I finally got to see Bethlehem, the Israeli movie on the Shin Bet, yesterday evening. There are very few spoilera today since this is a review of a review of the film not primarily of the film itself.
Though not exclusively a philologist, David Shulman is a renowned and prodigious scholar and the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies in the Department of Comparative Religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A poet himself, he is an expert in the history of religion in South India and a specialist in Tamil, Telegu and Sanskrit poetry as well as Tamil Islam, Dravidian linguistics and Carnatic music. His latest book, More than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India,is part of an enormous scholarly output. But he is also a peace activist. In 2007, he published Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine.The latter documents his role as a promoter of Arab-Jewish cooperation through Ta’ayush, “Life-in-Common”. He has been active in protests against Israeli efforts to evict Palestinians, particularly from Silwan.
In the current 24 April 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books, Shulman reviewed two films, Omar, directed by the Palestinian, Hany Abu-Assad, and Bethlehem, directed by the Israeli, Yuval Adler, a former member of an Israeli intelligence unit and a new and powerful director from a country that is now producing a plethora of excellent films. Both films focus on the relationship developed between a handler and his informant in the activities of the Israeli intelligence service, Shin Bet, during an intifada. This blog is a review of that review focused on the Israeli film, Bethlehem. Omar is better known because it was in the running for an academy award this year for best foreign film but I just missed seeing it during its theatre release. Last night I was determined to see Bethlehem before it too disappeared from the theatres.
In his review, Shulman writes, “Both Omar and Bethlehem are strongly teleological; their natural, lethal conclusion is the default of both Israeli and Palestinian consciousness. There is, it seems, only one way out of the trap where the informer is forced to live; and it takes only a tiny movement of the imagination to see the informer’s predicament as embodying and focusing the reality that all Israelis and Palestinians inhabit day be day. At bottom, all of us feel trapped.” Shulman then uses his review to offer a screed on the failure of Israel “which holds nearly all the cards” to resolve the conflict. For Shulman, it may take two to tango, but only one can be the leader and it is the leader who holds the overwhelming responsibility for how the dance develops. Instead of directing its efforts towards peace, for Shulman, Israel “terrorizes an entire people by torture, blackmail, and other instruments of coercion far into the unknown future.” In response, the Palestinians are developing the practice of non-violence, though Shulman acknowledges “there are still those in Palestine committed to armed resistance.”
There will be many supporters of Israel who will be appalled by such a judgment, but my concern is whether and how that judgment effects his review of the film. In general, though both films dealt with the same subject matter, Shulman found that Bethlehem lacked the humanistic lens of Omar. In the latter, Rami, the Shin Bet handler, is portrayed as “a real person, with wife and children, not some cut-out monster”. But, in Bethlehem, Razi, the parallel role to Rami in the Palestinian film, is acted by Tsahi Halevi, but when he is portrayed as a human being, the movie becomes an “Israeli propaganda film. Its Shin Bet hero, when not on duty, goes to the zoo with his wife and daughters and, in general, is a prototypically nice guy.” Though these are the words of the Israeli journalist, Gideon Levy, writing in Haaretz, Shulman endorses that assessment. How can he do so? Isn’t that judging the two films by a double standard?
The answer is yes. When a Palestinian director portrays a Shin Bet operator as a human being, the approach is a universalist and humanitarian one. When an Israeli director does so, the approach is propaganda. This is true even though the Israeli script was authored not only by the director but by a Palestinian as well, Ali Waked, a Palestinian journalist who covers the political scene in Palestine. Where is “the evil, torture, blackmail and lies” inherent in the whole system of occupation, Levy asks with Shulman’s approval. For neutrality is not allowed for the Israeli who bears the moral responsibility for the whole mess according to him. Israelis are obligated to take a stand opposed to the occupation. An Israeli film shot through a neutral lens is an abomination.
Shulman finds that Abu-Assad’s film, Omar, errs in the other direction. “It’s a generous – perhaps too generous- view.” Why? Because Abu-Assad views the Israeli political leadership as at fault. The ordinary soldier is just doing his duty. As Shulman writes, “The problem is that these ordinary Israelis, the ‘common people who are just people, have mostly, for decades now, elected governments of the extreme right, like the present settler regime run by Benjamin Netanyahu. Moreover, these same ordinary people continue to demonstrate, day after day, a shocking, willful indifference to the fate of their Palestinian neighbors.” The movie, Jerusalem, thus feeds this “malignant and consequential” pillar of the occupation. But in its humanity and generosity, indeed fairness, doesn’t Omar do the same?
