'Never in My Life Have I Compared the Nakba to the Holocaust. Every Pain Hurts in Its Own Way'

Fury and vilification have been the lot of actor and director Mohammad Bakri ever since he made his 2002 documentary ‘Jenin, Jenin,’ which criticized Israel’s army. Now he’s back in court to defend his work – and name

Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
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Mohammad Bakri in 2020.
Mohammad Bakri in 2020. 'The army is a sacred cow. They lay a claim to purity of arms and to being moral, but no army of occupation can be moral.'Credit: Ronen Fadida

Almost two decades have passed since actor and director Mohammad Bakri made his film “Jenin, Jenin.” And yet, in February, at the Lod District Court – at the beginning of a hearing on another lawsuit filed against Bakri by a soldier who fought in the West Bank refugee camp in 2002 – it seemed as if nothing had changed.

As if this were about a whole new military campaign that still touches open and bleeding wounds, the hearing was conducted in a highly charged atmosphere. Israel Defense Forces reserve soldiers who fought in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield and representatives of bereaved families hurled abuse and invective at Bakri and his supporters, who responded in kind.

Cries of “murderers,” “liars,” and “this is Israel, not Palestine” stoked emotions, with security officers and policemen having to separate the two sides; some of the more aggressive individuals were sent out of the courtroom. Minutes went by until things settled down and the hearing on the libel suit brought against Bakri by the reservist could commence.

Actor and director Mohammad Bakri is waiting for a hearing on a lawsuit filed against him by an Israeli soldier, at the District Court in Lod, Israel, February, 2020.
Actor and director Mohammad Bakri is waiting for a hearing on a lawsuit filed against him by an Israeli soldier, at the District Court in Lod, Israel, February, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

But still the furor did not abate: When the Palestinian actor-director took the stand to give his testimony, despite warnings by Judge Halit Silash, his opponents kept crying out until they were removed.

After a short break, the plaza outside the courtroom quickly became the scene of violent verbal clashes – a circle of journalists, TV crews and people with cellphone cameras gathering around the adversaries, along with Knesset members from various sides of the political divide. Emotions were reaching fever pitch.

'Look, never in my life have I compared the Nakba of the Palestinians to the Holocaust, that is simply not done; you can’t tell me which hurts more because every pain hurts in its own way'

Bakri, 66, has been wending his way through Israel's court system for 18 years. For 18 years he’s been the object of fury, hatred, slander and vilification. For 18 years he’s seen how each time a ruling is handed down on a lawsuit brought against him, little time passes before yet another one is filed. Trapped in a time warp, he’s been thrown from one courtroom to another, a lone defendant standing before an enraged and determined group of IDF reservists demanding justice for being defamed in his film, in their eyes, even though the movie has not been screened for years.

Kafkaesque nightmare

From being a respected and well-liked figure in the world of Israeli cinema in the last century – the handsome Arab actor whom the industry and audiences embraced – Bakri has become in this century a persecuted, demonized artist whom people shy away from as from a fire. His career has suffered, offers to act in or to direct locally made films disappeared, his debts keep growing and the waves of hatred refuse to subside. A Kafkaesque nightmare with no end, generated by one cinematic work.

And yet, in a conversation at a café in Acre, the seaside city in northern Israel, just before the pandemic swept across the globe, he seems relaxed and composed. When Bakri walks through the door, you can’t ignore the aura of “star quality” that surrounds him. If I thought I’d find a broken man, weary and without hope, that thought was dispelled the moment he sat down and ordered his first espresso.

“What you witnessed back then was small change,” he comments after I note that I was surprised at the intensity of hatred and anger I’d seen at the Lod courthouse in February, as if 18 years hadn’t gone by since he made his controversial film.

“Look, these people, regretfully, are fanatics,” he continues, referring to his adversaries in court. “They remind me of the fanatics on my side. You can’t talk to them since they’re trapped in something divine, holy and pathological. These people worship stones – the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, as well as bereavement, death, rituals of victimhood. They walk around with a sense of being victims.”

What do you think sustains anger and hatred at such intensity over all these years? Is it Mohammad Bakri or “Jenin, Jenin”?

'I know that I won’t change the world and that nothing will change on account of this movie. Nevertheless, it’s worth it to me that I can look at myself in the mirror without being ashamed'

“I blame only the assassins of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin. From the day they started inciting against the Oslo Accords and against him, when they put a keffiyeh on his head [he appeared thus in a poster] and made him a Jew-hater and a traitor – they blocked any possibility of dialogue. These are the people who are responsible for the situation we’re in now. Obviously, the Palestinian side also shares some blame, I don’t absolve my side. But in any controversy, there’s always someone who is more to blame. That’s what has caused this negative reaction to me.”

