“The Tinderbox” — Documentary Looks at Israel/Palestine Conundrum

With a shift in American and Israeli leadership, the armed hostilities between the Israeli government and Hamas in May, and street riots within mixed Israeli cities, Diaspora Jews are beginning to question the traditionally accepted narratives.

Into the fray has stepped Gillian Mosely, a British-American and Jewish film director. Her documentary, “The Tinderbox,” follows her journey of exploration and self-discovery as she digs into the historical antecedents of the Israel-Palestine conundrum—while interviewing those living through the on-the-ground daily reality. 

At stake is the established idealistic version of the founding of the state of Israel.

Raised in a Zionist home, Mosely has famous rabbis and cantors throughout her family tree. Her ancestors were Sephardic Jews from Spain and Italy. Her Ashkenazi German antecedents arrived in England in the early 1800s, where they changed their name from Moses to Mosely. While in production, Mosely discovered that she had British relatives who played a role in the 20th Century history of Israel/Palestine, including Sir Herbert Samuel, the first British High Commander of Palestine. 

Two years in the making, Mosely describes her film as teasing out facts from emotion. She quickly discovers that she is deep into “very murky territory.” As Mosely explains, the one true constant throughout her physical and emotional voyage is that everyone she interviews “believes they are right.”

Mosely’s exchanges include in-depth dialogues with Arab and Christian Palestinians, a settler, a progressive Israeli musician, and the widow of a Hamas member. There are also short “on-the-street” style conversations that reveal attitudes from various stakeholders, often ideologically opposed.

Early in her filming, Mosely realizes that she will encounter uncomfortable realities but doesn’t shy away from what unfolds. As she grapples with painful situations that make her uneasy, she shares her distress with the audience. At one point, she states, “I want to believe Jews are better than this.”

The viewer follows Mosely through her evolving concerns. She steps back from her original premise of delving into “Who does the land belong to?” when she decides to reexamine the premise with, “Is that the right question to ask?”

Using archival footage, Mosely underscores the role of the post-World War I Colonial powers, specifically the impact of Britain’s actions. While anticipating carving up the lands of the fallen Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, Britain was promising Arabs their independence while simultaneously cultivating Jewish Europeans. There was much dissension within the British ranks ­­– specifically Lord Curzon‘s opposition to the Balfour Declaration. Yet Britain’s self-motivated global interests in Palestine superseded all the mitigating factors. The result was a legacy of competing claims of sovereignty.

Two decades earlier, Theodore Herzl saw an opportunity to concretely formulate his concept of a homeland for the Jews, with Israel as the only option and response to centuries of continental anti-Semitism. Ironically, as Mosely points out, many European countries saw “Zionism as a way to get rid of their Jews.”

Numerous historical figures appear in the storyline—some better known than others. Khalil al-Sakakini, the Christian Palestinian who in 1917 called for the independence of his people, is introduced. With Palestinians unable to unify, the British Mandate was legally constituted in 1922.

Jewish actors enter the action. Ze’ev Jabotinsky calls for “sweeping out all traces of the Orientals soul.” Yet dating back to 1891, Ahad Ha’am, a Jew from Kyiv (now Ukraine) originally named Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg, observed while in Palestine that the Jewish behavior toward the land inhabitants was hostile. He wrote that the Jews settling in Palestine treated the Arabs with a “repressive tyranny.”

When listening to people referencing promises outlined in the Old Testament as if it were a “land deed,” Mosely asks rhetorically, “How can you use the Bible as a document of proof?” One American Orthodox woman, who has made Aliyah, offers that her realizations come from the Torah and that it is “the will of God for Jews to live in the land of Israel.” For the settler, Yisrael Medad, originally from New York, his deeply held belief is an existential one ­– that “without the land of Israel, we are nothing.”

Despite the legacy of history, Mosely reflects, “Do we want peace enough to stop the blame game? Is it possible to listen to the Other? Is there the will for all parties to take collective responsibility?” There is anger and calls for reconciliation. A Christian Palestinian (2 percent of the present-day Palestinian population), Muna Tannous says flatly, “Christians have been here for over 2,000 years.” She adds, “It’s land they’re after, not peace.” Her weariness is evident in her simple declaration, “I just want to live.” 

Kobi Farhi, a Jewish musician from Tel Aviv/Jaffa and founder of the well-known Israeli band Orphaned Land, reflects soberly, “What’s so holy if blood is spilled all over the place?”

Issa Amro, a prominent Palestinian Human Rights Activist based in Hebron, struggles to effect change through non-violence. He is the founder of Youth Against Settlements and was found guilty by an Israeli military court for an assortment of charges earlier this year. Like many Palestinians, he articulated a palpable feeling of “no future” and a lack of hope.

Mosely includes an unvarnished look at the Nakba, the moves toward population transfers, right of return questions, and the dismal living conditions for Palestinians in Gaza. She and her camera bear witness to the demeaning checkpoint culture, and the colossal separation wall erected to keep people divided.

While she was recently in the United States, I met with Mosely for an interview. She shared her motivations and the various reactions to her movie.

“I’m speaking to the center ground,” she emphasized. “I made the film for millions of people who don’t understand. To understand is to increase the number of voices in the conversation. People will have to look again.”

Acknowledging that the response from some Jews was not positive, she told me, “I was screamed at for undermining the Jewish myth and told, ‘You’re not helping the cause.'” Some Palestinians said it was the film “they had been waiting for.” Others believed that their community wouldn’t watch it.

Mosely’s goal is not to present a solution. Her mission is to document what has and is happening in the land of Israel/Palestine.

The Tinderbox website offers a robust set of verticals which presents  resourceshistorical references, and tools for how to Achieve a Just and Lasting Peace in Israel/Palestine.

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