Before lavishing praise on co-director Yuval Adler, critics should stop to consider his film’s message: the Israelis are the good guys, the Arabs the bad guys.
By Gideon Levy | 05:22 06.10.13 |
Yuval Adler is a talented director, but he has made an outrageous film. “Bethlehem,” his debut feature, has garnered acclaim and prizes – a critics’ award in Venice, first prize at the Haifa Film Festival, six Ophir Awards (Israel’s national film awards) and high praise from The New York Times.
Along with his writing partner Ali Wakad, Adler created a very well-made action movie. He also created (another) Israeli propaganda film.
Before everyone starts to praise him, they should pay heed to his messages – the overt, but, especially, the covert ones – and not just the direction, acting, editing and impressive attention to detail. But the plethora of details makes it so you can’t see the forest for the trees, and it’s the same poison forest. Or should we say enchanted sea – the Israelis are the good guys, the Arabs the bad guys.
This film, like many before it about the conflict, is guilty of the sins of distortion and concealment: the context is missing, as if it weren’t there. The film is meant to depict complexity – the misery of the collaborator; the humanity of the agent – but in reality, the film paints a picture without context, and without context there is no truth.
“Let’s make a movie that won’t deal with the political conflict,” Adler said to Wakad, according to an interview he gave to Mike Dagan in Haaretz’s magazine. But Adler’s refusal to make a “political movie” is deceit and sleight of hand. It is in itself a political statement unlike any other. Adler did not make a film about the Sicilian Mafia, but rather a film about the intifada, which has a political context that he deliberately ignores. This blurring is the movie’s powerful, outrageous statement.
What is the film about? Violent, power-hungry intifada fighters, motivated by greed, and in conflict with one another; cynical, corrupt, lying Palestinian Authority figures; and European donation money going to terror, of course. There is not a single word about what they’re fighting against, what they are dying for. There’s no occupation, no oppression, only a Mafia, which this time speaks Arabic. Against it stands the Shin Bet security service, pure of heart, and its merciful agent with the support of his wife and secretary (which the Palestinians don’t have, of course). The agent always takes care of his pet informant, lying to save his life, until the latter rises up to kill him by shooting him and bashing his skull in, ungrateful wretch that he is. The Israelis will love this. They already do. All of the images they teach about are in this film. Black and white, with 50 shades of gray that just need to be accounted for – the collaborator.
Adler’s avoidance of the issue is abominable. An Israeli who makes an action movie about the intifada without taking a stand is a coward. He knows the subject will attract viewers at film festivals abroad, but at the same time doesn’t want to anger Israeli viewers.
It is impossible to make a movie about the intifada without revealing what motivated it. Adler, educated in philosophy, made an excellent gangster film, a spaghetti Western, but like a true Western movie, to hell with the historical truth. Of course such a film can be enjoyable, but in the 21st century it’s no longer possible to buy a story that paints the cowboys as good and the Indians as bad. That’s “Bethlehem” as well: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The Shin Bet agent, the collaborating terrorist, no Clint Eastwood, but with covert propaganda, which is worse than the overt kind.
In Bethlehem, the city, I met many armed and wanted men during the intifada. Some of them perhaps even fit the stereotypes presented in this film, but there were many others as well, who sacrificed their lives during their just struggle for freedom. None of them appear in “Bethlehem,” the film.
I’ve also met Shin Bet agents and heard about their exploits, and they certainly don’t look or sound like Razi from the film. Where’s the evil, torture, blackmail and lies? Adler acknowledges a few Shin Bet agents at the end of the movie; the Shin Bet should be grateful for this free promotional film. Adler chose to paint a one-dimensional picture, which will once again pat the Israelis on the back. Hey, look how right you are. Hey, look how they victimize you. Hey, look how hopeless the situation is. Go see “Bethlehem” and you’ll understand why.
Gidéon Lévy Haaretz.Com
This is the reality of modern jihad, where the faithful chronicle their response to the cause in real time. But if Europeans like Chechclear are living out their Call of Duty fantasies, they do it at the expense of Syrian lives. In the territory it holds in Syria’s North, ISIS is imposing its harsh interpretation of sharia law with torture and beheadings. Its Western fighters are tweeting selfies in the ruins.
