An American Director Almost Died in a Tel Aviv Suicide Bombing. He Now Seeks the Human Side of His Attackers

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A scene from "The Last Sermon." The story began with a desire to make a film about Marwan Barghouti.
A scene from "The Last Sermon." The story began with a desire to make a film about Marwan Barghouti.Credit: Pax Americana Productions
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

On April 30, 2003, Jack Baxter was sitting in Mike’s Place along the Tel Aviv beachfront and loving every minute of it. The beer was flowing like water, loud music was playing and the pub – an important landmark for every visiting American tourist – was full to capacity with a unique blend of Hebrew and English speakers, locals and foreigners.

A few days earlier, Baxter had managed to interview one of the bar girls, a new immigrant from France named Dominique Caroline Hass, for his documentary about the pub. “Sometimes my mother calls me and asks worriedly, ‘Caroline, are you all right?’” Hass told Baxter’s camera, describing life in the shadow of the terror attacks Tel Aviv was suffering at the time. “And I’m like, ‘Yes, why?’ And she would say, ‘There was an attack in Tel Aviv just now.’ And I’d answer, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’”

A few days later, Hass became a tragic victim of that same reality when she was one of three people killed in a suicide bombing attack at the famous pub. Baxter was there that night with his friend and co-filmmaker, Joshua Faudem.

Fifty-five people were wounded, including Baxter, who lay unconscious at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital for three days. When he finally came around, he quoted – in a weak voice and with his face battered – verses from the last sermon attributed to the father of Islam, Mohammed. Dozens of press photographers and correspondents crowded around his bed to capture the moment.

Dominique Caroline Hass, 29, worked at 'Mike's Place' and was murdered in the terror attack in 2003.Credit: Uriel Sinai

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab,” he said. “Also a white has no superiority over Black, nor a Black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” After finishing his English translation, he sighed for a moment and added angrily: “That’s the essence of Islam, not murder. Not murder.”

Speaking to Haaretz in a phone interview to coincide with the release of his new documentary “The Last Sermon” (which is available online), Baxter says his original reason for coming to Israel in 2003 “was to make a documentary about Marwan Barghouti, who was on trial at the time.”

What does Baxter, an American Christian from New York City, have to do with a hero of the Palestinian people who was convicted of murder in Israel and received five consecutive life sentences for his actions?

“I’d read a long article about him in The New York Times, in which Barghouti was described by Israeli peace activists as the likely successor to Yasser Arafat, and an English- and Hebrew-speaking Arab leader who could one day become the Nelson Mandela of the Palestinians – and that’s what made his story interesting and important for me,” Baxter explains. “In the 1990s, I made a documentary about Malcolm X called ‘Brother Minister,’ and I saw a similarity between Marwan and Malcolm.”

But once in Israel, he recounts, he learned that an Israeli filmmaker had “scooped the story” and was already in the advanced stages of preparing a film about Barghouti, including interviews conducted with his wife and other relatives in Ramallah. “I realized there was no point to another film about Barghouti from me, so I moved up my return ticket to the United States, knowing that nothing would come of it,” he says.

Jack Baxter during the filming of "The Last Sermon."Credit: Pax Americana Productions

But then, four days before his flight back to New York, he was walking on the beach in Tel Aviv and happened across Mike’s Place, with its view of the sea on one side and the fortified U.S. Embassy building on the other. (The building is still used by the U.S. government, but the embassy itself has since been relocated to Jerusalem.) He thought the live music bar would make for a fascinating documentary (called “Blues by the Beach”).

“I drank a beer and looked around me in amazement,” he recalls. “There were Israelis and Europeans and Americans and Arabs, and they were all drinking and dancing and having a good time together. I thought to myself, There’s a good story here.”

Strong desire for hummus

Seventeen years after the terror attack that destroyed Baxter’s original plan, comes his new documentary with Faudem. It begins with the explosion that left Baxter limping and partially paralyzed in one hand, and continues with a personal journey attempting to decipher the roots of Islamist extremism. It also examines the circumstances that caused the perpetrators, two British Muslims, to give up a life of comfort in England in order to commit suicide thousands of miles from home.

Police officers at Mike's Place following the suicide bombing that killed three people and injured 55, including filmmaker Jack Baxter, April 30, 2003.Credit: Ariel Shalit

It’s not a journey in the footsteps of extremist Islam like the one made by TV journalist Zvi Yehezkeli, but rather a human, almost empathetic, documentary on the harsh life circumstances of Muslim war refugees that sometimes can cause them – in an act that combines personal despair with extreme brainwashing – to commit acts of terror.

“Remains of the body of the suicide terrorist entered my body,” says Baxter in one of the most shocking parts of the film. Elsewhere, he adds with black humor that maybe because of that man who has been living inside him since then, he has a strong desire for good Arab hummus and eggplant with tahini.

“These guys, who perpetrate suicide attacks, really and truly believe that their death turns them into heroes,” Baxter says. “You can call them terrorists, monsters – but in their religious and political worldview, what they’re doing is the most correct thing they can do for God. I never met the terrorists who tried to kill me beforehand. But before Asif Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif embarked on the Mike’s Place attack, they were living as pious Muslims in Great Britain.”

