(JTA) — Like many other Diaspora Jews, I was curious to see the film “Golda,” which dramatizes Israel’s first female prime minister’s handling of what for Israel was the nearly disastrous Yom Kippur War of 1973. But I wanted to know what it would be like to see it with a Palestinian American.
So I called up my friend and colleague, Omar Dajani, professor of law at the University of the Pacific and a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in peace talks with Israel from 1999-2003. We agreed to see the film the same night in our respective cities (he in San Francisco and me in Ottawa) and compare notes the next morning.
On the film’s artistic aspects — for instance, the excellent casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir and Liev Schreiber as U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; the less successful portrait of Moshe Dayan by Rami Heuberger, who missed the boat on the defense minister’s well-known charisma — our agreement was deep and broad. (And I succeeded in getting Omar on board with my favorite Israeli actor, Lior Ashkenazi, who plays David “Dado” Elazar, the IDF’s chief of staff.)
But finding common ground on the framing of the Yom Kippur War, the focus of the film’s narrative — proved much harder.
Most of the Israeli criticism of its country’s handling of events in October 1973 has focused on the Israeli intelligence failure in the lead-up to Egypt and Syria’s surprise attack. Israeli analysts refer to this blindspot as the “conceptzia.”
Talking to Omar, I soon realized that I, too, had been caught up in a conceptzia, albeit of a different sort.
I was only a baby when the Yom Kippur War broke out. But so much of my life was indirectly shaped by those three weeks in 1973. My first boyfriend had come to Winnipeg with his Israeli parents in part because of that war. Same with my seventh-grade crush, in Vancouver. Born two days apart, both were exactly a year old when the war changed things for so many Israelis. My husband had the reverse family story; he moved with his parents and sister to Israel a few months before the war broke out before they returned to Canada 18 months later. And my kibbutz “dad” (some youth movement-raised young adults, like I was, are gifted an “adoptive” family on kibbutz to connect with as they spend time in the country) served on the front lines in 1973. Just two months ago, we talked about his battle memories — still raw and unfiltered — until the wee hours of the night.
All these personal connections have meant that when I think about the Yom Kippur War, I feel instinctively protective. Protective of Israelis who were forced to endure the insult of being attacked on their holiest day of the year (for Jewish Israelis at least) — even if that holiness extends, for many, to simply bike riding on empty streets. Protective of the memory of the 11 boys who were killed on my aunt and uncle’s kibbutz — for whom a stunning tune to the Yom Kippur Prayer “Unetaneh Tokef” was written, and which I’ve led at my synagogue on High Holidays past.
Though I’m ashamed to admit it — given her comments denying the existence of the Palestinian people — I was also protective even of Golda’s legacy as a Jewish stateswoman.
But talking to Omar I was forced to consider another perspective. “As a film about the 1973 war,” Omar told me, “I found it infuriating. The film did almost nothing to set up the fact that the Egyptian offensive against Israel was taking place to a great extent on Egyptian territory.” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was trying to get back the Sinai, after all.
Omar also stressed that Meir refused to entertain various opportunities for Israel-Egyptian peace in the years leading up to the war, a point made in a recent Jewish Telegraphic Agency article about the film. Sadat “was dying for a peace opening,” Omar said to me. “The film claims that Israeli-Egyptian peace in 1979 was a result of what Meir did, while I would argue that the peace agreement was in spite of what she did.”
I challenged Omar on the idea of the war being started on “Egyptian territory” given that the Sinai was (legally) occupied by Israel following the Six-Day War of 1967; he countered with a view of that war as having resulted from an offensive attack by Israel. I drew on the idea that Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran and expulsion of United Nations peacekeepers may have justified Israel’s pre-emptive strike; he referenced Article 51 and Article 2 of the United Nations Charter regarding acceptable uses of force.
After 90 minutes of back-and-forth, I carefully strode across the proverbial debate stage and asked the question most often considered taboo in academic circles.
“Do you think,” I asked gingerly, “that our respective debating positions are a function of our ethnic allegiances?”
“Yes and no,” he offered. “On one hand, opposing Israel taking others’ land and holding it indefinitely whenever it feels it will serve its security purposes is not about being Palestinian; it is about believing in the international rule of law, and I’m an international law scholar.
“On the other hand,” he continued, “I’ve lived in Egypt and so I certainly recognize that my sympathies affect my tendency to see some acts that are unlawful as being justified. And so while I see how some people defend Israeli acts as justified even if they are unlawful, the same goes for me and Egypt. For instance, Sadat violated the ceasefire in the first place.”
Where does all this leave me? I suppose it served as a healthy reminder that we — analysts, scholars, writers, and human beings — have a set of complex commitments that stem from our understanding of how things are and how they ought to be. While we hope that those commitments are free of tribal ties, sometimes that’s just not possible.
At least Omar and I both agree that the most pressing contemporary humanitarian issue in Israel-Palestine is that of the grinding occupation and the human rights abuses that flow from it. We also both see Israel’s current judicial crisis as in part a reflection of those circumstances. And ultimately we agree that to be human is to care deeply about both one’s own and about the other, whoever they are. I suppose that’s a start.