With all due respect to the murder of Rabin in 1995, this is about 18 years of personal attacks against you, not against the entire Palestinian people. What’s it like to be exposed to so many emotions for such a long time?

“It’s a nightmare, it’s bad dreams. I don’t sleep at night. I haven’t slept for many years.”

What nightmares – what happens in these dreams?

Mohammad Bakri in 2015. There is no war without war crimes. It’s impossible.
Mohammad Bakri in 2015. 'There is no war without war crimes. It’s impossible.'Credit: Gil Eliahu

“Wars, soldiers, an apocalypse. Scary dreams, to the point where it’s become a constant feature in my life. I’ve gotten used to the nightmares. I live the nightmare; it wakes me up. I’m thankful it isn’t real, but that doesn’t release me from the torture. It’s not easy. I’m no longer a healthy man.

“But in spite of this, I have joy in my heart, I have love for many things around me – for people I know on the Israeli side who give me strength and hope, and help me understand that I’m right. That I’m not the person I’m portrayed as being. I’m not a violent person, and I don’t hate. Many times I find myself pitying those people who come to the courthouse.

“What hurts me most is when they seat in front of me old people, bereaved fathers who have lost the thing most precious to them. I’m sensitive to their pain, I feel sorry for them, but they hate me because of what they think I did to them. And I didn’t. I have pointed an accusing finger at those who sent their children into an unjust war, under the pretext of defending their homes. Holding onto occupied territory for over 50 years, abusing an entire population for the sake of a few hundred settlers – that’s not defending your home.”

‘Every Palestinian has a name’

Bakri has one daughter and five sons, three of them actors. Since childhood he’s lived in the village of Bi’ina in the Galilee, near Carmiel. After he studied acting and Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, his talent and charisma – along with good looks it doesn’t hurt to possess – helped him integrate quickly into the local theater scene and become a rising star. He has been a member of the Habima national theater and other companies around the country.

Then, in 1984 he took the Israeli film world by storm. That year he acted in Judd Ne’eman’s “The Silver Platter,” as well as playing a major role in “Beyond the Walls,” directed and written by the Barabash brothers and Eran Preis. That film, about relations between Arabs and Jews in an Israeli prison, premiered at the Venice Film Festival that year, garnering the critics’ week award. It won three “Israeli Oscar” awards and was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film.

Mohammad Bakri, center, at the District Court in Lod, Israel, February, 2020.
Mohammad Bakri, center, at the Lod District Court, February, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Bakri’s local and international career took off overnight, and he became one of the most notable Israeli actors of his generation. But over the years, consistently, he has refused to turn his back on his Palestinian identity or abandon it in favor of the Jewish Israeli cultural world. He began to work at the Al-Kasaba Theater in Ramallah in the 1990s, and has acted in movies by Palestinian filmmakers. He also did a one-man show, an adaptation of Emile Habiby’s novel, “The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist.”

Watershed moment

Then 2002 arrived, and Bakri’s personal nightmare began. The watershed moment was his decision to make a movie in the Jenin refugee camp shortly after Operation Defensive Shield ended there. The fierce, month-long battles in the heart of a civilian population beginning in March 2002, which took the lives of more than 50 Palestinians and of 23 Israeli soldiers, attracted much international attention, in part due to claims that a massacre had been perpetrated in the crowded camp – claims that were later disproved.

Bakri filmed the ruined homes and asked residents to relate what had taken place just a few days beforehand. He included archival footage documenting the movements of IDF soldiers, tanks, armored personnel carriers and the like. Locals told him about the shooting of innocent civilians and the houses that had been demolished with their inhabitants inside. They spoke of looting by soldiers, of tanks running over the wounded and treatment of children during the fighting.

“Jenin, Jenin” was screened at the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv cinematheques and was submitted, as are all movies slated for general release in the country’s theaters, to the Israel Film Ratings Board. However, the board’s members – shocked by Bakri’s movie and deeming it dangerous, libelous propaganda bordering on incitement – banned it. Bakri and the Israeli Documentary Filmmakers Forum petitioned the High Court of Justice, which in 2003 overturned the board’s decision, ruling that the violation of freedom of speech in such a case is unjustified when there is no clear and present danger to the public order.

