Amid criticism, film festival showcases Israel’s Arabs


NEW YORK (JTA) — When iconic Israeli news anchor Haim Yavin released his documentary series “In the Land of the Settlers” in 2005, he lay his journalistic reputation on the line.

In the series Yavin, often referred to as the Walter Cronkite of Israel, presented an unabashedly critical view of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, documenting numerous abuses perpetrated by settlers against Palestinians and suggesting that settlers were an obstacle to peace.

While Yavin received much praise from the left for his documentary, Israel’s right wing cried foul, accusing him of launching a smear campaign against settlers and charging that the series confirmed their long-standing assertion that the media has a left-wing bias.

Nearly five years later, after his retirement from the anchor chair, Yavin has put together a follow-up documentary series, “I.D. Blues,” which highlights the inequality of Arab citizens in Israel. It will have its North American premiere at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, which runs Nov. 12-19.

Yavin, 75, told JTA he made the series as a matter of conscience.

“I was compelled to make ‘I.D. Blues’ in the same way I was compelled to make ‘The Land of the Settlers,’ ” Yavin said. “Israelis feel we have a problem, and we have to solve it.”

“I.D. Blues” illustrates the problem. In its first episode, Yavin chronicles the experience of a Jewish bureaucrat appointed to reform the chronically impoverished Arab town of Taibeh. The bureaucrat takes on the job with gusto, but he is beset by government underfunding and by locals’ antagonism. After a year on the job, his office is torched.

Even when Yavin in a later episode goes searching for examples of Jewish-Arab cooperation, he finds they are often shadowed by conflict and tension.

Yavin’s documentary fits well into the lineup at the Other Israel Film Festival, which focuses on Arabs in Israel. Organized by American Jews, the showcase is not to be confused with the Israel Film Festival, a much larger celebration of Israeli film that takes place in December.

Carole Zabar, 67, a cinephile and philanthropist, and a scion of the Zabar food family, is the driving force behind the Other Israel festival, which is organized by the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan. The festival, in its third year, also receives support from New Israel Fund.

Zabar said she was motivated to launch the festival three years ago by her love of Israel and what she perceives as growing racism against Israeli Arab citizens.

“I always believed that Israel will rise or fall on how it will treat its minorities,” Zabar said. “We’ve tried to de-mythologize the Arabs of Israel.”

Isaac Zablocki, director of the film center at the Manhattan JCC, says the festival has no other agenda than to foster a better understanding of the Arab community in Israel. “Identity, not enmity” is the festival’s tag line.

Zablocki and Zabar also say the festival is a rebuttal to those who seek to protest Israel by boycotting or banning Israeli films.

“Cinema is the only place where people are getting together,” Zablocki said. “Banning is about closing down communications, and we’re about opening them up.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority loom behind these films, even if they are not overtly political.

In “The Invisible,” a documentary film crew follows the campaign by residents of a Bedouin village in the Galilee against local authorities. “Jaffa,” a feature film, tells the story of a Jewish-Arab couple planning to elope in Cyprus. “Saz — The Palestinian Rapper for Change” is about a hip-hop artist from the mixed town of Ramle whose lyrics protest the ills of Israeli society. Saz will perform live prior to the movie’s premiere.

Since it began two years ago, the festival has received much flak from the right and left and Jews and Arabs. Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni, who protested the decision by the Toronto Film Festival in September to highlight Israeli films, has questioned whether Jews should be organizing an Arab film festival. Arab groups have refused to lend support to the festival.

And Jewish pro-Israel bloggers from a group called Artists 4 Israel pressed the JCC not to host filmmaker Mohammed Bakri, director of “Jenin, Jenin,” at the festival.

Bakri’s 2002 film alleged that Israeli soldiers massacred Palestinians in a battle in the West Bank city of Jenin in April 2002, but the Israel Defense Forces and international observers said no such massacre occurred. The film initially was banned for viewing in Israel by a ratings board that deemed it incitement to violence against Israeli soldiers, but the decision was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.

“Artists 4 Israel encourages the JCC to use their funds not to fly such shameful ex-artists to the States but, instead, finance groundbreaking, factual and important artistic work,” Craig Dershowitz, a founding member of Artists 4 Israel, wrote on the group’s blog last week.

Dershowitz stressed his nonpartisan group supports dialogue with Palestinians but that he believes inviting Bakri encouraged “propaganda passing as art.”

Both Zablocki and Zabar, who is a personal friend of Bakri’s, said they have serious reservations about the artistic merit of “Jenin, Jenin.” But they said they would not withdraw the invitation to Bakri, who is coming for this year’s festival to screen his new movie, “Zahara,” a documentary about his aunt’s life story.

Zabar, who pays for much of the festival, says it is a labor of love. She says she hopes to make the festival her legacy and put it in her will.

“It’s doing something like this or buying a yacht,” she said.

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