October 22, 2018

Bringing together Palestinians, Israelis both on screen and behind the scenes

“Junction 48” starring Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar, who co-wrote the film. Photo courtesy of the Match Factory.

In May, Israel’s Jews will celebrate the 69th anniversary of the state’s birth, while the country’s Arabs will mourn the event as a nakba, or catastrophe.

All attempts so far to forge a durable peace between the two Semitic peoples have come to naught. Even well-meaning optimists are throwing up their hands — but director Udi Aloni is not one of them.

“We can create a beautiful community, we can create a beautiful people,” Aloni insisted in a phone interview from Berlin, where he is shooting a film. “But first we have to acknowledge that we are two equal people.”

If there is such a thing as left-wing royalty, Udi Aloni is the crown prince. He is the son of Shulamit Aloni, a longtime Israeli minister of education and early champion of civil liberties, who consistently challenged her country’s religious establishment and the government’s occupation policies.

Unlike his mother, Udi Aloni’s stage is not the floor of the Knesset but the movie set, and he considers his latest film, “Junction 48,” as proof that Jews and Arabs in Israel can work together for their mutual good.

However, Aloni’s movie — about a Palestinian hip-hop artist and his singer girlfriend who try to use music to express both their political and humanistic beliefs — seems to make it clear that he sees the fault for the impasse as lying almost entirely with the Israelis. It shows, on balance, the Israelis as the oppressors and the Palestinians as the victims.

Aloni has no illusions that this view will be embraced by most Israelis in the near future. Asked how many Israelis shared his political and philosophical outlook, he answered, “About 1 percent.”

Palestinians who remained in their towns and villages after Israel’s military victory in the 1948 War of Independence frequently are labeled “48ers” and they consider their defeat as a junction between their old and current lives. Thus the title of the movie, which is set in the city called Lod by its Jewish inhabitants and Lyd by the Arab population. Lod/Lyd is the site of Ben Gurion Airport, about a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv.

One of its best-known residents is Tamer Nafar, widely known as the fist Arab rap artist. He is both the co-writer and star of the film, which is based largely on his own experiences. As in his stage appearances, he uses his talents to convey both the deep resentments and the hopes of his people.

A very similar theme pervades the recent movie “The Idol,” this year’s Palestinian entry in the Oscar race. In “Idol’s” case, the protagonist is a more conventional singer, from a hardscrabble Palestinian background, who becomes the voice of his people when he goes to Cairo and places first in the top-rated TV show “Arab Idol.”

If the outsider’s image of Jews and Arabs in Israel is that of two completely separate communities, both the reality and the scenario in “Junction 48” are quite different.

For instance, there is the mind-bending scene in a Tel Aviv nightclub, where Jewish rappers sing “Am Yisrael Chai” (The People of Israel Live) and their act is followed by Kareem (Nafar) and his group with “Burn It, George,” a chant to alert his buddies when Israeli police are about to raid their drug hoard. More political is the next number, “Hamas Is in the Air, Raise Your Voices, Wake Up the Neighbors,” when Kareem’s girlfriend, Manar (Samar Qupty), laments in a song, “I have no land, I have no country.”

In another example of cross-ethnic relations, Kareem and his Palestinian buddies make a night of it in a Jewish bordello.

Udi Aloni directed “Junction 48” which is based largely on his own experiences. Photos courtesy of the Match Factory.

Udi Aloni directed “Junction 48” which is based largely on his own experiences. Photos courtesy of the Match Factory.

The movie is filled with striking scenes, such as a bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian’s home in order to erect a future “Museum of Coexistence.”

Other elements are just plain weird. Take Kareem’s mother, who is first seen attending a meeting of the local Communist Party cell in a room decorated with images of Marx and Lenin. Later, the mother has become a faith healer, applying Quranic verses to “cure” a Jewish youngster.

“Junction 48” also has a strong feminist thread, mainly in Manar’s struggle to assert her independence as an artist and a woman. As director Aloni points out, “Palestinian women have to fight against both Israel and their Palestinian male oppression.”

