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A scene from 'Omar,' Hany Abu-Assad’s thriller set on both sides of the separation wall. Photo courtesy of Adopt Films

Holy Land narratives

Three recent takes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can help Canadians grasp the whole picture

By Donald Grayston

On a recent visit to the West Bank, former foreign affairs minister John Baird had his car pelted with eggs. The incident expressed graphically the Palestinian feeling about Canada’s lopsided policy as “Israel’s best friend,” to paraphrase Baird’s 2012 statement. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the occupation of Palestinian territories, continues to play itself out in many ways, including in the crimes of ISIS and the actions of the Charlie Hebdo assassins, both of whom cited it as a prime motivation. Its resolution, I am convinced, has the same moral claim on us in our time as the civil rights movement did in an earlier era.

Three recent takes on the conflict can help open our eyes to its many dimensions. The novel The Hilltop gives us an Israeli perspective; the film Omar gives us a Palestinian perspective; and Contested Land, Contested Memory, a non-fiction work by Toronto writer Jo Roberts, enlarges the screen and enables us to see both sides. We need all three perspectives to grasp the whole picture and to shape our response as Canadians.

The Hilltop by Israeli author Assaf Gavron is a juicy, rumbustious novel of life in an illegal settlement in the West Bank. Ma’aleh Hermesh C. is doubly illegal: first in the sense that according to international law all West Bank settlements are illegal, and second in that it was founded with no government authorization. At the novel’s centre is the crackling energy between two brothers, Roni and Gabi Kupper, who both love and irritate each other. Roni becomes a trader on Wall Street, loses all his own and his clients’ money in the 2008 crash, moves to his brother’s settlement and starts an olive oil business with a local Palestinian, upsetting the settlers. Gabi, meanwhile, gets married, fathers a son, is estranged from his family and becomes religiously observant, a “born-again Jew.”

Gavron ironically counterpoints the settlers’ strong religious identity and their ethically questionable attempts to play off different government units against each other to prevent authorities from closing the settlement down. When the government proposes to build the separation wall on the settlement’s land, co-founder Othniel Assis protests, “Haven’t they heard of democracy and basic human rights over there in Jerusalem?”

With government bulldozers looming, does the settlement have a future? And in that regard, does it stand for all the settlements? Comic, sly, brilliant, The Hilltop has been called “the great Israeli novel” for its vivid and intimate representation of settlement life.

In Omar, filmed in Nablus and Nazareth, the occupation’s brutality, marginal in The Hilltop, is laid bare. Writer and director Hany Abu-Assad sketched out the intense story in four hours and wrote the script in four days. The movie won a jury prize at Cannes in 2013 and was a finalist for best foreign film in the 2014 Oscars.

The film shows betrayal after betrayal: Palestinians by Israelis, Palestinians by each other. Omar is a young Palestinian baker; his girlfriend, Nadia, lives on the other side of the separation wall. The film begins with Omar shinnying up his side of the wall, getting shot at, and then skidding down the other side to see her. After Omar and his friends kill an Israeli soldier, Omar, though not the shooter, is blackmailed into becoming a double agent when his Israeli captors threaten Nadia. Not surprisingly, the end result is more violence.

This is not a “balanced” film. It is as one-sidedly Palestinian as The Hilltop is one-sidedly Israeli, demanding that the viewer acknowledge the misery of daily life in the West Bank. Demonstrating how it is in the occupiers’ interest to destroy any faith Palestinians have in each other, Omar raises the ongoing question: Whom can I trust? And so it goes, no resolution in sight.

In Contested Land, Contested Memory, Jo Roberts, a former managing editor of the Catholic Worker in New York, has given us an empathetic overview of how Israelis and Palestinians came to their present place of alienation. A notable strength of the book, which was a finalist in the 2013 U.S. National Jewish Book Awards, is the way Roberts uses the testimony of so many individuals, young and old, violent and non-violent, to illustrate her historical account. These witnesses include refugees of the Nakba, the 1947-48 exodus of some 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their traditional territories, as well as members of the Jewish (later, Israeli) militias that carried out expulsions. Valuable too is her description of how the Jerusalem trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in 1961 broke down psychological barriers between Holocaust survivors and native-born Israelis (“sabras”), who had previously been contemptuous of them.

Israeli memory was also reshaped in 1982 when government archives about the Arab-Israeli war were opened. Contrary to the firmly held Israeli view that the Palestinians had left in 1948 with the encouragement of Arab leaders (who told them they could expect to return home quickly), the reality was that many had fled under the threat of violence. These revelations shook the moral and psychological foundation of the Israeli state.

The book focuses on Israel’s engagement with — or ignoring of — the Nakba, exploring how contested memory (“my story is true; yours is not”) serves the political aims of both peoples, and how the attachment of each people to its own narrative inhibits the possibility of peace between them. Active in memory, the Holocaust and the Nakba render the two peoples fearful and suspicious of each other; both are haunted by “the ghosts of catastrophe.”

“Remembrance is the door through which the past presses into the present,” Roberts reflects, asserting, unarguably, that until each people hears and acknowledges the pain of the other, peace will not come. As she writes, “Opening oneself to the Other’s story, and to the possibility that it may transform one’s own story, is an essential step toward reconciliation.”

We wait in hope.

Rev. Donald Grayston is an Anglican priest and a member of Building Bridges Vancouver.

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