Israeli Films at New York Festival Tackle Critical Concerns

The Israel Film Center Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan presented ten movies from June 4 through June 10. I caught a double feature of two New York premieres, initially slotted for the annual November Other Israel Film Festival, canceled after October 7. Interviews with the directors followed the screenings, adding context and insights.

For Israel, given Judaism’s premise of moral and ethical obligations, asylum seekers present a distinctively thorny question.

“Running on Sand,” directed by Adar Shafran, interested me because it examined the plight of asylum seekers from African countries in Israel. I was introduced to the topic when I met a candidate for New York Congress whose parents immigrated to the United States from Eritrea. Biden’s recent announcement on border security underscores that immigration protocol is a global quagmire.

Billed as a comedy-drama, a case of mistaken identity forms the storyline’s framework. On the cusp of being deported, Eritrean refugee Aumari is dodging immigration agents at the airport. There, he is misidentified by the owner of the Netanya football team, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a Nigerian star who will lead his soccer club to a winning streak. Aumari has worked as a dishwasher at an upscale restaurant in Tel Aviv for three years. Living in poor conditions with his best friend and other men who left their countries to pursue safety, Aumari is waiting for the release of his brother, held in detention, with the goal of a fresh start in Europe.

Thrust into a new life with perks that include a luxury residence, Aumari becomes the conduit for interacting with representations of various types within the team’s players. He brings out the inner kindness of the club’s captain, stands as a counterpoint to the self-absorbed showboat, provides a balance to the other “foreigner” from Leipzig, and serves as a subtext to the observant Jew who wears tzitzis and dons Tefillin. The latter verbalizes the teachings of the Torah, reiterating the welcoming of the stranger because “we were once strangers in a strange land.”

Casual racism abounds among the Israeli population. However, attitudes shift toward Aumari when he is viewed as an athlete. (Top funny line: Being told he needs new clothing because he looks like a “dishwasher.”) His relationship with the team owner’s daughter illustrates this metamorphosis without, as Shafran stated, the cloying ending of a “Hollywood movie.”

Isaac Zablocki, Director of the Israel Center Festival, noted how a “huge issue” was presented in a way that made it accessible to audiences.

The second film was “Children of Peace,” also scheduled for the Other Israel Film Festival. (Note: The Other Israel Festival focuses on Arab/Jewish relations and additional minority populations. It is planned for December 2024.)

Directed by Maayan Schwartz, the documentary relates how Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Oasis of Peace), a community established in 1970, came into being. There is backstory on the founder, Bruno Hassan, who was born in Egypt to a Hungarian Jewish father and a French Jewish mother. His vision was to build a half-Arab and half-Jewish village and an environment (which some have called a bubble) where residents could celebrate their respective cultures and religious identities (Muslim, Christian, and Jewish) while living collectively. Located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam overlooks the Ayalon Valley.

Schwartz was one of the children who grew up in this setting. The educational system runs from preschool through the elementary grades. The teachers are Jewish and Arab, with lessons taught in Hebrew and Arabic.

Schwartz decided to undertake the film because, as he said, “If something is bothering me, I will go 100 percent toward it.” Yet he admitted he couldn’t have done it without a camera, due to the “demons in his mind.”

High-profile people lauded and visited the Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam experiment as an example of hope and reconciliation. Television and print interviews were frequent. Many of Schwartz’s peers spoke about the microphones continually being thrust into their faces when they were as young as 5-years-old.

Schwartz wanted to dig into how this cloistered upbringing prepared the children for life outside Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. How did these youngsters fare when they attended Israeli and Palestinian middle schools? Did the bonds of childhood fray or stay intact? Was their worldview shattered by what awaited them in their respective societies?

It’s painful to watch Schwartz and his companions as kids and adults. Even at the grade school level, there are insights shared by an Israeli boy who explains, perhaps without understanding the full import of his words, “I’m like a traitor, and he’s like a bad Arab.”

Forever imprinted by the experience, for better or for worse, they understand at a primal level what is and what can be. A Palestinian woman said that when she was younger, other Palestinians told her that she “dressed like a Jew.” She now wears a hijab. A man acknowledges that as a Palestinian citizen, his status in Israel will always be different.

The most significant dividing line comes when the young Israelis join the national military service. This complexity is exemplified by the story of a popular Israeli resident, Tom Kitain, who was killed in 1997 when two helicopters transporting soldiers to the south of Lebanon crashed into each other. His family had hoped to dedicate a newly constructed basketball court in his memory. However, numerous families felt that honoring a soldier did not fit with the ethos of the community. A small plaque was the compromise.

In the post-film interview, Schwartz addressed how the village responded to October 7 and the ensuing war. “It wasn’t easy,” he said. “It was very complicated. In meetings, both sides said hard things. But they kept meeting. You still respect the others.” He pointed out, “There is sadness on both sides,” stating that “each side was hiding in their narrative.” Schwartz emphasized that the situation could be viewed as “both/and vs. or/or.”

The movie included footage of the brutal clashes in mixed communities within Israel during May 2021. Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam remained untouched by the discord.

Talking about the experience of bringing “Children of Peace” to the United States, Schwartz said, “I felt like people were thirsty to have something to hold on to.” With his wife and son, Schwartz has moved from Tel Aviv back to Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam. For him, the mission of “interrogating the idea of co-existence” is a driving force. He said, “We don’t have any other option. No one is going anywhere. We’re stuck together. You have to finish wars.”

I found that “Children of Peace” raised the question of why it is so much easier for people to dismiss the concept of a joint society grounded in co-equality than to live with ongoing combat and destruction.

In his final words, Schwartz elucidated:

“I’m a storyteller. Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam is another story. It’s not perfect, but at the same time, they are trying — which is an important story to be told.”

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