In Syria, the battle for territory waged on the ground is matched by a battle for meaning waged on the Internet. Whether they’re Kurds carving out an independent state, revolutionaries or TEDx organizers sympathetic to Assad, Syrians use Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to tell their stories. It’s contested ground, filled with both propaganda and truth. Posting can be deadly. Both the Assad regime and ISIS target citizen journalists for arrest. In the embattled Lebanese city of Tripoli, I interviewed an aid worker who, at the start of the revolution, smuggled memory cards over the border that contained footage of demonstrations. Once he was in Lebanon, he’d upload the footage to Facebook. Assad had blocked access to the Internet once. Activists were terrified he’d do it again.
Each Friday, the town of Kafranbel unfurls handpainted revolutionary banners. Written in English, full of pop culture and black wit, they are made to go viral – visual bombs forcing the Internet, and by extension, the world, to recognize that there are human beings dying inside of Syria. After George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin, a Kafranbel banner read “Martin family! The Syrians are the best who know what it’s like to lose loved ones to immune criminals.” Later another banner portrayed ISIS as a Giger-esque alien. ISIS fighters shot and wounded Raed Fares, the activist behind the banners.
But while Syrians use social media to expose war crimes, Chechclear and his fellow Westerners often use it to show off. VICE.com journalist Aris Roussinos published photos of British jihadis posing with their guns aloft, like Rambo, silhouetted against the setting sun. The personal Facebook pages Roussinos discovered bragged about a “five-star jihad,” with swimming pool frolics, chocolate and weapons training in luxury villas.
Western jihadis in Syria get into Twitter spats, pose with AK-47s, and provide on-the-ground opinions to audiences in the hundreds or thousands. Their war is aspirational. They encourage young men, and sometimes young women accompanied by chaperones, to join them.
On Tumblr Ask pages, engineering students ask fighters if they may complete their degree before joining the fight in Syria (the fighter told the student the jihad needed him now), and girls wheedle to marry mujahideen. A British jihadi made macros of a bloody pistol, reading “YODO: You Only Die Once. Why Not Make It a Martyrdom?” Before he was booted off Instagram for posting pictures of corpses, Chechclear pouted for the camera like a fashion blogger, posting selfies of his luxuriant facial hair, with the hashtags #beardlife and #alphamale. Women wearing niqab, i.e., face veils, argued over the appropriateness of complimenting him in the comments.
Westerners who come to fight in Syria most frequently join ISIS, which draws its fighters from across the globe, from Pakistan to Chechnya to Tunis. Formed in April 2013, ISIS splintered off from the Al-Qaeda’s affiliate organization in Iraq. It does not primarily fight the Assad regime, but rather local Kurds, the Syrian-dominated Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army. This has led many to speculate that ISIS is tolerated by the regime.
Their methods are similar. In December, Amnesty International released a report on conditions in ISIS jails. Children as young as 8 were beaten with generator belts. Prisoners were tortured with electric shocks, and forced to guess the weights of freshly severed heads. Not satisfied with beheading people, ISIS even tweeted a picture of one of their jihadis chopping down a 150-year-old oak tree they accused villagers of worshipping. A Syrian civil society activist was lashed by a masked man who told him, “We don’t recognize anything called revolution. This is a revolution by kafirs [non-believers]. We are here to set up an Islamic state.”
In November, I interviewed Syrian refugees living in tents in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley. They told me that ISIS murdered their family members and forced the niqab on little girls. According to them, ISIS fighters would place their hand on cars, homes or even women, and say “Allahu Akbar” three times. With this pseudo-religious justification, their coveted “object” was theirs.
“I frankly despise every non-Syrian who comes to fight in Syria, whether they are on the regime side or on the opposition side. It’s our revolution against injustice by the regime. It’s not jihad.” Abdulkader Hariri, a 25-year-old English literature graduate in Raqqa, told me in an email. Meanwhile, Abu Qa’qaa’, an ISIS fighter, tweeted “all women in Raqqa now wear niqab. Progress from Allah!”
“KA,” a Syrian student in the United Kingdom, maintains close ties with relatives in Aleppo and Idlib. He is furious that anyone represents ISIS as part of the Syrian revolution. KA told me his uncle had opened an Internet cafe in his house to make some extra money. But members of ISIS took it over, sold his routers in Turkey and forced him from his home so they could use it as a base. According to KA’s relatives, Westerners often come to fight in Syria as “an adrenaline-filled holiday.”
