‘Other Israel Film Festival’

‘Other Israel Film Festival’

In November, 2007, Carole Zabar initiated the first of what is planned as a yearly event, “The Other Israel Film Festival: Images of Arab Citizens of Israel,” in partnership with a number of New York’s Jewish community institutions. (Ms. Zabar’s husband, Saul, is an owner of Manhattan’s world-famous Zabar’s food emporium and both were board members of the Educational Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace, a predecessor to Meretz USA.)

Ms. Zabar screened some Israeli productions that may now be considered classics: e.g., the 1984 Academy-Award finalist, “Beyond the Walls,” about Jews and Palestinians finding solidarity in an Israeli prison and “The Syrian Bride,” about the travails of a Druze-Arab woman in the Israeli-held Golan Heights having to leave her family behind (possibly forever) to wed her Syrian groom. Zabar also brought directors and actors of a number of the films to speak after their screenings.

New and especially intriguing to me was “Maktub,” which combined elements of a cops-and-robbers story with an exploration of Druze identity. At the heart of this movie is a love affair between a male Druze detective and a Jewish juvenile court officer. The Druze policeman is plagued by a dilemma: since there is no such thing as conversion to the Druze religion and he cannot marry his non-Druze lover without being banned from his family and community, he must choose between eventually losing her by refusing to marry, or losing his family. (The filmmaker indicated that “Maktub” is inspired by such an actual situation.)

This film is further enriched with an exploration of the Druze belief in reincarnation. When a Druze dies, his or her soul is thought to immediately migrate to a new Druze being born. Since their community is extremely secretive, little else is known about the Druze faith.

A classic— often anti-Semitic— rap against Jews (especially the Orthodox) is their “clannishness.” Not that I’m being critical— and Druze are basically portrayed cinematically in positive and dignified tones— but it struck me how the Druze are one people who are actually more closed off than Jews.

An uncomfortable but comical moment in the plot involved the detective questioning an old couple who were neighbors of a murder victim. When they discovered that he’s Druze, the old man goes on a short rant to the effect of “What is this country coming to: an Arab policeman? Maybe we’ll soon see an Arab prime minister.” His wife reassuringly replies that since he’s a Druze, “He’s only a little bit Arab.” The detective responds to these slights with a retort in perfect Yiddish (the gist of which I’ve forgotten) that works wonderfully.

The Druze inhabit three Middle Eastern countries with substantial populations. About 100,000 live in Israel, with somewhat larger numbers in Lebanon and Syria. In each country, the Druze have shrewdly negotiated a political course to maintain their integrity and security. Israeli Druze have shown loyalty to the state and been rewarded with more or less equal status with Jews; this is symbolized in the fact that Druze males are subject to military conscription like Jews and unlike other Arabs. In Lebanon, the Druze navigated the civil war with their own militia and they continue to maneuver with their own political party (the Progressive Socialist Party, led by Walid Jumblatt). In Syria, and so far in a couple of villages living under Israeli rule in the Golan Heights, they profess their loyalty to the Bathist regime headed by the Assad ruling dynasty.

I also saw “The Film Class,” a fascinating documentary on the little-known reality of the “Black Bedouin,” Negev Bedouin with African roots, brought to what is now Israel by Arab slave traders during the 19th century. The Israeli-Jewish filmmaker documents how his class of Black Bedouin women in a community center in an Arab town are inspired to research their African cultural background and to explore what this means to their lives. These are charmingly feisty people and it’s a pleasure to witness their voyage of self-discovery.

By | 2008-03-10T13:03:00-04:00 March 10th, 2008|Blog|6 Comments


  1. Anonymous March 14, 2008 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    I hope you understand that many outsiders were perplexed and really did not know what to make of the “Other Israeli Film Festival”. The festival appeared to have been put on by entirely Jewish groups as you seem to have affirmed, and as the website seems to suggest.

    While Palestinians like Mohammed Bakry and Jackie Salloum appeared as “guests”, it was a troubling structure.

    Would it be acceptable in this day and age for white Americans to put on an entire film festival about African-Americans without a major role for African-Americans in organizing that event? The answer I hope is no.

    Celebrate the films, but please think carefully about what the decision to put on this festival using this structure says about the organizers.


  2. Ralph Seliger March 15, 2008 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    Ted should take this up with Carole Zabar at her website, which I’ve linked to. This may or may not be a point well taken. This depends upon what effort Ms. Zabar may have made toward Arab-American groups.

