Unsettling the Israeli settlers

0 Posted by - April 13, 2011 - Conversations, Features, Screen

Still from Israel vs. Israel

Isreal vs. Israel is a very disturbing documentary. As a programmer I’ve seen my share of films on Palestine/Israel but this one gets under your skin in a different way. Indeed, few other films have focused on the fanatical, violent and often mentally unstable culture of settlers in Israel. Israel vs. Israel, a Swedish production that came out in 2010, zeros in on this culture and a handful of brave Israeli activists who struggle against it alongside the Palestinians.

Two scenes help capture the essence of the settlers in this film: one where a Jewish Israeli calls a Jewish American (who is protesting against settlements) a “Nazi”, and another where a settler-woman peers through the metal caging of a Palestinian home saying “whore” over and over again to the female inhabitants. In such a socio-political setting — where Jews call other Jews Nazis and where people are regularly terrorized in their own homes — clear pictures can be difficult to produce, yet this film manages to slice through rhetoric and present a sharp character study (folded into an issue-study as it is).

At a time when Israel is spending millions and millions of America’s money on re-branding itself to the world (of the gosh-gee-shucks-we’re-the-only-democracy-in-the-middle-east variety) a film like Israel vs. Israel provides a crucial education in the face of the ideological chatter and PR propaganda. As Terje Carlsson, the film’s director, tells us in the interview below: “There is no fucking way anyone can convince me they (the settlers) represent something positive.”

Art Threat: Your film Israel vs. Israel is a shocking, emotional and revealing film about violent religious fanatics in Israel (the settlers) and some individuals committed to resisting them and working in solidarity with the Palestinian people. In this regard it is a departure from many, many other films on Palestine/Israel. Why did you choose this topic, this perspective, this route?

Terje Carlsson: I have known these Israeli peace activivsts for a couple of years and they all impressed me since the beginning. For me, they represent justice, democracy and freedom.

For example, since I have been residing in Hebron for more than a year, while filming my first documentary “Welcome to Hebron” at the Cordoba girls school, I would like to see myself of quite an expert in settler violence against Palestinians.

So this internal moral resistance against religious Jewish fanatics (where the victims are non-Jews) deserves attention. More people around the world need to know that there are Israelis that manage to resist the lies and the Israeli propaganda.

Frankly, the Israeli peace activists represent, the only hope there is for Israel, I think.

The Israeli and Jewish characters you focus on range from direct action anarchists to rabbis to a well-meaning but over-reaching grandmother-activist. How did you find these people, and why them? Many people at our screening of the film took issue with the grandmother for her somewhat belittling ways of helping Palestinians cross check-points, despite her intentions. Can you speak to this aspect?

Firstly, the different characters all represent different parts of the (Jewish) Israeli peace movement. They are all fascinating characters and I knew from the beginning that they would look good on film.

Secondly, nobody is perfect. I am sure there are a million things one could say regarding how exactly the Israeli (as well as international) activists should help the Palestinians. For me this is a minor issue since 99 percent of Palestinians happily accept all the help they can get from anybody.

In this specific case, I know Ronny Perlmann and I know her concern for innocent Palestinians is genuine, so I don’t see any of this alleged “belittling ways”. This is a non-issue for me, and during the last decade I have had endless discussion like this one in chic Ramallah cafés with Palestinian leftists and their international supporters, but still — the Palestinian men, women and children being helped by Israelis with “belittling ways” are nothing but grateful for all the help they can get.

Ronny is not a show-off in front of the camera and she is not doing her Machsom Watch activity to gain credits among her Swedish or Canadian friends.

Some audience members who self-identify as Palestinian supporters went so far as to describe your film as coming from “an Israel supporter” in the sense that “it failed to address the roots of the conflict and the inherent colonial nature of Israel.” They thought it was problematic that the Palestinian refugee issue and the fact that territories outside of the 1967 lands (now occupied) were not taken into consideration in the film. Can you discuss why you chose to leave out much of these larger issues, more contextual and historical aspects in fact, and why you decided to make narrowly focus on the actions of your characters?

My film is about Israeli peace activists actively resisting the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. These Israeli acitivsts do not deal that much with what happened in 1948. That would be a different film.

And why stop at 1948? What about Balfour? Ottoman empire? Birth of Zionism? The British empire? US foreign policy in the entire region today?

Also, since most of the world (including Israelis and Palestinians) is focusing on the so-called two state solution (borders of 1967), I would risk making the film more irrelevant if start to deal with events of 1948, Ottoman empire, Balfour etc.

Maybe I am a supporter of Israel, maybe not. I don’t really care about this comment, just like I ignore when people call me anti-semitic.

But let’s put it this way — I doubt that AIPAC would invite me to screen Israel vs. Israel. That is how pro-Israeli I am, I guess.

Filmmaker Terje Carlsson

Filmmaker Terje Carlsson

How has the response been to your film from Palestinian supporters and audiences in general?

This is an easy one. Massive positive responses, especially from Arabs, since they realize that there are Israelis willing to live with and among them on an equal level. For me this is hope and creating hope is the purpose of the film.

Do you consider your film to be on the side of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, independence and equality?

No not really, the film portrays Israelis who are helping the Palestinians, since the Palestinians live under Israeli occupation with settlements, racism, et cetera.

My film portrays the immorality, the illegality and the injustices of this occupation, through the eyes of Israeli peace activists.

Voila, c’est tout.

Can you expand on this? I consider your film to be, among other things of course, a powerful educational tool for audiences to better understand not only Israeli peace activism against the illegal occupation, but also as a film that creates empathy with Palestinians who are up against violent fanatic settlers and all that entails. Not all documentaries have to “take sides” but all do, in one way or the other. There is no such thing as objectivity in documentary, just as there isn’t in journalism.

Therefore I know the subject of the film is Israeli peace activists who are working with Palestinians, and I know you are resistant to being positioned as someone who is on one side or the other, but where imperialism, colonization and occupation are concerned, rare is the person with hindsight who proclaims to have been on the side of the oppressor. Some films, like the recent The Hilltops documentary, lean toward presenting a more sympathetic representation of the Israeli settlers, while others like yours present a sympathetic picture of the Palestinians who suffer under their fanatical wrath. For these reasons I see your film on the side of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, independence and equality and am curious why you do not.

I have lived in Hebron for more than a year; I was inside the Israeli Gaza settlements when they were evacuated a few years ago; I have witnessed the violence of the hilltop youth first hand many times; I have met numerous settler kids at bars in Jerusalem; I have done extensive research on Jewish Fundamentalism.

There is no fucking way anyone can convince me the settlers represent something positive.

What are you working on now and how can people not only see Israel vs. Israel, but purchase the film?

I have one major project that I wish not to discuss for security matters.

There will be a DVD release of Israel vs. Israel and Welcome to Hebron later this year, DVDs packed with extra material about progressive Israelis, Palestinians and internationals now that we can and will change politics in the middle east. Now is the chance of our lifetime and people must get involved. It is now or never.

Israel vs. Israel was selected as one of Art Threat’s top political films of 2010.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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