'Good can come after bad, darkness can go on for a long time but in the end there is light, and I believe that the good in this land will win'

Five IDF reserve soldiers who fought in Jenin did not wait for the High Court’s ruling, however. They sued Bakri and the two cinematheques that screened his film for defamation. In 2007, the two movie houses agreed to pay damages of 40,000 shekels (around $10,000) to the soldiers, settling their part in the lawsuit and leaving Bakri as the sole defendant.

In 2008 the Petah Tikva District Court rejected the soldiers’ suit, ruling that while “Jenin, Jenin” was indeed slanderous, it had defamed IDF soldiers as a whole and did not target them personally. The plaintiffs appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, which in June 2011 upheld the lower court’s ruling. The justices, like the district court bench, agreed that the movie was libelous but reiterated that it was not aimed at any of the plaintiffs and therefore could not be said to have defamed any of them.

A-G joins forces

For a moment, it appeared as if the saga was finally over, and that after becoming Public Enemy No. 1 in the country, Bakri could soon return to normal life. But in November 2016 the actor-director was once again sued for defamation, this time in the Lod District Court. The original group of reserve soldiers managed to track down another soldier who had not only fought in Jenin but also, unlike them, actually appeared in Bakri’s movie – albeit briefly and from a distance.

The soldier, Nissim Meghnagi, sued Bakri for 2.6 million shekels, in the hope that his appearance in the movie would force the court to rule in his favor. This time, 15 years after the film was released, the state took formal action: Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit joined the lawsuit.

If you could go back in time, to 2002, would you make the film again?

“Yes. Without thinking twice. Man does not live by bread alone, and many times I feel I would rather be hungry and at peace with myself than to be sated but feel that I’ve sold my soul. I know that I won’t change the world and that nothing will change on account of this movie. Nevertheless, it’s worth it to me that I can look at myself in the mirror without being ashamed.”

But maybe you would have done things a little differently, maybe there are certain scenes you would think twice about?

'What hurts me most is when they seat in front of me old people, bereaved fathers who have lost the thing most precious to them.'
'What hurts me most is when they seat in front of me old people, bereaved fathers who have lost the thing most precious to them.'Credit: Ilan Assayag

“No. And you know why? Because in my naivete I thought I would win a prize for this film.”

From whom?

“From Israel.”

Really?

“Behiat Allah [roughly, ‘I swear to God’]. I thought the old man who testifies in the film that he was shot in the arm and the leg would affect the Israeli viewer much more powerfully than the symbol of an IDF soldier.

“I thought that if I were an Israeli and I’d see before me an old man who cries bitterly and relates, ‘A loudspeaker called for people to come out of their homes and I came out, and a soldier shot me from a distance of a meter and a half, and I collapsed, and he told me, “Get up,” and said, “I can’t get up,” and he told me, “You want to die?” and shot me in the leg’ – I thought that the way he says it, without any editing or questions on my part, would speak to every Israeli boy and girl, every person, because they’re people like me.

“So to come and make a liar out of me and out of that man, on the grounds that they didn’t shoot him but he fell instead, I counted on the truth and on people simply believing what they hear. In my worst nightmares I didn’t expect such attacks. I myself have been frightened by all the things that people have written about me.”

Two kinds of truth

It wasn’t only in the media, the Supreme Court also ruled that the film contained fabrications.

“Yes, but no one has a monopoly on the truth. The truth has a few sides, and what I see from here you don’t see from there. The truth is ‘Rashomon’-like [a reference to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film, often referenced in Israel as embodying the view that truth is subjective], there is no absolute truth. It’s very simple. So what right does the Supreme Court have to rule that there are lies in the film, by what authority? It is due to one thing, and I am convinced of this: because it involves a sacred cow.

Mohammad Bakri in court in 2003. Has been wending his way through Israel's court system for 18 years now.
Mohammad Bakri in court in 2003. Has been wending his way through Israel's court system for 18 years now. Credit: Moti Kimche

“They cannot exonerate me completely, because they cannot withstand the public pressure, the consensus. So they had to ‘smear’ me and declare that even though there were distortions and inaccuracies and lies – freedom of expression wins out and those guys had no justification for a lawsuit because they don’t appear in the movie.”

During the final session in the court in Lod, they spoke of the documentarist’s duty to fact-check. Don’t you think you should have more thoroughly examined the reliability of the testimonies?

“No, I didn’t check. Look, never in my life have I compared the Nakba [or “Catastrophe,” when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled during Israel’s War of Independence] of the Palestinians to the Holocaust, that is simply not done. It’s like comparing a toothache to leg pain; you can’t tell me which hurts more because every pain hurts in its own way. There are thousands of testimonies by Holocaust survivors about everything that happened in the horrific Nazi Germany. Has anyone gone and asked whether it was all true?

