Partners for Progressive Israel co-sponsored a screening of “77 Steps” at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York on Nov. 14. It included a Q & A afterwards with the filmmaker, Ibtisam Mara’ana, a 30-something Arab citizen of Israel.
Ms. Mara’ana is a lovely young woman, someone who ably articulates and embodies the problems and hope for coexistence between Arabs and Jews within Israel. Her seventh film, “77 Steps,” documents the difficulties in her romantic involvement with a Canadian-Jewish oleh (immigrant), a neighbor in Tel Aviv. It’s a testament to her filmmaking skill that she was able to unobtrusively film their lives together, winnowing down 60 hours of footage into a totally natural, unscripted one-hour story.
What doomed them was the harsh backdrop of the Gaza war of Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009. Mara’ana was recruited for the 12th slot on the Meretz electoral list in the 2009 elections, from which she resigned in protest to the initial support for the war voiced by some Meretz leaders in statements to the press. Yet every official party position opposed a ground invasion and called for a quick ceasefire. So Meretz suffered both from “the left,” punishing it for being “pro-war,” and the mainstream of Israel’s electorate for being too dovish or “leftist,” which together reduced Meretz to a bare three seats in the current Knesset.
Mara’ana is feisty, passionate and charming, but it seemed clear from the discussion after, as well as her participation a few days earlier in a discussion on Israel’s social protest movement at the Manhattan JCC, that her political perspective is not analytical. What clinched this for me was her response to someone in the audience at this screening, who asked if it didn’t make sense for Jews and Arabs to all coexist in “one state” rather than to create two. She responded on a visceral level to this naive question, saying simply that she “agreed” that one state would be a good thing and leaned over to where he was sitting nearby to shake his hand.
I murmured something in disbelief. It would be great if Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs could all coexist in one state together. This is the natural default position for many people of good will who know little of the history of the conflict. But if Jews and Arabs find it so difficult to coexist civilly within Israel now, why would one assume that if you add followers of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and millions of other Palestinians to the mix, that this would work? Aside from the fact that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want separate states, a one-state reality seems to be a recipe for continuing the conflict, rather than presenting a solution. This need not be true forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future. As I recall Abba Eban saying when questioned about this decades ago, when Canada stops having a border separating itself from the United States, then maybe we can talk about another arrangement for Israel.
At any rate, Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries, without the occupied territories, has a binational reality that needs to be more fairly reflected in society. This is a truth that the Other Israel Film Festival ably documents each year.
Mara’ana began her film by showing how difficult it was for her as an Arab woman to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. In the end she succeeded by lying, using a Hebrew family name. Israel has no laws mandating residential separation, but it also does not prohibit discrimination by landlords.
Moreover, the ethnic tensions brought out by the Gaza war were graphically presented in the film. Jonathan, Mara’ana’s boyfriend, brings an Israeli flag to an anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv. He is confronted by Arab demonstrators who demand that he either ditch this “racist” flag or leave their ranks. And the demonstrators are all invited by irate bystanders and counter-demonstrators to “go home to Gaza.”
|The filmmaker with her hair down.|
What precipitates the filmmaker’s breakup with Jonathan is their visit to Kibbutz Ein Dor with Jonathan’s grandfather, a pioneer on the kibbutz in the late 1940s, who felt compelled by his wife to leave Israel about 60 years ago. Now, in visiting from Montreal, he makes a pilgrimage with his grandson and with Mara’ana to Ein Dor. There she comes to verbal blows with a veteran female kibbutznik, when Mara’ana asks if she’s aware that the kibbutz includes land that had belonged to Arab villages. The kibbutznik responds that the injustice visited upon the Jewish people was much greater than that suffered by the Palestinians and that they are lucky to live in Israel rather than an Arab country. She further suggests that all Palestinians should have their separate state where she (Mara’ana) should also move. Mara’ana does not take kindly to this suggestion, but on the drive back to Tel Aviv, Jonathan accuses her of having provoked this unpleasantness.
In reflecting on the breakup during the Q & A, Mara’ana makes the point that Jonathan is influenced by the non-confrontational culture of his native Canada, while she exemplifies the in-your-face unrestrained manner of Israelis. When asked, she told the audience that she has another boyfriend now– also a Jew–but an Israeli, and that this level of cultural commonality provides a sturdier foundation for their relationship.
But this, of course, would not warm the heart of her mother back in her hometown of Furadis. The film records painful phone conversations between mother and daughter, where the latter is berated for not settling down with an Arab husband in their Arab town and starting an Arab family. Mara’ana explained to the audience that it was her father, who passed away a few years ago, who supported her decision to pursue her career and her life in Tel Aviv.