Aloni cites the making of “Junction 48” as one concrete example of close collaboration between Israel’s Arabs and Jews. Another joint effort underlays the film’s financing, partially through the Israel Film Fund, administered by the government, and partially through the privately supported Palestinian Film Fund.

As to his own feelings about the situation between these two Semitic peoples in Israel, Aloni remarks, “The more I work with Palestinians, the more they raise my Jewish consciousness.

“Junction 48” opens March 3 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

Four ways Jews and Arabs live apart in Israeli society

Betzalel Smotrich, perhaps the most right-wing member of the current Knesset, caused a storm when he endorsed the idea that Arabs and Jew should be segregated in Israel’s maternity rooms.

Smotrich was responding to a report on the Israel Broadcast Authority that several hospitals practice de facto segregation of maternity rooms — placing Jews with Jews and Arabs with Arabs. Such segregation is prohibited by law.

“There are mental gaps, and it’s more comfortable for both sides to be with themselves,” Smotrich, a member of the religious Zionist Jewish Home party, tweeted on April 5. “It’s really not racism.”

In a subsequent tweet he wrote that it’s “natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby, who may want to kill her baby 20 years from now.”

Smotrich’s remarks were panned by lawmakers from left and right, including Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home. Responding to Smotrich, Bennett tweeted a rabbinic passage about man being created in God’s image, adding, “Every man. Jew or Arab.”

Jews and Arabs are afforded equal rights under Israeli law. But in many ways, the two sectors live in separate societies — attending different schools, living in different cities, reading different newspapers and espousing different political ideals.

Unlike the prescribed, top-down segregation supported by Smotrich, much of this separation stems from longstanding structural factors like language, culture and religion.  

“In most places, there’s no problem. The Arab population lives in totally Arab villages,” said Nachum Blass, a senior researcher at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

But the divisions between Israeli Jews and Arabs, who represent 20 percent of the population, have also contributed to economic disparities between them. And despite laws meant to prevent discrimination, Arabs point to studies showing persistent disparities in education, social services, income and political participation.

“There’s definitely discrimination in every aspect” of Israel’s education system, Taub said.

Nongovernmental organizations and government bodies have worked to promote a “shared society” in economic development, higher education and the labor market.

Here are four ways Jews and Arabs live apart in Israeli society.

Jews and Arabs attend separate schools.

Israel’s schools are separated by both religion and race. Jewish students attend either secular, religious or haredi Orthodox schools, while the Arabs attend separate Muslim, Christian and Druze systems taught in Arabic. Of the 1.6 million total students in grades 1 through 12 last year, fewer than 2,000 attended the handful of joint Jewish-Arab schools.

The split education system, where students are taught in their own language and according to their own cultural norms, according to Blass, “answers the [Arab] community’s needs.” But it has also led to lower educational achievement among Arab Israelis.

In 2012, two-thirds of non-haredi Jews qualified for university, as opposed to less than half of Arab students. Israel’s universities are more integrated, but Arabs make up a low proportion of students. In 2012, Arabs made up only 12 percent of bachelor’s degree students, and 4 percent of doctoral students, according to Sikkuy, an organization that aims to foster Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Jews and Arabs live in separate towns.

In addition to studying separately, Israeli Jews and Arabs mostly live in separate cities. Two of the country’s largest cities, Jerusalem and Haifa, have substantial Arab populations, but even those cities are often separated by neighborhood. Nearly all of Jerusalem’s Arab residents live in the eastern half of the city.

Aside from a handful of other mixed Israeli towns, most of the country’s cities are more than 90 percent Jewish or Arab. Though Arabs make up nearly 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry, the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Israel’s largest, is nearly 95 percent Jewish.

The Jewish-Arab division is also marked by economic gaps. Arab cities have higher poverty rates and, in general, worse municipal services than their Jewish counterparts. Eight of Israel’s 10 poorest towns are Arab. The richest 30 are Jewish.

