Monday, February 18, 2008

Film Review: "To Die in Jerusalem": When Worldviews Collide

The genesis for this blog stemmed from my desire to confront and expose uncomfortable realities that are under-reported or are too often minimized and misunderstood. While we all want peace and reconciliation to prevail in the Middle East and in the world at large, it has been my contention as a social worker and psychotherapist that only way to effect real and lasting change is to begin with an unsparing assessment of where we find ourselves at the starting gate and why.
The film I reviewed below, "To Die in Jerusalem," opens a window through which we can better understand the disparities in Palestinian and Israeli societies. Until there is a fundamental shift in the Palestinian worldview that this film so vividly depicts, hopes for a real solution to the conflict may, sadly, remain elusive.
david brumer
seattle, washington

From Congress Monthly, November/December 2007

To Die in Jerusalem: When Worldviews Collide

On March 29th, 2002, 18 year old Ayat al-Akhras left her home in the Deheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem County. Instead of going to school, she traveled less than four miles into Jerusalem, and blew herself up outside a supermarket. Two Israelis were killed; the security guard and 17 year old Rachel Levy of Kiryat Yovel.

Two weeks later the two teenage girls were featured on the cover of Newsweek, under the banner: SUICIDE MISSION. The picture and story captured the attention of Hilla Medalia, a young Israeli working on her master’s degree in mass communication at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Already intending to do her thesis as a film dealing with some aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ms. Medalia saw an opportunity in the tragedy. She wanted her thesis to reflect hope and give voice to both sides of the conflict. The ensuing forty-five minute student film, Daughters of Abraham, was made despite any number of logistical complications. But Medalia’s desire to bring the parents of the teenage girls together went unrealized.

Her film won an award at the Angelus Student Film Festival in Los Angeles and caught the attention of John and Ed Priddy, up-and-coming film producers from Boise, Idaho. Together with Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentaries, whose earlier efforts to make a similar film had been frustrated, a new plan was devised. If it were not possible to get the mothers together in the same room, they could be hooked up by satellite.

The resulting HBO documentary film, To Die In Jerusalem, succeeds in bringing the mothers together for dialogue, but fails to meet Ms. Medalia’s more ambitious goal of finding “a story of hope, something that would break misconceptions” and hold out the prospect for a peaceful Israeli-Palestinian co-existence. Ironically, the film highlights why that reconciliation remains even more distant today. What we witness is more like parallel universes, where the most basic of human instincts and values could not be more unlike.

Abigail Levy, mother of Rachel, saw Ayat’s mother, Um Samir al-Akhras, on television following the suicide mission, handing out candies in front of the family’s mourning tent. Abigail yearned to ask her, “You’re a mother also; don’t you feel what I’m feeling?” She cannot fathom that those on the other side of this tragic divide can imagine something positive coming from such a violent act. To Die in Jerusalem traces Abigail’s four year journey to secure a meeting and finally ask the mother of her daughter’s murderer some questions that have weighed heavily on her heart.

Before that encounter, we see pictures, videos and testimonies from both families and friends. We hear from Rachel’s older brother Guy, who feels that “we are losing a lot of soldiers for no reason; we don’t want to be there (the territories); they don’t want us there. But nobody’s controlling the terror, and if nobody’s controlling the terror, we don’t have a choice; we have to be there.”

Ayat’s sister Sammar cries out in the women’s mourning room that she will kill 30 people for Ayat. Presumably, those 30 people would be more Israeli civilians. The father of Ayat, Abu Samir al-Akhras tells us that he always taught his children to love others but that “occupation practices like killings, demolitions and imprisonments have changed the way children think.”

This theme of occupation driving the Palestinians to desperate acts of violence is repeated throughout the film. Abu Samir goes on to say that the conditions that the Palestinians live under have forced them and their children to carry out “these operations” because it is “a duty to resist the occupation.” Then, defying most Westerners’ comprehension of the bonds of parenthood, he exclaims, “What is better than to be a martyr? You are going to die anyway…today, tomorrow, in 100 years. To die in dignity and honor is better than anything.”

Eventually, through the mediation of journalist Roni Shaked at Yediot Aharanot, a meeting is arranged between the two mothers. Abigail Levy drives from Jerusalem the few miles into Bethlehem, where the Al-Ahkrats live in the Deheisheh Refugee Camp (Earlier, with no appreciation of the irony, Um Samir bemoans the fact that she cannot travel unrestricted into Jerusalem, due to the irksome Israeli checkpoints--checkpoints that had they already been in place, might have kept bomb-laden teenagers like her daughter out of Israeli supermarkets). Now inside the West Bank, it is the Palestinian Authority who controls the checkpoints. Palestinian police stop the film crew and detain them at their headquarters for questioning. A frustrated—and frightened—Abigail takes refuge in the church of her Palestinian go-between, Reverend Mitri Raheb, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church.