“The common habit of Western citizens who never experienced real armed combat is to lurk around the Syrian-Turkish border and immediately cross back to Turkey as soon as anything escalates,” KA told me over email. “While they’re still in Syria, they just walk around the cities with Kalashnikovs to assert their dominance as they enjoy the privileges of being in a country with a huge power vacuum and a population of starving and desperate people.”
Despite the views of some Syrians, these Westerners do not see themselves as foreign invaders. They are Muslims, fulfilling their religious obligation to bring Islamic rule to a Muslim country. When they die, the relaxed lips of their corpses will be reimagined on Instagram as the smiles of martyrs seeing paradise.
@Glock19_, fighting in Syria, wrote in his Twitter bio “This Jihad doesnt belong 2 any group… So whats stoppin U?” In December, @Glock19_ complained that locals wouldn’t say hello to him and overcharged mujahideen at shops. Worse, some men prefered to stay with their families in refugee camps instead of taking up arms. “Never came here for these ungrateful syrians” he tweeted. “After the jihad finishes here, if I’m still alive I’ll go to another country and continue jihad. jihad never stops.”
- The Guardian, Tuesday 18 February 2014 16.44 GMT
This must be how the Palestinian camps began their slow transformation into towering townships. The Syrian families here are still living in canvas or plastic tents, but the little shops selling falafel and cola on the Atmeh camp’s “main street” are now breeze-block and corrugated-iron constructions. And now nobody dares talk about going home.
Atmeh camp, just inside Syria, hugs the Turkish border fence. It is December, and the population has risen in the six months since I was here in June, from 22,000 to almost 30,000. This new settlement is one of many – there are more than 6 million people displaced inside Syria, and more than 2 million in neighbouring states. The camp’s population dwindles and swells according to the vicissitudes of battle. When the regime reconquered (and obliterated) the Khaldiyeh quarter of Homs last July, an additional 50 to 60 families a day arrived.
Six months ago, when I last visited, I was able to travel deep into liberated Syria – as far as Kafranbel in the south of Idlib province – with nothing to fear from the Free Army fighters manning checkpoints. This time I don’t dare go as far as Atmeh village, sitting on the nearby hilltop, because it is occupied by al-Qaida franchise the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). Last June the camp’s residents referred derisively to the mainly foreign jihadists as “the spicy crew”. Now they are a real threat – abducting and often murdering revolutionary activists, Free Army fighters and journalists. This development contributes greatly to the gloom of the camp’s residents.
In the camp, the steaming vats of the Maram Foundation’s charity kitchen are cooking the same meal they were six months ago: lentil soup. Children wait with buckets in the red mud outside for lunch to be distributed. Also on the main street is a new clinic and one-room dentist (funded by the Syrian-American Medical Society). Dr Haytham grins as he complains about the conditions. The roof leaks, and the recent snowstorm has flooded his crowded space, destroying electrical equipment. As he serves us tea, a boy called Mahmoud, aged about five, walks in to observe us, his face marked by post-treatment leishmaniasis scars (a resurgent disease caused by the sand flies which prosper in uncollected rubbish). Mahmoud seems a pleasant child at first, but after a smiling photograph with one of our group his mood flips; he violently pinches the hand of the man he’d been cuddling up to and then takes to whipping his older sister with a cable. “Nobody can control him,” somebody remarks. “He doesn’t have a father.”
Dr Haytham in his one-room surgery. Photograph: Mohammad OjjehFatherless, husbandless, homeless … When I ask a man where he’d come from he changed the name of his town from Kafranboodeh to Kafr Mahdoomeh, “the Demolished Village”. I ask him why. “Because they haven’t left one house standing, nor any animals in the fields. What will we ever return to? The whole town’s gone.”
Everyone in this sector is from Kafranboodeh. There was a tent fire the previous night, leaving a nine-year-old girl badly burned. When I visited in the summer there were also tent fires, and a child was killed. Then, the fires had been caused by candles, for light; now they are caused by makeshift stoves around which people huddle for warmth.
The Levantine winter is bitterly cold. Two nights before we arrived a child froze to death in the sub-zero temperatures. A woman reminds me of this, and asks where the heaters are. When I tell her I haven’t come to deliver aid, she shrugs and smiles. “These conditions are forced upon us,” she says. “What can we do?” Some of the children at her side wear open-toed sandals in the mud. I shiver, meanwhile, in my boots and many layers.