Shulman openly and unequivocally adopts a different standard for judging Israeli behaviour and Israeli movies than for Palestinian behaviour and Palestinian movies. As he writes in his book on his political activism, he decries the loss of an Israel once led by utopian idealist and humanists (the same idealists and humanists who sometimes forcefully expelled Palestinian civilians in the 1948 war). He denounces the murderous and suicidal messianism of the settlers riddled with dark forces and a predatory approach to the Palestinians rather than the “humane heart of Jewish tradition”. Shulman sees himself as the embodiment of that tradition while the settlers are the embodiment of “pure, rarefied, unadulterated, unreasoning, uncontainable human evil’. As Shulman has written, “I feel responsible for the atrocities committed in my name, by the Israeli half of the story.” So there can be no neutrality from the Israeli side, only strident self-condemnation.
My friend and fellow philosopher, Avishai Margalit, in a review of Shulman’s book in a past issue of The New York Review of Books (6 December 2007) entitled, “A Moral Witness to the ‘Intricate Machine”” appraised Shulman’s book as follows: “One of the most fascinating and moving accounts of Israeli-Palestinian attempts to help, indeed to save, human beings suffering under the burden of occupation and terror. Anyone who is pained and troubled by what is happening in the Holy Land should read this human document, which indeed offers a certain dark hope.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/dec/06/a-moral-witness-to-the-intricate-machine/ )
Avishai quotes from the book: “Israel, like any other society, has violent, sociopathic elements. What is unusual about the last four decades in Israel is that many destructive individuals have found a haven, complete with ideological legitimation, within the settlement enterprise” [with] “unfettered freedom to terrorize the local Palestinian population: to attack, shoot, injure, sometimes kill – all in the name of the alleged sanctity of the land and of the Jews’ exclusive right to it.”
Ignore whether Shulman has correctly characterized the settler movement whether you adamantly oppose it on moral or even just political grounds and certainly even if you support the settlers not on grounds of exclusive rights to the land but on grounds of shared rights. My concern is whether such a moral point of view as Shulman puts forth can ever offer a fair analysis of an aesthetic product like a movie. Clearly, the only Israeli film that would have satisfied a righteous moralist like Shulman is a propaganda film that condemns not only the Israeli political leadership, but its Shin Bet agents ostensibly working to protect Israelis from terror attacks and even the Israeli public that elects those politicians and turns its moral back on the fate of the Palestinians.
Shulman wrtites: “It is in conjuring up an intelligible setting that Bethlehem mostly disappoints. In depicting the occupation, Bethlehem shows Israelis as they like to see themselves, functioning heroically, against all odds, in a dire situation that has, it would seem been thrust upon them from the outside. What is worse, Bethlehem seems to be driven by the standard version of Israeli politics: set at the height of the second intifada, with suicide bombers a constant threat, the film doesn’t even hint at the possibility that Israeli acts and decisions might have had something to do with the outburst of Palestinian violence that began in the autumn of 2000.” In other words, Bethlehem is a failure of a film because it is not the film that Shulman thinks should be produced or that his moral portrait of the world demands.
For Shulman, Abu-Assad is allowed to make a film that was widely appreciated by Israelis when it is about “love, friendship and trust” rather than politics, but an Israeli director is permitted no such leeway. So Shulman is blind to the subtleties of the Israeli film, especially in the quiet and underplayed interactions between Razi and Sanfur or in the discreet and understated play of love and betrayal between Razi and his own wife, Einat, played by Michal Shtamler.
Shulman is also deaf to its resonant irony. First, the movie is not simply called Bethlehem because that is where most of the action is located and where Ibrahim, played superbly by Hisham Suliman with a mixture of steely bravado and deep terror as the leader of an al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade, is trapped by the Israeli army. Ibrahim has double-crossed his own sponsors and colleagues by coming into the pay of Hamas and setting of a bomb in Jerusalem that killed and maimed many Israelis.