“It’s not a problem in principle to live in different places,” said Rawnak Natour, co-director of Sikkuy. “There needs to be a possibility to live together, that there will be [cultural] symbols and the ability to encompass the different cultures.”

Their political leaders rarely work together.

Israel often points to its Arab-Israeli lawmakers as proof of the country’s democratic chops. Arabs hold 16 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and the body’s third-largest party, the Joint List, is Arab. Arabs have also risen to the top of other branches of government, including sitting on Israel’s Supreme Court.

But Israeli Arabs’ political leadership perpetually sits in the Knesset’s opposition, and few politicians in the government are Arab, such that the two communities’ agendas rarely align. The only Arab in Israel’s political leadership is the deputy minister of regional cooperation, Ayoub Kara, who is part of the Druze minority.

Arabs are barely present in Israel’s mainstream media.

Lucy Aharish, the young Arab co-host of a morning show on a leading Israeli TV station, speaks accent-less Hebrew, has gained admirers for her forthrightness and was even honored with a role at the country’s official torch-lighting ceremony on Independence Day.

But she’s one of the few Arab faces and voices Israelis will see and hear on their TVs and radios. Israeli Arabs have their own active press, but they are vastly underrepresented in mainstream Israeli media, comprising fewer than 3 percent of total interviews on leading Israel stations in January and February, according to a study by Sikkuy and the Seventh Eye, a media watchdog.

The number drops even lower when it comes to news segments not directly related to Israeli Arabs. Aharish’s Channel 2, for example, spoke to only 11 Arabs out of more than 5,500 total such interviews in January.

“You have low representation, and the moment you have it, it’s about specific topics and a very specific framing, which is crime and the conflict,” Natour said. “The way they’re interviewed is a negative framework that perpetuates the stigmas about the Arab population in the state.”

When Palestinians kill

My current foray into Israeli-Palestinian coexistence efforts began a year and a half ago, in the summer of 2014, when a group of Israelis and Palestinians in Gush Etzion marked a joint day of fasting on the 17th of Tammuz, which fell that year during Ramadan. At the height of Operation Protective Edge, a month after the abduction and murder of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, and two weeks after the revenge killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, groups of Jews and Arabs cropped up around Israel with a simple but powerful message: Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.

It isn’t that I’d never tried to get to know Palestinians before. I tried to bridge the Israeli-Palestinian divide almost immediately after making aliyah in 1994. In contrast to many Orthodox Jews, and especially to many Orthodox Israelis, I’d been an early supporter of the Oslo process and was hopeful that the political process would create the conditions to make real interpersonal relationships possible. But my efforts had consistently dissipated — I quickly discovered that “dialogue” in this part of the world consisted of Palestinians blaming Israel for every ill known to man, and left-wing Israelis agreeing with them. 

In that atmosphere, and especially in light of the Palestinian explosion of September 2000, I shared the view of most Israelis:  Israel’s peace overtures had been met with little more than Palestinian terror, and Israel was left with little choice but to construct the West Bank security fence and to wait for Palestinians to get sick of living behind it. As Golda Meir said, when they decide they love their children more than they hate us, they’ll come around to make the sort of peace that doesn’t include blowing up Israeli buses. 

Back to 2014: Six months before Gilad, Naftali and Eyal were murdered, I’d interviewed Ali Abu Awwad for a story about Palestinian nonviolence. I’d walked away from our two-hour interview deeply inspired and hopeful; now, the sight of Palestinians praying together with Israelis for the boys’ safe return filled me again with hope. Once again, I began spending time with coexistence activists, this time in Gush Etzion, and allowed myself once again to hope that Jews and Palestinians were not doomed by some outside power to be enemies forever. 

