May 21, 2019

A Divided Israel On Display in ‘Foreign Land’

Photo by Shlomi Eldar

Longtime friends Shlomi Eldar, an Iraqi Jew, and Gassan Abbas, an Arab, were both born in Israel but feel like strangers in their country. They express their reasons why in Eldar’s documentary “Foreign Land,” a very personal examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Abbas, a sitcom star in Israel in the 1990s, was once so popular he feared being mobbed by fans. Now, denied roles, he’s afraid because he’s Arab-Israeli and he fled Tel Aviv for the Arab border town of Umm al-Fahm near Haifa. “I don’t belong,” he says in the film.

Eldar, a TV journalist covering Arab Affairs — a subject that fell on increasingly deaf ears at both his television channel and with the public — left Israel for the United States in 2013. The author of the 2012 book “Getting to Know Hamas,” who also speaks fluent Arabic, he put his expertise to work at the Wilson Center, a global affairs think tank in Washington, D.C. 

“I’m not Arab like Gassan, but we are in the same position,” Eldar told the Journal. “We have the feeling of being a stranger.” 

Eldar and Abbas met when Abbas was cast in a play based on the book “I Shall Not Hate” by peace advocate Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian whose three daughters and niece were killed by Israeli army shells that hit their home at the end of the 2008-09 Gaza War. Abuelaish appears in the film, as do scenes from the play mixed with news footage and interviews with Abbas, his son Nadim and testimony from Eldar.

“Israel has become a divided society. I wanted to [hold] a mirror [up] to the Israeli public and show what’s going on,” Eldar said. He originally intended to cover the subject as a documentary series for Israel’s Channel 10, “but no one wanted to hear about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially a story that shows a Palestinian as a human being, and [talks about] the possibility of peace with a two-state solution. Since 2013, especially, anyone who opposes [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his policies and wants to talk about the peace process is [seen as] a traitor.”

When “Foreign Land” was released in Israel, Culture Minister Mimi Regev denounced it as anti-Israel, but it nevertheless won the Ophir for best documentary this year, Eldar’s second in the category. He previously won for his first film, “Precious Life,” about an Israeli doctor who saved the life of a Palestinian baby. That film’s hopeful ending is absent from “Foreign Land.” 

“I’ve covered wars in Gaza and Lebanon but never felt a danger more than now,” Eldar said.  “The greater war is inside the society because of the government. The right wing convinced the Israeli public that there is no possibility of peace. And we can do nothing because there are now 400,000 settlers in the West Bank and it would be almost impossible to remove them. Also, the Palestinians are more extreme than they were five, 10 years ago.” 

Eldar said he’s not surprised that American Jews are conflicted about Israel. “Many American Jews think Israel is going in the wrong direction, especially younger people. They worry about the future of Israel. I want them to be aware of the dangers of the situation. You need to be aware of the situation so you can solve it.”

Now living in the U.S., Eldar said he has gone from one divided society to another.

“What’s going on with the Supreme Court, the media and [President Donald] Trump’s government frightens me just as much as in Israel,” he said. “You can hear a lot of familiar phrases from Netanyahu’s speeches in Trump’s speeches. [They have] a lot in common.”

Eldar’s next project is a series about the American Jewish community, “historically and how it is today,” for Israeli TV. Expected to take several years, it will keep him in New York for now, but he hopes to return home one day. “I don’t want to die in America,” he said. “Israel is my country.” 

“Foreign Land” opens Nov. 2 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino and will screen at the Israel Film Festival on Nov. 18 at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills.