Encountering the Enemy: Using Film to Nurture Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 13 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Enemies Among Us.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
Every year, Christians from around the world travel to the Holy Land to explore the cities where Jesus performed miracles, to be baptized in the river Jordan, or to visit the place where He was crucified. Israel holds such fascination for Christians both because Jesus walked its dusty landscape and because the Jewish people and their homeland are believed to be important in the fulfillment of End Time prophecies. Many Christians believe that their faith demands support for the state of Israel against its political enemies and that Jesus’ Second Coming hinges on the Jewish temple being rebuilt on the same hill where the Dome of the Rock stands now.
I would argue that the Holy Land should be of special importance to Christians, but not for any of those reasons. Christians should be concerned about Israel/Palestine because it is the site of a gaping wound where fear and hatred have festered for over a hundred years, resulting in the loss of tens of thousands of lives and the displacement of about one million of people. It is a place in dire need of the reconciliation, enemy love, forgiveness, and healing that Jesus proclaimed; in dire need of people who will live out the Kingdom Jesus preached. Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” But whether we define God’s people as Jews, Christians, or Muslims, peacemakers in the Holy Land are surprisingly few.With His life and His death, Jesus proclaimed a message of enemy love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. His resurrection proved that love has the final victory over violence. I would say that God certainly does will an end to the conflict. The question is, do we?
Labored, scraping sounds are heard behind the black curtain of the screen. An image emerges: a shovel digging against hard soil. Next, a weary man with gray stubble, wiping the sweat from his brow. A checkered keffiyeh, the traditional cotton scarf that has come to symbolize Palestinian nationalism, hangs loosely over his shoulders. As he resumes his work, we see that what he is digging is a shallow grave, and he’s already standing inside it. Suddenly, dirt flies in from off screen, beginning to refill the hole. We see another old man, this one wearing a Jewish yarmulke and determinedly digging a grave of his own. The camera pans out to show the two grave diggers side by side, rendering one another’s efforts useless by heaving the earth out of each of their own graves and tossing it into the grave of the other.
This is the opening of a short film created by a team of Palestinian and Israeli teenagers, and it is a chillingly accurate picture of the seemingly intractable conflict in which the youth live. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often portrayed by mainstream media with good and evil neatly divided along political and religious lines, embroiled in an endless, bloody battle to which there is no alternative. Yet the youth’s film offers a strikingly different perspective. Their portrayal of the conflict is much more nuanced and complex, but it is also more hopeful: further into the Grave Digging video, one of the men lights a cigarette for the other, and as they pause from their sorrowful labor to share a smoke, they seem to recognize their mutual exhaustion and grief. They are united in their suffering, and in their desire for that suffering to end.
The youth who created that film had encountered their “enemies” the same way through the experience of making movies together. Afterward, they screened the film in their communities to spark dialogue and motivate their peers to work together toward a common goal of peace. The process was facilitated by Peace It Together, a Canadian organization committed to “empowering youth to build peace through dialogue, film-making, and community engagement.”
History and Homeland
Peace It Together’s co-founder, Reena Lazar, is Jewish. During her upbringing in Montreal, she attended a Jewish Zionist elementary and high school that were modeled on schools in Israel. I was surprised to learn that although her education instilled her with a patriotic love of Israel and a depth of knowledge about Jewish history and traditions, it was thoroughly secular. “The Zionism movement was started mostly by secular Jews,” she explains. “The strong Zionists were known for being nonreligious.” Although neither of her parents ever lived in Israel, Lazar visited the region several times as a child and grew up thinking of Israel as her homeland.
The first time she interacted with Palestinians was when a rabbi in Vancouver invited two Palestinian sisters to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and they spoke about their sadness about being unable to return to Jerusalem, the place where they were born. “They weren’t blaming anyone, they were very loving, and I was just feeling so impacted by it,” Lazar recalls.
Soon afterward, she had the opportunity to visit Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza as part of a program called The Compassionate Listening Project. “We heard from lots of peace builders, but also people whose houses had been demolished. You know, both sides: Israeli settlers, human rights lawyers, military people, just the everyday folk… some politicians as well. And it was quite transformative. I was very inspired by the people, especially those who were bringing the two sides together.”
Developing a Vision
By 2004, she was able to raise enough money to put on the first Peace It Together project, bringing together five Israelis, five Palestinians, and two Canadian youth for “creative exploration and wilderness activities.” The following year, she and her team stumbled onto the idea of film, partnering with the Gulf Islands Film and Television School (GIFTS) in British Columbia.
“Creativity is an amazing thing for conflict resolution,” Lazar explains. “When you’re creative, it’s all about letting go of something old and making way for something new to emerge. With almost any creative act, that happens. And really, it’s the same thing with conflict resolution. You have to let go—of old assumptions, of old ways of thinking, of old patterns—and you get to the place where you’re open enough to let in something new, something different, something uncomfortable.”