Since then, I’ve met terrific people and made important friendships with both Israelis and Palestinians who believe that a different future is possible. Ali and I have become close friends, and his generous spirit and deep understanding have allowed me to open up to Palestinian emotions in a way that years of reporting from the Palestinian arena have not. Sami Awad, founder of the Bethlehem-based Holy Land Trust, has challenged me to consider new lenses for Zionism (sorry, Sami, I know this was not your intention!) and models for coexistence. Abdallah (a pseudonym for a senior Fatah activist who I’ve become friendly with, but who does not want to become known for “normalizing” with Judea and Samaria Israelis) has asked serious, probing questions about the nature of Judaism, Zionism and the Jewish relationship to the Land of Israel. There are many more, too many to name here, but all have opened windows into Palestinian society and forced me to connect with a deep sense of empathy within myself, even as I have not become sympathetic to traditional Palestinian arguments about the ongoing conflict with Israel. 

And yet, despite the presence of many inspiring individual Palestinians, the realization that there really is no Palestinian society with which Israel can make peace has been devastating. Whereas Palestinian Israelis work and shop freely in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya, my visits to Bethlehem and Hebron must be shrouded in secrecy by removing my kippah and bearing in mind at all times not to lapse into Hebrew. Palestinians insist there is a sharp imbalance of power between Palestine and Israel, and here they are correct: When Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians in cold blood in 1994, Israeli society was rocked to the core by the horrible thought that such a depraved terrorist could emanate from our midst. Same for the killers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in 2004 and for the Dawabsheh family last summer. 

Palestinian society has no such reticence about killers that emerge from their families. Poll after poll confirms one of Israel’s greatest fears: that Palestinian society as whole remains deeply supportive of murdering Israeli civilians. In December, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicated that two-thirds of Palestinians support knife attacks against Israelis, a sharp rise from a 2011 poll that reported one-third of Palestinians said they approved of the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar. The simple fact is that our society is defined by the revulsion and deep sense of soul searching that has followed each incident. Theirs, simply, is not. 

That realization (or, more correctly, that re-realization) is a thousand times more painful this time around, specifically because I know so many Palestinians with deep moral convictions and close relationships with Israelis. But too many individuals and peace organizations — including Israeli-Palestinian organizations in which I am active — have remained silent. Last summer, we Israeli settlers prayed for the Dawabsheh family, but the response by the Palestinian peace community to the murders of Dafna Meir, Yaakov Don, Eitam and Na’ama Henkin and more than two dozen more innocent Israelis has been silence. I’m not sure where to go with all this. 

And so we continue. Ultimately, there is little choice but to forge ahead, if only in the hope, however forlorn, that our Israeli commitment to justice and peace for all residents of our tortured, holy land, will one day create the necessary conditions for Ali, Sami, Abdullah and so many others to sound their brave voices, and that one day their messages of peace and reconciliation will penetrate the values of their society.


Andrew Friedman is a member of Shorashim/Judur, a grass-roots movement of local Israelis and Palestinians creating relationships and friendships in Judea and Samaria, as well as of the Interfaith Encounter Forum.

Hundreds of Israeli Jews and Arabs form ‘human chain’ in call for peace

Approximately 300 Jews and Arabs held hands in a chain in the central Galilee to call for reconciliation amidst the violence in Israel over the past few weeks.

The symbolic gathering on Friday afternoon was organized by Givat Haviva, an educational organization that promotes Arab-Jewish coexistence.

The group of Arabs and Jews assembled and held hands on both sides of the highway Road 65, near the Megiddo Junction in Wadi Ara, an area in the Galilee with a large Arab population.

Organizers called the event “a symbol of coexistence and shared life, specifically at this tense period,” according to the Times of Israel.

After the event, entitled “Choosing to Engage,” Givat Haviva held a small ceremony with discussions.

Givat Haviva issued a declaration before the event titled “Call for a Secure and Shared Life in Israel” that condemned “any attack on body, soul or property, as well as any expression of physical or verbal abuse.”

“We appeal to the leaders of both peoples to refrain from incitement and the ferment of emotions,” the statement read. “Our task at this time is to inspire calm and ensure public safety.”

The declaration was signed by seven mayors of Jewish and Arab municipalities in the Wadi Ara area.

Arabic on Jerusalem’s light rail

This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

Avital Horn led her students onto the Jerusalem light rail train. All dressed in purple T-shirts, she began an Arabic lesson with the giggling teenagers.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully in Arabic.