Ahmad al-Shaikh, long-faced and bearded, is visiting from the nearby Bab al-Hawa camp. I saw that camp last time – a grim place where the tents are blue plastic and pitched on an undrained concrete surface. Now there are 3,200 tents, Ahmad tells me. He is wearing a secondhand jacket donated by a Kuwaiti, because he has left his home with only the clothes on his back. “It’s a disaster in Bab al-Hawa. It’d be a crime to put animals in such an environment. We’re drowning in flood water, sewage and rats.”
One of my companions is the Syrian-American photographer Mohamad Ojjeh. Last June, while I was delivering storytelling workshops in the tents of the Return School, he taught football skills and took a lot of pictures. He has printed and framed them since then, and the children and their mothers, when we find them, almost grab them in their excitement. They are thoughtful presents for people who no longer own even a mirror, whose children’s lives pass without the pictured landmarks of new school years or family parties.
Children with their framed pictures. Photograph: Mohammad OjjehSeveral times when we raise our cameras, people murmur through polite smiles: “We’re fed up of pictures, frankly.” They are almost ashamed of their earlier naivety, because they once believed that having their misery photographed would translate into an international rescue effort.
“There’s no hope left,” says a woman from Hass who in June had been quietly optimistic. “Everyone’s helping Assad and no one will help us. I don’t know if my daughters will ever go home.”
Some of the younger children have been here for two years. Camp life is all they remember. One boy has tied together an old olive-oil container, some sticks and a sack to build a toy house – he calls it a tent. And who lives in the tent, I ask. “A mouse!”
Despite the refugees‘ sense of abandonment, their hospitality remains as overwhelming as ever. Every family we meet tries to make us drink tea. We eventually accept Ustaz Ahmad’s offer, and drink some glasses on a mat with his mother and about 20 lively children. Mayada (four years and one month old – she is very specific about it) recites the Qur’an for us.
Ahmad used to be headmaster of the Return School, where we worked (for the Karam Foundation’s Zeitouna programme) in June. Now (with ominous symbolism) the Return School has gone, replaced by the Wisdom School, where Ahmad teaches. It has breeze-block walls and corrugated iron roofing, but the sloping mud floor shifts when it rains. And of course there’s no heating. Ahmad, who last time was confident in the revolution’s imminent victory, tries to look on the bright side. “We do what we can for the kids. That way at least they’ll have benefited a little from this period, whether the regime falls or not.”
The boy who built a tent for a mouse. Photograph: Robin Yassin-KassabAs well as Wisdom, the Revolution House School is still going, and still the school with the Salafist curriculum offers its dubious benefits. But there are far too few places, and many children don’t go to school at all. One such is Abdur-Rahman, 13 years old, whose education ended at the age of 11 and a half, when Assad’s bombs closed his school in rural Hama. Now he helps his mother and does odd jobs in the camp. “It’s all right,” he assures me with an old man’s resignation. “My little brother goes to school. That’s enough.”
In some areas of Syria, Assad’s scorched-earth policy has had a military objective – to drive out communities that provide succour to opposition fighters. In others (such as the Homs region, where Assad’s men have burned the property registry), the strategy looks like a more permanent ethnic cleansing. The refugees know this, and they are bitter about it. After Assad they blame his Iranian and Russian backers, and the Arabs who haven’t done enough, and also the west, which is fixated on Islamist radicalism instead of on the regime that creates the conditions in which extremism flourishes.
In 1948, about three quarters of a million Palestinians were driven from their homes. In the following decades the ripples of this expulsion unsettled the entire region and plunged two countries into open war. That’s the grim precedent. Today’s Syrian exodus is unfolding on a much greater scale.
It is almost laughable. The organized Jewish community, which claims to
be worried about young Jews defecting in droves, just cannot help itself
from doing things that drive Jews (not just young ones) away. Between
supporting Netanyahu, advocating for war with Iran and maintaining the
occupation, and keeping silent as Israel evolves into a theocracy, it
also is in the business of preventing debate on all these things and
The latest is this. Phil Weiss reports that the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York has banned an appearance by New Republic journalist, John Judis, who has written a book
challenging the conventional wisdom about why President Truman
recognized Israel. The book argues that Truman recognized Israel in 1948
not because he was a fervent Zionist but because it was May of an
election year, he was trailing in the polls and he was heavily lobbied
by Zionists to do so. Shocking, right. Who would think that politics
would enter into a decision like that?