Lazar expected that the creative process would help participants explore the nuances of their own experiences and engage with one another’s perspectives. What she didn’t expect was the high quality of the films the Palestinian and Israeli teenagers created in the space of a week, without any prior experience. “They got into film festivals, they won awards—it was amazing.”
Humanizing the Conflict
When sifting through applicants for the program, Lazar looked for “a diverse group of creative youth who have leadership potential.” Most participants had no experience with either peace building or film, and many had never actually had a conversation with someone on “the other side.” The only Israelis most Palestinians in the West Bank have met are soldiers, and even within Israel, the society is so segregated that friendships between Palestinians and Jews living in the same city is rare. Youth came into the program with stereotypical, negative perceptions of the other.
“The Israeli will look at the Palestinian as a terrorist. And the Palestinian will look at the Israeli like—well, like a terrorist, they just have different [terms].” Lazar notes the intense fear that both groups feel toward each other. “Palestinians are always surprised at how much Israelis fear [them], because from the Palestinian perspective, the Israelis have all the power… the military strength. So they’d say, ‘You’re afraid of us? Why would you be afraid of us?’ ‘Well, of course we think that,’” Israelis reply, “‘because you’re going to blow yourself up and kill me.’ On both sides, they’re really surprised that the other wants peace.” Lazar recounts that some years, participants in the program even reported not being able to sleep the first night after they arrived in Canada because sharing a room with a Jew or an Arab for the first time made them “afraid for their lives.”
Extreme rhetoric is common on both sides, but Lazar says, “If a person’s saying something that sounds hateful, know that it’s coming from a place of fear. And often the fear comes from a place of ignorance. When I say ignorance, I don’t mean you don’t know anything. I mean you really haven’t had the critical, beautiful opportunity to really connect with someone [from the other side].”
Anger, fear, guilt, and past memories of loss or trauma were bound to arise during group dialogue—especially when the participants were older youth, and virtually every Israeli in the room has spent time in the army. There was a therapist on call in case someone needed one-on-one therapy, but most of the time, the youth dealt with these emotions by talking with one another directly. Spending twenty-four hours a day together for three to four weeks meant that issues were unlikely to simmer under the surface for long without being voiced.
The dialogue also provides a space to engage in critical self-reflection about the ways that one’s own people have acted to perpetuate the conflict. Once, Lazar met up in the Bethlehem area with past participants who had become friends through the program, two Palestinians and two Israelis. She was amazed by their conversation about the current political situation: “It was so beautiful, because that same group—I remember them yelling at each other and blaming each other, pointing fingers at each other when they were together in Canada.” Two and a half years later, “Here they were, saying, ‘No, my government’s worse!’ ‘No, my government’s worse!’” They were all talking about the ways their own people were responsible for the conflict. “It was total transformation,” she says.
Not only were the youth able to look critically at their own group, but their interaction also demonstrated that they were comfortable enough with each other to admit the faults of their own people in front of outsiders. Shared experiences during the program had humanized the conflict for them, and their sense of “us” had shifted. “That’s the most powerful thing,” Lazar remarks. “Something happens, and you’re not thinking about this faceless, monolithic group of people called ‘them.’ You’re thinking of Mahmoud, or Maya—you’re thinking of people you’ve gotten to know.”
The program doesn’t end there. Lazar believes that if youth “have this life experience and then they don’t talk about it or they don’t actually take action, then it’s kind of—particularly for those who feel that they’re part of the oppressed group—a waste. So we like to build in an action.” During the last phase of the program, the youth are trained to facilitate dialogues with their peers at film screenings and workshops in their local communities.
After seeing the films, many individuals who previously had no interest in meeting “the enemy” are signing up to participate in face-to-face peace building programs. To date, youth have screened their films for thousands of people in Israel and Palestine at more than 100 workshops. According to audience surveys, more than 60% of Israeli and Palestinian viewers say they want to learn more about “the other side” after seeing the films.
The Bigger Picture
Still, Lazar has learned that face-to-face dialogue will not be enough to make a difference if the program does not acknowledge the larger structural factors which perpetuate injustice and therefore fuel the conflict. Israelis and Palestinians are not coming to the table as equals, and critics of face-to-face peace building efforts often criticize such programs for failing to acknowledge the imbalance of power between the two groups. In response, Peace It Together has adopted a set of guiding principles in order to address the realities of working toward peace in a political situation where Palestinians do not enjoy the same legal rights and freedom of movement as Israelis. These principles inform and shape their peace building efforts:
Rights to the Land: “Both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to live and develop the land for the prosperity and health of both peoples.”