“Good morning,” they chorused.

Another teacher taught an Arabic saying.

“When your neighbor is happy, you are happy,” it went.

The traveling Arabic class is a response to a series of attacks on Palestinians both on the light rail train, and in other parts of Jerusalem. In several cases, the attackers, who were extremist Jews, said they did not like hearing the language spoken on public transportation. Palestinians have also been responsible for a series of attacks on Israelis, including the killing of four synagogue worshippers and a policeman last November, and several recent attacks on light rail bus stops that have killed several Israelis, the most recent just last month.

The light rail runs through Jewish and Arab neighborhoods in this city of 800,000, which is two-thirds Jewish, and one-third Arab. Most of the Palestinian residents of the city are not citizens, although 20 percent of Israel’s citizens are Arab.

“We decided to initiate the event with teachers and students because we decided you can do a lot with positive active citizenship activities. Education is the best way to fight racism¸” Miriam Darmoni Charbit, Director of Civics and Shared Society, of the Center for Education and Technology told The Media Line. “If you want to stop violence against Arabs, Ethiopians and Russians you have to do activities that are positive and show that most Israelis do not support violence and racism.”

One year of Arabic language is required, according to the Ministry of Education. In practice, many schools ignore the requirement, or focus on learning basic reading and writing. Most of Israel’s high school students graduate with very little, if any, Arabic. Those participating today are in the minority.

“Speaking Arabic in Jerusalem, the capital, is saying that anyone in Israel, in a democratic state can speak in their language and have their culture be heard, Eldar Rosental, 18, a high school senior at the Ahad Ha’am High School in Petach Tikva told The Media Line. “It’s important that everyone has a chance to express their culture in our state. After the racist events against Arabic speakers we decided we should go to Jerusalem.”

Most of the travelers on the train were indifferent to the Arabic class going on around them. But organizers said it was sending an important message.

“This is an effort to bring Arabic to the public space because of the phenomenon of Arabs being beat up on the streets simply because they are speaking Arabic,” “Naomi Schachter, Associate Director of Shatil the action arm of New Israel Fund told The Media Line. “The idea of their mother tongue being unacceptable in public and private spaces is ridiculous. But beyond the event, it’s part of a larger idea of acceptance, tolerance respect for the other and building a shared society we really hope Israel will become.”

There is still a way to go. The night before the Arabic event, a protest by Ethiopian-Israelis against discrimination and racism that turned violent, left dozens, mostly policemen injured. Dozens of demonstrators were arrested.

Ironically, at the same time as the event, a Palestinian who attempted to stab pedestrians at a different light rail station in northern Jerusalem, was shot and wounded by private security guards. A police spokesman said they are investigating the incident.

Writer Displays Keen Eye for Israeli Life

The Israel that Donna Rosenthal depicts in her new book, "The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land" (Free Press) can sound like one very crowded apartment building, filled with interesting, passionate people from many backgrounds, often shouting in the hallways, sitting on the stoop, offering advice out their windows, sharing tragedies. But the tenants don’t know much about those neighbors who aren’t like them.

Rosenthal is a journalist with an eye for the telling anecdote. She presents scores of profiles of Israeli citizens, stories full of complexities, sometimes contradictions and mysteries: Here are Bedouin women watching Oprah, then washing clothes in plastic buckets on the floor; ice-skaters with names like Tatiana and Vadim who practice in an Olympic-sized rink in Metulla and bring home medals for their adopted country; people for whom it has become not uncommon to attend funerals and weddings in a single day.

Among many others, she depicts an ultra-Orthodox father who won’t allow his daughter to keep the "dental hygienist" Barbie doll given to her by a secular friend of the family; an Ethiopian electrical engineer working for Intel who never used electricity or saw a telephone until he was 12; a young man who studied Torah all through school and says that his first spiritual experience was in Goa, India; a Christian Arab social worker doing outreach to gay and lesbian Arabs; a Yemenite psychologist who tried to bleach her skin white as a child.

