture, a combined effort of South Mountain Peace Action and the society’s Third Saturday for the Arts Project, say they want to use the power of film to promote an understanding of the human beings on each side of the conflict.

The idea for the festival came from an Israeli, Dorit Tabak of South Orange, a longtime member of the committee that helps plan JCC MetroWest’s annual New Jersey Jewish Film Festival. She said, “I think that movies can get across much more than other media, and there are excellent films that many people here haven’t seen.”

Opening the event, SMPAC chair Paul Surovell of Maplewood talked of the rapidly changing landscape in the Middle East and the glimmers of hope for a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He mentioned the conflict that has emerged recently between the political and military wings of Hamas. “It might not be as monolithic as we thought, and that could present an opportunity,” he said.

Their first screening, which drew an audience of around 45, featured a film by Israeli-born Maplewood resident Shlomi Ben Yair. A software engineer and real-estate investor recently turned full-time filmmaker, Ben Yair said he wants his production company, Peace Walk Productions, to focus on breaking up the false generalizations that create the “us vs. them” mindset behind so many conflicts.

“There really aren’t two sides,” he said. “Every person comes with their own baggage, and their own motivations.”

His first venture, Heaven Is Waiting, is about the conflict closest to his heart. He showed the 15-minute version he has made for the purposes of raising funds to finance a full-length feature.

It features a Palestinian woman determined to become a suicide bomber to avenge the death of her boyfriend, killed presumably by the Israelis. On her way to carry out her mission, she becomes nauseated, and an old Israeli woman, seeing her vomiting, assumes she must be pregnant. The Palestinian realizes she might be — with her boyfriend’s child. Now she faces a conflict of her own, whether love should lead to suicide or new life.

Before he showed his film, Ben Yair explained two of his emotional foundation stones. As a soldier serving with the Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza, he related, he was standing on a roof holding a gun. A boy came up the street with his father, and cringed at the sight of him. He told the man that his son had no need to fear him. “The father looked up at me and said, ‘What do you want him to feel?’”

That rocked him back on his heels, but he also has the memory of narrowly escaping death by a suicide bomber. He was working at a Tel Aviv restaurant and called to say he wouldn’t be coming to work that day. He ran to catch a bus, but it drove off without him. A little while later he learned it had blown up — right outside the restaurant on Dizengoff Street where he was supposed to be working.

In a discussion after the screening, in answer to a question about the term “terrorist,” Ben Yair pointed out that Jewish fighters in Palestine were labeled terrorists. “We believed we deserved to have a country of our own, and we succeeded in driving out the British,” he said. He mentioned that he grew up in an Israel that had almost no violence. “It’s very different now, because of what people have gone through,” he said. He mentioned he had seen his own friends emerge from basic training with a more brutal attitude, but he added that he still believes the Israeli army is “one of the cleanest armies in the world.”

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