Bethlehem, the centre of terrorist activity, of violence, disloyalty and distrust in the film, is where Matthew (2:6), echoing the prophet Micah, predicts that it will be the city from which “One will go forth for me to be the ruler In Israel.” Bethlehem is the home of Elimelech in the Book of Ruth who is driven out by a famine to seek refuge among the Moabites where his sons marry Moabite women, Oprah and Ruth. Ruth, in absolute loyalty, accompanies her widowed mother-in-law to return to Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Ruth, also a widow, meets and marries Boaz and their son, Obed, will give birth to Jesse, the father of King David who unites the tribes of Israel. So Bethlehem, in Christian sacred text even more so, is not only the city of love but, in Jewish sacred texts, is the city of paradigmatic loyalty. Bethlehem is also the birthplace of Jesus where love for the other was to be the source of reconciliation and resolution of conflicts and hatred but is, in the film, a centre of the very opposite traits and where not only trust but love is betrayed.
It is this city that is chosen in the film to portray the difficulties of trust and loyalty, of love and respect, in an atmosphere of violence, mutual suspicion and, ultimately, betrayal. Shulman in his commitment to a pacifist ideology seems totally blind to this fundamental irony that is the foundation of the movie. For the centre of the film is the love that develops between the Israeli agent, Razi, and the adolescent brother of Ibrahim, Sanfur, played with great confusion and an inner troubled soul by Shadi Mar’i. Razi is Sanfur’s handler who betrays his own side because he loses his neutrality and develops a deep affection for the boy – an affection that will eventually be an even greater blinder as it determines his actions. Just likes the terrorists, he wears a metaphorical balaclava to cover his soul much like the cloth put over the head of a horse when it is being trained and mounted. Razi is blind to the boy’s needs for a father who will believe in him and protect him, as Sanfur does for his own father who does not return that love and loyalty so caught up is the father in the glories of his older son.
Sanfur is an informant, but Razi makes his first error and goes down to slippery slope of betraying his own Shin Bet colleagues and even his own wife and children in protecting Sanfur; at the same time as he uses him, his ultimate love for the boy clouds his judgment and he betrays himself. Inform means literally to impart knowledge, but in a context of mutual hostility, to inform the other side is to be a Judas, a traitor, and has the very opposite connotation of providing information for it suggests betrayal, selling out to the enemy. To be an informant is NOT to be an agent of transparency but is a pejorative term for the information is supplied without the permission or authority of the person the information is about. “Informant” connotes moral turpitude not the height of morality in serving to foster knowledge and wisdom.
Secrecy and betrayal are at the heart of the film. On the Palestinian side, there are multiple betrayals – the PLO leadership of their militant brigades when they are determined in their own interest to make a deal with the Israelis. Ibrahim betrays his own followers, especially Badawi, the Bedouin who serves under him played brilliantly by Hitham Omari. He in turn kills the leader of his own squad because he was working against him. Sanfur betrays both his brother, his father and ultimately Razi as well. Similarly, when Levi, Razi’s superior demands that Razi hold to the highest standard of complete honesty in a realm that makes as demanding a claim on complete trust as it does on betrayal, Razi lies. But no one in the film acts simply out of self-gain, including Badawi, for there are always mixtures of psychological and social forces as well as both self-interest and principles. It is the interplay of all of them that makes this such a rich and moving film, a subtlety that Shulman in his righteous anger seems to totally miss.
Ultimately, Shulman in his double standard and moral righteousness betrays his own calling as a humanist and a scholar. Bethlehem is not (nor, I suspect, is Omar) “strongly teleological”. No determination is made that this distrust within and between the two communities will be the ultimate fault line. The movie is imbued with too much humanity and too much very basic inter-personal trust to become such a caricature. It is Shulman in his lofty moral self-righteous inflexibility who reads it into the film a predetermined lethal conclusion to the conflict. The situation and circumstances may be lethal, but the humanity of the film shines through with great brilliance and provides hope in spite of the horrific and lethal conclusion. If Shulman is trapped, it is by his purist moralism not by the situation in Israel/Palestine or by the portrayal of the situation in the movie.