The museum (a museum, for heaven’s sake) has decided that this kind of
talk will not be permitted in its historically sacred halls. After
scheduling a talk by Judis, it cancelled it. (Obviously, after heavy
pressure from its donors who, like most organizational donors, are great
scholars who own many books).
Weiss asked the museum’s official spokesperson why the event was
cancelled. She said (this is not a joke): “I looked into the situation
and here is our comment: We were interested in the book. We considered
it, but were concerned that the controversy would overshadow the
content. Therefore, we decided not to move forward with the event.”
The controversy? What controversy. The book is brand new and has barely
been reviewed yet. The spokesperson means that some donor called and
complained or, worse, the museum anticipates that some donor will
This is a museum banning historical discussion.
Of course, we are all accustomed to bans on free discussion at Jewish
venues. Peter Beinart ended up giving talks at local delicatessens and
the like because the censors kept him out of synagogues and Jewish
centers, His book became a huge seller and a major force anyway. But
still. It’s the principle.
The organized Jewish community has lost its mind. Pretty soon, any
institution under any kind of Jewish auspices will have to abide by
speech limits set by the Jewish 1%. The 92nd Street Y already
does. (It will not allow any Palestinian to speak unless balanced by a
Jew). Brandeis wouldn’t permit President Carter to speak without a
simultaneous rebuttal by Dershowitz. Pretty soon, Mount Sinai hospital
will check what books patients are sneaking into their sick rooms.
Here is the craziest irony. Most of the censors are liberals. They
welcome discussions on U.S. racism, imperialism, unjust wars and the
like. They love panel discussions criticizing U.S. indifference to the
Holocaust. In fact, I never heard of a Jewish institution banning a
discussion on any matter relating to the United States because it is
But Israel! Oh Lord no. Because the government of the State of Israel,
its policies and its official history is our Holy of Holies. Okay, I
shouldn’t say “our” because there is no “our” anymore. By “our” I mean
the millionaires and billionaires who run the community.
No wonder the organized community is going down the tubes. Soon we will
need a museum just to remind us what it was. And that is probably a good
The biggest and most populous Arab country just voted to slip back to autocracy. From the chaotic maw the people yearn for a Caesar. If they keep on yearning, they will get him.
The actual constitution looks harmless enough – except for one massive oversight, where the military continues to remain above reproach and outside civilian control. The door is open for a democracy not all that different from Turkey a few years back – one that will function only as long as the military allows it. The dust is finally settling in Egypt; with thousands of Muslim Brothers dead or imprisoned, the struggle over the future of the country is apparently firmly in the hands of the military.
And it seems just about everyone minus the Muslim Brotherhood is pleased.
What’s been learned from all this, and where’s Egypt likely going? Sounds like fun to me.
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A film footage of Palestine in 1896 was recently published online thanks to Lobster Films. It shows Palestinians of all faiths – Christians, Jews and Muslims – living side by side, and praying side by side. I transcribed the narration below.
15 years later, the cinema is taking its first steps. Cameramen employed by the Lumiere Brothers filming in Jerusalem’s station, provide the first moving pictures taken in Palestine. From now on, the camera’s a recording eye and what it records is this: A society much like that of Cairo, Damascus, or Beirut, in an Arab city much like any other.
By the end of the 19th century, Palestine has 500,000 inhabitants, of whom 30,000 live in Jerusalem. A veiled woman, a Sunni Muslim, one of the majority. An orthodox Jew. He too turns away from the camera. Here we have an Armenian pope. Each of the Christian denominations has its church here in the holy city. The holy places of the three religions are scattered across a few hundred square meters. The Great Mosque is close to Christ’s tomb. Further along at the foot of the wailing wall, a Jew is reciting a prayer. He is wearing a Turkish tarboush, and although he prays in Hebrew his everyday language is Arabic. Jews form half the population of Jerusalem, but in the country as a whole they make up less than 5% of the total. Christians account for 10% and Muslims 85%. All of them are subjects of the Sultan of Constantinople. There are no frontiers in the Ottoman Empire. There are administrative divisions in which, in this immense territory, Palestine occupies a mere 27,000 square kilometers, made up of three small districts, in the south of the province of Damascus.
According to the Electronic Intifada’s Jalal Abukhater, the film was recovered in Paris, February 2007.
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(lieutenant colonel John McCrae, 1872-1918)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.