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.