“It goes without saying that when it comes to pain, there are no doubts. So you want me to cast doubt on the pain of the Palestinian? I would never do that. Maybe he exaggerated things, due to the trauma and the terrible injury; I’m sure there were exaggerations. But exaggeration doesn’t necessarily prove that lies were told. It is a result of the size of the wound and the extent of the trauma.

“I tried to show in great detail the depths of the Palestinian soul. That’s because [with respect to the fighting in Jenin] in the Israeli media they only reported numbers, without putting a face on people. But the Palestinians, like the Jews and like every other people, aren’t just numbers. They’re people with names, with memories and families. You can’t treat them as if they are simply a mass. And I tried to bring in these details in order to show you, as an Israeli who does not know, that every person has a name.”

Absent colleagues

Mohammad Bakri is not alone in challenging the mantra that the IDF is the most moral army in the world. Jewish Israeli filmmakers have for years made documentaries demonstrating that the “army of the occupation” is not always capable of behaving in an ethical manner, but none of them were dragged into court. At most they were denounced by a politician or two and evoked a tired protest.

So why Bakri? Filmmaker Ram Loevy, professor emeritus of Tel Aviv University and an Israel Prize laureate in Communication, Radio and Television, points to the mood in Israel on the eve of Operation Defensive Shield.

Loevy, who agreed to testify for the defense in the lawsuit against Bakri, told the Lod court two months ago that the four-second shot in which the plaintiff, Nissim Meghnagi, is seen in the distance is not substantial enough to link him directly with the claims made in the film. Loevy also explains that while documentarists do need to check facts, when Bakri went to Jenin right after the military operation ended, he was faced with a double truth: the factual truth as well as the emotional truth of the people who experienced the hostilities – and it was this truth that was captured in his film.

“After the terrible massacre in the Park Hotel during Passover in 2002, Operation Defensive Shield was seen in Israel as a military action that was completely justified, and it barely mattered what went on inside,” Loevy says, referring to the Hamas suicide bombing that killed 30 people and injured another 140 as they celebrated the seder in a hotel in Netanya.

'I just became a grandfather, and I want things to be different here when my grandson is 18. I don’t want him to go through what I and my children did'

“Mohammad’s film, which focused on presenting the suffering of the inhabitants of the refugee camp in Jenin, was seen by the Jewish public as robbing the IDF of its claim over morality – a sort of continuation of the familiar Israeli claim that after Auschwitz no one can teach us about morality. The bitter pain over the deaths of Israeli soldiers in the operation added fuel to the fire of rage against Mohammad.”

Moreover, Loevy notes, “the gritting of teeth of the Supreme Court, which was forced unwillingly into finding for Bakri, added motivation to the indefatigable search for soldiers who identified their images in the movie and the continuation of the legal struggle.”

The human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who has represented a number of Palestinians in recent decades and represents Bakri in the current case (together with Hussein Abu Hussein), cites his client’s personal history and the general atmosphere today.

“In my 20 years as a lawyer, I cannot recall another case with such a toxic and violent ambience,” Sfard says. “To my mind, specifically because in the past Bakri was embraced in Israel, after being our representative to the Oscars and the blue-eyed Arab in ‘The Pessoptimist’ – when he stood up and dared to make ‘Jenin, Jenin’ and to claim the army isn’t the most moral, the backlash was particularly strong. Stronger even than in cases of Palestinians who have been accused in court of much more serious things, such as terror incidents.”

In this case,” Sfard continues, “all the centers of power of Israeliness joined forces against him. They bring into the courtroom generals, military men in uniform, former Knesset members and cabinet ministers. It’s extraordinary by any measure known to me. And this comes, of course, in addition to the general atmosphere in Israel today, and in which this case is being heard.”

Bakri himself recalls that even before “Jenin, Jenin,” he wasn’t always embraced warmly, noting his participation in the 1983 Costa-Gavras film “Hanna K.,” as a West Bank Palestinian who is defended in an Israeli military court by the titular American Jewish immigrant to Israel (played by Jill Clayburgh). But Bakri agrees with Sfard’s assessment overall.

“After all, what happened here? In the wake of the movies I’ve been involved with, I got a reputation as a warrior for peace and coexistence, or at least as a good guy. And maybe also a little handsome. And then suddenly this actor with the positive image, the ‘good Arab’ in quotes, goes and makes a movie against the occupation. And that doesn’t sit well with my image.