During the hours of waiting, Abigial shares her hope that Um Samir can admit what her daughter did is wrong, and that she will have the courage to stand up before the Palestinian people (and the whole world) and say so. The Reverend, who understands all to well the psyche of his co-religionists in Bethlehem, explains that this admission is highly unlikely, because this would mean that “their daughter died in vain; for nothing. The outcome is zero.”

By the time the film crew is released, it is late and dark and Abigail has no stomach to proceed with the rendez-vous. Driving back to Jerusalem, the Reverend informs her that they are passing the Deheisheh ‘Refugee Camp.’ Looking through the eye of the camera at the well-kept boulevards and middle-class apartments, shops and cars, one would have thought they were driving through many a neighborhood in Jerusalem.

An alternate meeting via satellite is finally arranged, and Abigail’s wish to meet the mother of her daughter’s killer is realized, if not face to face, at least person to person. Abigail asks Um Samir if she knew what her daughter’s plans were that day. Um Samir says she did not know and would have tried to stop Ayat if she knew.

But the conversation quickly goes downhill, with Um Samir turning defensive and angry, shouting at her Israeli counterpart. Rather than confronting the essential humanity of Abigail at her most vulnerable, Um Samir lashes out in contemptuous rage. She dishes out the usual litany of grievances, from oppression, to imprisonment; killings, and assassinations--all under the mantra of ‘occupation.’ Abigail tries to disabuse her Palestinian counterpart of this eternal victimization, imploring her to “think otherwise; the occupation is not the only reason you live the way you live,” she says. But Um Samir will have none of it. She repeats that “we live in misery. Occupation requires resistance.’

Um Samir’s husband expressed much the same viewpoint in an earlier interview. “Each person,” he said, “resists the occupation in his own way; some with bullets, by words or with art.” Of course, here is the crux of the problem. These methods are not at all equivalent, and they bring unequivalent responses from those who are met with bullets versus words or art.

But the Al-Ahkras want to have it both ways. While their claims of living in misery under the yoke of their Israeli oppressors are belied by Abu Samir polishing his fancy Audi automobile and fiddling with digital photos on his home PC, they wish to invoke their right to ‘resistance,’ even if it means that they ultimately bring more suffering (checkpoints, curfews, commerce restrictions, etc.) upon themselves. The circle of victimhood is never ending, and Um Samir complains to Abigail Levy--to Abigail Levy, mind you, the mother of the girl who her daughter blew up at a supermarket!--that her life is oppressive.

There can be no meeting of the minds, or hearts, in this encounter because the worldview of the two families—and, it would seem, the two peoples— remains at polar opposites. Abigail Levy is crushed by the senseless death of her daughter, and it is obvious that this devastating rupture in her life will never fully heal. By contrast, Um Samir, and her husband seem buoyed by their daughter’s death. Their position in the community is clearly elevated by Ayat’s violent act, evinced by the omnipresent backdrop of posters of martyrs plastering the walls of Palestinian villages. It is difficult to avoid drawing the conclusion that Abigail Levy represents a culture that sanctifies life, and profoundly grieves its loss, while what Um Samir expresses in this film is emblematic of a worldview that glorifies death through martyrdom, and the fast track to Paradise that it provides.

While the film ends with no satisfaction for either side, the dispassionate viewer better understands the formidable obstacles to a real solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Brumer


Lao Qiao said...

"Occupation requires resitance," says Um Samir. She doesn't understand what she is talking about. Her daughter died to prevent a Palestinian state from coming into existence. Her daughter died so that Israel would continue to occupy Palestine and hatred would keep on growing forever. If the Palestinians wanted a state, they could have one if they agreed to live in peace with Israel. Instead, they have chosen to let their chidlren kill themselves and others so that Israel will never have peace. Virtue, which for Um Samir means dying so that one can kill Israelis, always takes precedence over mere practically, like an independent state.

Uzi Silber said...

wait did i miss something?
was the suicide murderer a christian?
the piece mentions that the 'galakh' 'understood' his coreligionists.

David Brumer said...

Sorry. Meant co- in the broader sense of 'fellow.'
The suicide bomber was indeed Muslim.

Anonymous said...

You're all full of shit.