    A couple of years ago, Mr. Bakri’s film on Emile Habibi, “Since You Left,” was also screened at the Alwon Arab Film Festival at NYU. There was no indication that this was an Israeli-produced film, or that Bakri is, in fact a citizen of Israel. To me, this was a “troubling structure.”

  3. Anonymous March 16, 2008 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    Your reference to the Alwan screening of Mohammed Bakri’s film is a humorous one, as if somehow the situations are parallel. In “The Other Israel” film festival, a people of one religious and ethnic group (http://otherisrael.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3&Itemid=6), put on a film festival about people of other religious and ethnic groups (“showcase the lives, images, voices, and stories of Muslim, Christian, Druze and Bedouin” -note the word “Palestinian” is not even used in the long description of the film festival) who are oppressed by a state which exists in the name of the organizers, with no evident participation of the people being oppressed.

    In the other case, an Arab American cultural institution puts on a film festival focusing in primarily, god forbid, Arabs!
    (http://www.alwanforthearts.org/event/85) and in an extremely brief description leave out the word Israel.

    What you show signs of not understanding here are issues of disparities of power, oppression and discrimination. To update you, Palestinians are a stateless people, discriminated against in Israel and abroad, under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and dispossessed of their land and homes. Their national rights are largely unrecognized, in the Occupied Territories, in Israel and abroad.

    Therefore Palestinian assertion of national identity and rights is normal and necessary. For you to demand that Palestinians proudly proclaim their “Israeliness” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality there and the parallel situations worldwide.

    Ralph, it is Palestinians who are being denied rights to identity and self-expression, not Israelis!

    Would you demand that an African American or a native American be described as US citizens in all public appearances? Or that a Tibetans be described as Chinese ctitzens?

    This is truly an odd line of thinking.


  4. Ralph Seliger March 17, 2008 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    Ted casts himself in the curious position of attacking a New York Jew for showcasing the Arab reality within Israel. He’d have to ask Ms. Zabar if she attempted a joint program agenda with Arab-American organizations, but what she did in putting together this program and in hosting Israeli-Arab filmmakers and actors was entirely commendable.

    The issue of identity and nomenclature of “Palestinian Israelis” versus “Israeli Arabs was discussed openly by Ms. Zabar and Mohammed Bakri. They disagreed but they aired their disagreement politely. Alwan totally ignored the fact that about 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs.

  5. Anonymous March 18, 2008 at 2:31 am - Reply

    Hi Ralph,

    I have to wonder if your seeming blindness on this issue truly extends to analogous situations, or if you are just trying not to concede the obvious in public.

    Let’s try again. Would you organize a film-festival about African Americans or Native Americans without the participation of African American or Native American groups and then argue with them that you have more appropriately defined their identity than they have?

    I have to say, I, as a non-Jew, would never organize a film festival about Jewish Americans without the participation of Jewish American groups. I would certainly feel there was something seriously wrong if I then ended up defining them in a way they did not appreciate, recognize, and which spurred my guests to argue with me.

    Yes, there is something quite positive in wanting to educate the majority about an oppressed minority of another religion or ethnicity, but to do that without their participation and to define them in a manner that they fundamentally disagree with, and in a manner that they feel has been used to facilitate their subjugation (“Arab Israelis”) shows a blindness, insensitivity, condescension and use of power that does not bode well for overcoming conflict. It is a half-step at best, and there is nothing wrong with me arguing strongly that the film festival should take the full step and deal with the fundamental issues rather than covering them up.

    The Alwan case you have cited as your counterexample was a 10 word description of a single film in a much larger film festival (http://www.alwanforthearts.org/event/85), as opposed to the entire film festival in the case I am raising. Furthermore, for Mohammed Bakri or Alwan to describe Bakri’s film as “Palestinian” makes complete sense given the efforts we have seen by Ms. Zabar and countless others to deny him and Palestinian citizens of Israel the right to define themselves as “Palestinians.”

    I know you will have the last word here, so I will leave it at that.


  6. Ralph Seliger March 18, 2008 at 4:02 pm - Reply

    Ted should inquire at her website as to whether Carole Zabar reached out to the Arab community, and how that may have been received. Regardless, she deserves praise for bringing the Israeli-Arab reality to light for New York’s Jewish community and for providing a forum for Israeli-Arab filmmakers and actors.

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