“So in order to truly do damage to the movie or to its good intentions – in favor of ending the occupation and doing some soul-searching – they had to hurt the person behind it. So they demonized the ‘good Arab,’ turned him into a bad Arab, bin Laden, an anti-Semite who dreams about destroying Israel.

“An older woman once met my son in Haifa and asked him, ‘You’re the son of the actor?” He said yes. So she said, “But there are two actors, one hates us and one loves us, which one are you the son of?’” Bakri says, laughing.

Still, there are many plays and films that are critical of the IDF, the occupation and the Zionist narrative, so why “Jenin, Jenin”?

'It goes without saying that when it comes to pain, there are no doubts. So you want me to cast doubt on the pain of the Palestinian?'

“Because the army is a sacred cow. They lay a claim to purity of arms and to being moral, but no army of occupation can be moral. I don’t believe that. Occupation cannot be moral and the same goes for the army that serves it. As Ram Loevy said [in his testimony], there is no war without war crimes. It’s impossible. The very fact of war forces certain behavior patterns upon you. And that’s what happened in Jenin.

“With massive military attacks on such a densely crowded camp, it’s impossible to avoid killing innocent people. You bomb a house; it’s not only militants living there but ordinary people as well. Nothing can be done. So doubt is cast on the purity of arms, and people are unwilling to consider it because after all, ‘Our army is the most moral in the world.’ I am sure that there are soldiers who maintained purity of arms, but there are also black sheep.”

And perhaps the identity of the filmmaker had an influence?

“Of course the fact that I am Arab adds to it.”

In isolation in Tunis

Bakri flew to Tunisia the day after our interview, to shoot a new movie by a director of Syrian descent. Naturally, he could never have imagined that a global pandemic would keep him from returning home, but that’s what happened: After attempting to come back by way of Turkey he was forced back to Tunis, and is staying in an apartment owned by a friend of the director.

His trip may have taken an unexpected turn but it nevertheless is typical of Bakri’s career which, since “Jenin, Jenin,” has mainly continued outside of Israel. In the past two decades he has directed four films and acted in dozens of movies and television series, most of them foreign productions.

In 2017 he portrayed a Libyan Jew who was deported together with his family to a German concentration camp, in “Benghazi Bergen-Belsen,” at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in New York’s East Village. Today he can be seen in the eighth and final season of “Homeland,” the U.S. series based on the Israeli show “Hatufim” (“Prisoners of War”).

Loevy’s appearance in court on Bakri’s behalf only highlighted the absence of the defendant’s Israeli colleagues. The issue at hand isn’t a Jewish or Arab one, Bakri insists, but rather a combination of fear among his colleagues, and what he calls hitkarnfut – a Hebrew word meaning to become a rhinoceros, derived from Eugene Ionesco’s play “Rhinoceros.”

“Fear,” he explains, “because there’s a consensus against ‘Jenin, Jenin,’ and most of the nation thinks it’s a lie and one-sided propaganda, because they were persuaded into believing this. And 'hitkarnfut' because they fear for their careers, worried that what happened to me will happen to them.”

“But,” he adds, “I see the glass as half-full.”

Is that possible?

“I just became a grandfather, and I want things to be different here when my grandson is 18. I don’t want him to go through what I and my children did. I want him to live differently. If I were to lose my faith in the half-full glass, what’s the point of life, the point of art? What point is there to standing on the stage or in front of the camera? My wife has always asked, ‘Aren’t you tired of proving to the Jews that you are a human being?’ My children always laugh, but I tell her that I’m not. Because if I grow tired, then what reason is there to get up in the morning?”

How do you pay for all your legal expenses, did you ask for donations?

“No, not from anyone. There were those who told me, We have to raise money, and if every Palestinian gave a shekel you’d get it all. But I said, I will never do that: It’s not the Palestinians’ problem, it’s my problem. So every time I have a little money I pay my lawyers. It’s perfectly fine, they don’t even ask me for it.”

Do you ever feel that you’re a victim of circumstance and that the cost is too high?

“No, I don’t like being a victim. Good can come after bad, darkness can go on for a long time but in the end there is light, and I believe that the good in this land will win. Perhaps I won’t be alive then, but I believe that we have planted something and one day it will grow. The day will come and they’ll understand that injustice was done – not to me, but to everyone like me, because there are people like me among the Israelis and also among the Arabs.

“A large part of the people of Israel has begun to realize that what is happening is not okay, and I hope that this part will only grow. And then there will be a dramatic change, and then there will be hope, and then a new reality will be created.”

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