Truth and lies in 'Bethlehem'
Gideon Levy cannot abide by the film's refusal to sort everyone into good and bad, but this ambiguity is part of the human situation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a conflict between ideologies, but the ideologies involved in it serve to camouflage a conflict between human beings. When the ideological camouflage is removed for a moment it turns out, alas, that it’s very difficult to separate human beings into good guys and bad guys. To Gideon Levy, this difficulty is in effect “a poison forest” that he finds intolerable. In an opinion piece he wrote in Haaretz about the film “Bethlehem,” it is he, the ideologue of human rights for all people, who paradoxically rejects what a human being is – not because the bad guys are on the wrong side of the barrier, but because without the ideological camouflage it turns out that people don’t conform to the division into good and bad guys.
Removing the ideological camouflage, even for a moment – which reveals human beings’ struggles with truth, lies, money, etc., that are usually covered up by idealism – is actually an act of concealment, deception and cowardice to the ideologue. The ideologue is infuriated by the effort to keep him from continuing to divide the world into good guys and bad guys, and it makes no difference where the good guys are and where the bad guys – that’s already a question of ideology.
“Bethlehem” (spoiler warning) revolves around the question of truth and lies, and presents it as determining life and death. In the film everyone lies, everyone twists and turns in order not to tell the truth, everyone is vengeful, everyone is confused, everyone is similar. The Israelis and the Palestinian drive similar vehicles, they look remarkably alike and they live in the same tense, suspicious and violent atmosphere, where it is no longer clear what is proper and how one should behave.
During one semi-comical moment, Israeli soldiers stop a carful of “mista'arvim,” undercover soldiers disguised as Arabs. The presumed "enemies" respond to the soldiers' questions with typical Israel camaraderie, showing themselves to be "flesh of our flesh." Boundaries are blurred, and the identities dictated by ideology collapse.
This is a film that challenges the flag-wavers. Levy claims the intifada combatants are depicted as violent, power-hungry and motivated by greed. Is that indeed the case? The film doesn’t dwell on life inside Israel's Shin Bet security service, but the little it shows is enough to transmit the atmosphere of quarrels, rivalries and rudeness. When it shows greed, envy or coarseness, it doesn't distinguish between good and bad guys. They are ambiguous, they are what enable the human space to exist.
The film actually shows the Islamic Jihad fighter sticking to his mission without any connection to the salary he receives. When Ibrahim, the leader of Islamic Jihad in Bethlehem, goes out to his death in the market, it’s not at all clear whether he is going for the money he secretly receives from Hamas, or in order to briefly leave his safe house and succumb to the temptation of the sip of coffee that will precipitate his end. When Sanfur asks the restaurant owner for money for the fighters, greed is seen to be a complex issue, because afterward he will give the money to his father, in order to prove that he’s worth something.
The argument that the film depicts the Shin Bet agent as a stereotype of the good, sensitive guy and the Palestinians as greedy and power-hungry is surprising. It’s no longer clear what secret Razi of the Shin Bet is hiding; he lies to his superiors, his wife and whoever is nearby, presumably out of fear of his status, or perhaps out of a desire to prove his ability. Throughout the film he lies in order to protect his source, to protect the boy’s life, but what seals his fate at the end of the film is actually his betrayal of the boy, whom he describes as his son, when he sends him back to Badawi.
So what is the truth? What is the lie? And the boy, is he close to Razi and torn between loyalties, or is he preoccupied with a macho imitation of Wild West heroes? The last thing that can be said at the film's terrible end is that Sanfur is ungrateful and despicable. It is precisely because the connection between intention and action remains ambiguous that we can question the intentions, motives and objectives of each character, Jew and Arab alike. We can ask without answering, because in the life of a human being there are no answers to such questions.
What is amazing in the film is the way it exposes the lies, the weakness and the impossibility of escape on both sides, in spite of the ideology that tries to conceal them. To the point where the ideological viewer insists on restoring order and enforcing the reassuring distinction between good guys and bad guys. It is an example of the power of the schematic politics of stereotypes, which reassures us when it comes to the complexity of reality – which for its part refuses simplistic categorization. This politics is so effective that for Levy it turns on its head the morality of the film’s makers, and he accuses the director of moral failure and deviousness.
In “Bethlehem” the truth is discovered through the lie. The lies reveal the truth. Even Razi the liar pays with his life, because he was not indifferent to the truth. But there are also liars who are not disturbed by the truth. They are indifferent to it. They are the scoundrels of the human scenario. There is nothing heroic in a lie, in this film it neither saves nor liberates. But the truth that is discovered is also catastrophic. In the film's reality, everyone lies. Not that there is no difference between truth and lies, but in this case we see that lying is not bad and the truth does not make things easy – they are part of the human situation, in which there are no good guys and bad guys. Even a child can see that.
Prof. Ruth Ronen teaches philosophy at Tel Aviv University