British Muslim suicide bombers Asif Hanif, right, and Omar Khan Sharif are seen as they pose with AK 47 rifles in a shot handed out by Hamas March 8, 2004, nearly a year after their deaths.Credit: REUTERS

Baxter goes as far as to include archival video footage of himself from almost 50 years ago, when he was in his 20s. At the time, he was active in a messianic Christian cult, preaching on the streets of Hollywood and working as a migrant farm laborer in the San Joaquin Valley, aiming to “save” young Americans who were “lost” after the Vietnam War. Baxter was ready to give his life for Jesus, he says in the film, in the name of that same piety that motivated the Mike’s Place terrorists.

“I can understand why the Mike’s Place terrorists did what they did,” he says now. “I was also ready to die for God. I also wanted to become a martyr one day. But my version of martyrdom differed from their version, because they believed it was God’s will to kill others along with yourself on your way out of this world. Because of what I experienced in the early 1970s, I can relate to their belief that what they do is in the name of Allah, and that for them a suicide bombing that kills Israelis and Americans and Europeans is the fastest route to Eternal Paradise. According to this belief, you can ‘sin’ all your life, and in one so-called glorious moment, your sins are erased if you commit suicide in the name and cause of Allah. This is spiritual brainwashing.”

A film about music

Mike's Place in Tel Aviv following the attack, April 30, 2003. One of the victims had been interview by Jack Baxter a few days earlier.Credit: Ariel Shalit

From a conversation with a young Muslim musician in the Shoafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem, who talks of his distress as a person without citizenship who’s stuck between Israel and the occupied territories, which refuse to recognize him, and a visit to a desperate refugee camp on the border between Greece and Macedonia, Baxter and his crew move around the Middle East and Europe in an attempt to enable viewers to witness the distress that can later give rise to terrorists.

They visit an aid shelter for Muslim war refugees in Serbia and speak to a Muslim preacher who calls for a world without borders. Then there’s the far-right Hungarian mayor who has hailed an electric fence as “saving” his border town from migrants fleeing the likes of Syria and Afghanistan.

In the film, you confront your partner and friend Faudem over the fact that he himself served in the Israeli army, and even stood at the checkpoints and examined and humiliated Palestinians – in what could be interpreted as a kind of justification for acts of terror.

Jack Baxter, right, in "The Last Sermon."Credit: Pax Americana Productions

“The point in that scene wasn’t to present Joshua in a negative light, but to portray the dichotomy that is embodied in the same person: A liberal guy, like many other liberal Israelis, who find themselves drafted into the Israel Defense Forces and are stationed at checkpoints – where they don’t want to be. And just like the situation in Israel, it’s also tough and complicated in Europe, where on the one hand you want the refugees to feel that they are accepted and treated well, and on the other there are checkpoints and fences and walls meant to block them. For me, Joshua Faudem – and, by extension, other former IDF soldiers – are the representation of this complexity.”

Along with the checkpoints and refugee camps, “The Last Sermon” often seems to be a film about music – the same music that begins with an explosion at Mike’s Place and continues all the way to the shelters for refugees throughout Europe.

“In a place where there’s music, there’s no terror,” says Baxter time after time in the film, adding that he still hasn’t met a Taliban activist who plays a harmonica the way he himself plays one in the film clips – once with the young man in Shoafat, and another time in Germany, alongside a refugee from the Syrian civil war.

The latter, a young man named Aeham Ahmad, became famous when, in the midst of the fierce battles in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, he insisted on removing a piano from among the ruins and playing while surrounded by the rubble of the demolished buildings. “I’m as familiar with the Islamic verses as I am with the works of Beethoven,” he says in the film.

“Mike’s Place was first of all a place of music,” Baxter tells Haaretz. “The reason why it was attacked was because it’s an institution where various kinds of music are performed and enjoyed, and is next door to the [former] U.S. Embassy. Hip-hop musician Muhammad Mughrabi, the Palestinian refugee in Shoafat, and the ‘Pianist of Yarmouk’ Aeham Ahmad, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee in Germany, play different types of music. But both of them see music as something that crosses religions and cultures – as opposed to the Taliban and other oppressive fundamentalists, who see music as something dangerous that undermines their version of the worship of God.”

For Avi Bohbot, who co-produced the documentary with Baxter, “The idea at the heart of the film was to document a journey among refugee camps for Muslim communities throughout Europe in order to show that, in the final analysis, the main victims of Islamist extremism are the Muslims themselves. We met wonderful communities that are creating a new and fascinating social fabric, which enables different cultures and religions to blend in without any one threatening the other. A fabric that creates hope.

“What I find wonderful is that those telling this story are Baxter and Faudem, two survivors of a terror attack,” Bohbot says. “Those who presumably should have the biggest account to settle with those Muslims – but they’re calling to account the terrorists and not Islam. That’s the most important distinction, because without it we have no hope.”

Aeham Ahmad, "the pianist of Yarmouk," in "The Last Sermon." Credit: Pax Americana Productions

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