Justice and Security: “To lay the groundwork for a just and secure peace, parties must reconcile injustices, understand one another, and move towards healing.” The occupation must end, the rights of Palestinian refugees must be addressed, and Israelis must be freed from violence and the threat of violence.
Effective Dialogue: Both sides should “engage in open, frank and informed discussions” and “form equitable partnerships” which “must be leveraged into other forms of action that challenge inequalities, human-rights violations, and prejudice, in order for conflict to be transformed.”
Inequalities and Power: “When inequalities persist or worsen, so too does the conflict that surrounds it.” Inequalities exist on both interpersonal and structural levels.
These principles were hammered out in a lengthy participatory process that included both Jews and Palestinians, and it wasn’t easy to come to an agreement. Says Lazar, “The word ‘occupation’ is really hard for Jews—not just in Israel but also outside of Israel—to say… to admit to. And for Palestinians, if we didn’t acknowledge that there is an occupation, then they would have absolutely no interest being part of our program.”
Working as part of a team will always involve interpersonal power dynamics, she explains. “But then there’s the realm of, ‘Hey, I live under occupation, and these guys are the occupiers.’ There’s no denying that.” So the filmmaking process is about “playing with the idea of equity, and practicing how to be in an equitable partnership with the other,” something Israelis and Palestinians don’t experience in everyday life. “That could mean, for some people, giving up power, and for other people, stepping into power.”
Partnering with Windows
The decision to begin addressing the political situation more directly in their programs grew out of what Lazar learned from Rutie Atsmon, the Jewish co-director of an organization called Windows. Led by Jewish and Palestinian co-directors, Windows operates peace-building programs for youth in two locations within Israel and the West Bank. For the past few years, a lack of funding has prevented Peace It Together from being able to run their program, but Lazar is currently fundraising to help Windows reproduce the project in Israel and the West Bank. The organization already works to empower youth through journalism, publishing alternative media produced by youth for youth, in both Hebrew and Arabic. Now they are hoping to raise enough money to incorporate film. Windows plans to work with youth in their twenties who already have some peace-building experience and are looking to take their work to the next level. That demographic will be willing to travel between Israel and the West Bank, something that will be needed if the film program is to be hosted within the region instead of abroad.
According to Lazar, Palestinians living in the West Bank are “not allowed to go into Israel without a special permit. They may not get a permit, and they could get a permit for a day; unlikely to get a permit for a week.” Meanwhile, some parts of the West Bank are off-limits to Israelis and they could be arrested for traveling there. That leaves only a few places in the region where both Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank would feel safe to meet, and nowhere is entirely neutral.
Still, the new location has its advantages. The cost of the program will be drastically lower, and working within Israel and Palestine will mean a strong network of support for participants. In the past, youth faced a difficult transition from Canada back into their own communities, which are often critical of their willingness to engage with the enemy. “They go back home, and they get surrounded by the people in their lives who are telling them, ‘What did you do that for? That was crazy,’ or, ‘You’re a traitor.’” With Windows, everyone involved—from the staff to the volunteers to the people providing food—will still be around after the project, and they will have a stake in supporting the youth over the long-term. Windows has also built trust with the local community.
The program designed for Windows calls for three in-person workshops punctuated by time apart during which each team (comprised of both Palestinians and Israelis) will shoot film independently on their respective sides of the border and share footage online. They’ll meet in person for discussions, for editing their films together, and to debrief their experiences after they screen the films.
Hope for Change
Lazar readily acknowledges that given the scale of the conflict, her project is a mere “drop in the bucket.” Yet she also knows that it has the potential to catalyze macro-level change. For one thing, it could be that one of the youth they reach will emerge as a leader. “There are the Nelson Mandelas of the world, so there’s always that hope,” she says.
Another possibility is that some of the films they make will have a wide enough influence to change the political climate. “You need something like 10% of the population to even hope for a tipping point,” Lazar says. Currently, less than 1% of Israelis and Palestinians have ever participated in face-to-face peace-building programs. Working as equal partners in filmmaking increases young people’s agency to similarly partner in working toward social change, and audience members may be inspired to do the same.
So Lazar holds onto hope. Perhaps there will be those one or two films that change everything; that bring people together and turn enemies into friends. “Insha’allah,” she says, borrowing an Arabic phrase. If God wills it.
With His life and His death, Jesus proclaimed a message of enemy love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. His resurrection proved that love has the final victory over violence. I would say that God certainly does will an end to the conflict. The question is, do we?
In this and every conflict on earth—between races, between nations, within families—do we have the courage to meet our enemies and to discover ourselves in them? Are we willing to acknowledge the violence and the capacity for evil within ourselves and to forgive the harm done to us? Only then will we be able to become the peacemakers that Jesus calls children of God.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.
 Matthew 5:9
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