"Israel is a talkative country," Rosenthal said in a telephone interview from her office in Northern California, when asked how she was able to get so many people to open up their lives. "It’s an easy place to be a journalist."

"The Israelis" was inspired by the comments of an international news producer at CNN who told her that viewers were confused about Israeli identity, noticing that there were Jews who look like Arabs, Arabs who look like Jews, men in 16th century garb and girls in tight pants.

"Who are these people anyway?" he asked.

"I’m trying to smash stereotypes," said Rosenthal, who has lived in Israel on and off since in the 1970s and worked as a producer for Israeli television and as a radio reporter. Although Israel receives a great deal of news coverage, she said, "There’s an amazing amount of ignorance [among reporters]," and added, "Some of the most ignorant reporters have been Jews."

She’s no easier on the American Jewish community.

"I’m appalled at the lack of knowledge among Jews, even those who’ve been to Israel," she said, after speaking about the book at several Jewish book fairs and at synagogues and bookstores.

Her judgments may be harsh, but even those individuals who make a point of staying current with Israel through reading its press and literature, talking frequently with Israelis and visiting are likely to hear voices of Israelis they haven’t previously heard.

This is not a book of politics and politicians but of regular people. Rosenthal’s two criteria for inclusion were Israeli citizenship and not being famous. She made sure to include a large number of women. She said that their stories are frequently left out of books. Her interviews and profiles are woven together with historical background and statistics.

Some of her findings are particularly surprising: That Arab Christians are the most educated and affluent of all Israelis, that Muhammad is the most popular name for an Israeli boy.

She finds pockets of tolerance, like a Turkish-Sephardi grandmother who grew up in Hebron and saw her father murdered by his Arab business partner. But she never lost her faith in God and never hated Arabs. When a bomb goes off, she always says, "Rotten terrorist" — never "Rotten Arabs." Her oft-quoted proverb: "If you live to seek revenge, dig a grave for two."

Avoiding easy generalizations, Rosenthal writes about such themes as mixed marriages (between Ashkenazim and Sephardim), life on the fast track in the world of high tech, the "widening fault line between Jews and Jews" over matters of religion, the daily impact of terrorism, resentment toward new immigrants, differing work ethics, a religious reawakening among non-Orthodox Jews who are studying Jewish texts anew and what one man calls "kippology" — the meaning of different head coverings.

She covers sexuality, writing about army life, customs of the haredim, gay Arabs and Jews, prostitutes and brothels and parents who prefer to have their children sleep with their boyfriends or girlfriends in their own beds at home so that they know they are safe.

In addition, she writes about the various Arab communities, finding on newsstands an Arabic magazine, Lilac, a cross between People, Cosmo and the National Catholic Reporter, with glossy photos and pointed articles about premarital sex, date rape and homosexuality.

Rosenthal’s first book was "Passport Israel," a guide to cross-cultural communications and doing business in Israel. She said that over the years, she has learned to understand the Israeli character. For one thing, she realizes that a "no" may really be a "maybe." When she is turned down for an interview by a leading businessman, she calls right back, asks again, and turns "no" into "yes."

The author, who until this intifada kept a horse in an Arab village on the Mount of Olives, spent about four years writing the book, living first in the center of Jerusalem, then near the beach in Tel Aviv and traveling back and forth to the United States.

Rosenthal’s own politics are nowhere to be seen in this rich and lively book. She’s very much the absent narrator; she offers neither prescriptions nor solutions.

In an interview, too, she revealed little about herself, other than that she comes from a background that’s both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, "a mixed family of Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, non-Orthodox and everything in between. A typical family."

"I’m trying to have no fingerprints," she said, and expressed satisfaction that she has been invited to speak at synagogues across the denominational spectrum and has heard positive comments from Israelis involved in the settlement movement, as well as from members of Peace Now about the way they were covered. "Everyone thinks I’m one of them."

Discussions about "The Israelis" will take place at The Jewish Community Library, Feb. 25, 7 p.m., 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8644; and Stephen S. Wise Temple, March 2, 7:30 p.m., 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles.