November 21, 2018

‘A Borrowed Identity’ an honest look at Arab-Jewish relations

It is one of the paradoxes of Arab-Jewish relations in Israel that some of the best movies on Palestinians as society’s outsiders are made by Jewish directors.

On the other hand, Palestinian directors frequently draw more balanced pictures of their Jewish “occupiers” than do some self-lacerating Israeli-Jewish filmmakers.

A case in point for the first phenomenon is “A Borrowed Identity,” which revolves around Eyad, a very bright Palestinian boy from a small West Bank town. He is offered a scholarship to study at the Israel Arts and Science Academy, a prestigious private boarding school in Jerusalem.

Eyad is reluctant to accept at first, but his father, who spent more than two years in Israeli prisons, is all for it. “You can be the first Palestinian to build an atom bomb,” he encourages his son. “You can be better than the Jews in every way.”

So Eyad goes, but the beginning is not easy. He eats and studies without companionship and some of his classmates openly make fun of his Arabic-inflected Hebrew accent.

A class discussion on who started the 1948 war proves awkward, and in another class debate, Eyad lashes out that even the most perceptive Israeli writers, such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, draw Arab characters as sexual fantasy figures or “signifiers of otherness.”

Finally, Eyad connects with two of his classmates. One is Yonatan, who is also an “other” because his muscular dystrophy forces him to navigate the school grounds in a wheelchair.

The other is the free-spirited Naomi, who introduces Eyad to Hebrew slang, and the two start dating surreptitiously.

When Naomi’s mother finds out, she is horrified. “Tell me you’re a lesbian,” she tells her daughter. “Tell me you have cancer, but don’t tell me you are dating an Arab boy.”

Eventually, Eyad leaves school, in part to allow Naomi to reconcile with her parents and also to pass a security check for a job in the army intelligence service.

He starts work in a Jerusalem restaurant and learns from a fellow dishwasher, an Arab, that only Jews can advance to the status of waiter. “The best thing you can do is to die and ask Allah to send you back as a Jew,” the dishwasher counsels Eyad.

Eyad’s complex character is impressively brought to life by Tawfeek Barhom, a 24-year-old Israeli-Arab actor. His love interest, Naomi, is played by Danielle Kitzis, who was born in the United States and later immigrated to Israel with her parents.

Director Eran Riklis, a mainstay of Israeli cinema for 30 years, has frequently focused his lens on Palestinian-Jewish Israeli relations, including such award-winning movies as “The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree” and “Zaytoun.”

The original title of “A Borrowed Identity,” as well as the title of the book on which it is based, is “Dancing Arabs,” which might lead the unwary patron to anticipate an off-kilter musical comedy, akin to “The Producers.”

Riklis, in a Skype interview, gave a more sophisticated explanation for the title. “I see the story as a dance between identities, or, if you will, a dance of life, with two steps forward and one backward,” he said.

But, Riklis added, “The film is open to interpretation, as is life itself … this is a film about searching, and at the end everything is open, anything can still happen.”

Perhaps the most interesting character in the whole enterprise is the film’s writer, Sayed Kashua, who adapted the script from his own novel. His own life parallels that of Eyad’s, attending a private Jewish school in Jerusalem and later graduating from the Hebrew University.

He is known in Israel for his sharp observations in his weekly column in the Haaretz newspaper, and now in this country for writing the popular TV sitcom “Arab Labor.”

After making his name as a journalist and writer, Kashua startled his Israeli admirers last year by announcing that living in Israel had become “too much” for him and that he was accepting a job at the University of Illinois.

Riklis hopes that Kashua will eventually return but added a comment illustrating the complexity of Arab-Jewish relations. “Sayed is respected by the Jewish people,” he said, “but there are limits. We say to him, ‘We like you, but …’

“I am working with Arab people all the time, it’s easy to form relationships with them, but one missile strike can change everything,” Riklis said.

In a review of the movie, The Jerusalem Post noted, “Anyone who sees the film — Jew, Arab or someone from outside Israel completely — will be able to identify with the characters and to understand far more about the reality here than they could learn from any article or editorial.”

For the complete list of screenings, visit