Jewish-Arab Lovers Are Hot Again on Screen

No longer taboo, one thing hasn’t changed - it’s almost always Jewish woman/Arab man.

She is a Jewish Israeli, light-skinned and light-haired with a mysterious look, wearing an airy white outfit that has nothing to do with the weather. He is a young Palestinian man, dark-skinned, bearded and bright-eyed with a penetrating glance, all the sorrow of the world on his shoulders. They are in love, and the tenderness and desire between them are visible in almost every frame. The couple are the subject of Yosi Artzi’s new film, “Happiness Wrapped in a Blanket.” But in the real world, the world that does not appear in the movies, members of the right-wing/Haredi group Yad L’Achim upload hair-raising videos to the Internet in an attempt to stop Jewish women from “falling like ripe fruit” into the hands of Arab men.

Time and again, Israeli cinema keeps coming back to erotic attraction and romantic relationships between Jewish women and Arab men. The subject was a prominent one during the 1980s and 1990s, when Israeli cinema underwent a political awakening. Examples of this are “Hamsin” (1982), directed by Daniel Wachsmann, “The Lover” (1986), directed by Michal Bat-Adam, and “Crossfire” (1989), directed by Gideon Ganani. Based on a true story, “Crossfire” told the story of an impossible love affair between Miriam, a Jewish woman, and George, a Palestinian man, who meet in 1948 on the border between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Earlier still was the film “My Michael” (1974), directed by Dan Wolman, based on the novel by Amos Oz.

On the border

In the movies, Jewish women meet Arab men on the border, in mixed areas or in other countries. Few films deal with relationships between Jewish men and Palestinian Arab women, who usually meet under circumstances having to do with the military: the man, in the regular army or doing reserve duty, falls in love with a Palestinian woman hanging out her laundry as he peers through his binoculars. That is what happens in “Ricochets” (1986), perhaps better known as “Two fingers from Sidon,” directed by Eli Cohen, “Lookout” (1990), directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis, and “On a Narrow Bridge” (1985), directed by Nissim Dayan. Other films, such as “Hide and Seek” (1981), directed by Dan Wolman, and the recent film “Out in the Dark” (2012), directed by Michael Mayer, deal with homosexual relationships between two men from opposite sides of the political divide.

In her 2001 essay “Forbidden Love in Israeli Cinema,” film researcher Yosefa Loshitzky quotes Edward Said, who argued that “Orientalist” thinking tended to attribute heightened sexual prowess to the ethnic and racial other, who often possessed “animal-like” traits. According to him, the Orient was perceived as offering “untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies,” and pointed out that in all his novels, the 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert “associates the Orient with the escapism of sexual fantasy.” Loshitzky also notes that the fear of mixing Jewish blood with Arab blood is one of the basic fears of Israeli Jewish society.

The subject of mixed-race relationships has resurfaced in Israeli cinema after a long absence. Several recent films deal with the possibility of a romantic relationship between a Palestinian man and an Israeli Jewish woman - and it is only logical that such a possibility should occur fairly often considering the reality of life here.

‘My Arab Friend’

Unlike the tragic-romantic fantasies of the feature film genre, documentary films probe what really happens to such relationships in Israel beyond their emotional symbolism. Noga Netzer’s documentary film “My Arab Friend” is based, ironically, on an Israeli Jewish woman’s fantasy about a Palestinian man. The director, who is also the film’s protagonist, confesses at the beginning of the film that when she met Fares, a Palestinian residing in Israel without a permit, she thought it would be cool to have a Palestinian friend. Fearing the worst when he disappears, she goes to the territories to look for him. On the way, she tells all sorts of people that she had a Palestinian friend and enjoys documenting their embarrassed and shocked reactions. In the end, she finds that Fares disappeared because he fell in love with a woman from his village and is about to marry her. But throughout the film, it is unclear whether the relationship between Noga and Fares was romantic or platonic, nor is it clear whether the vagueness about the nature of their relationship stems from a desire for privacy or conflicting stories.

Noa Ben-Hagai’s film “Blood Relation” documents the relationships between the second- and third-generation offspring of such a mixed marriage. In 1941 her great-aunt Pnina ran away from Yavne’el and married a Palestinian man from Jaffa. Some years ago, Ben-Hagai re-established contact with Pnina’s descendants, and her film deals with the challenges faced by a wealthy Israeli Jewish family that has come into contact with its needy Palestinian relatives.

Why are we still seeing films about Jewish women with Palestinian men and far fewer Palestinian women with Jewish men?

Dr. Yael Munk, a professor of film at the Open University of Israel, answers: “It is far more difficult for Arab women to go over to the other side. Something dramatic and wonderful happens when people take a few steps outside the prison of their defined identity. At least, national identity loses a bit of its power.”

Erotic myth

This month, two medium-length films by first-time filmmakers will have their initial screenings time outside a film-school setting. Mixed Jewish-Palestinian couples appear in each one. Neither film is overtly political, but they draw on the erotic myth of forbidden relationships. The romantic relationship is not the main subject of either film. Rather, it appears as something natural and as a desirable possibility in a place where people of both nationalities meet.

In “Happiness Wrapped in a Blanket,” Hilla Vidor and Kais Nashif portray a young couple living in south Tel Aviv’s industrial zone. The husband is a sanitation worker. One morning he returns from work to find that his wife has kidnapped an Eritrean infant abandoned by his mother at the hospital. Refusing to return the baby, she says, “Now we are a family, so we will never be separated.”

Director Yosi Artzi, 40, a graduate of the Department of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, says his choice of a mixed couple for the protagonists stemmed from the reality he knows. “That’s the reality I live in - mixed couples, mostly Arab men with Jewish women. It’s not mainstream, but it’s no rarity in the world I move in. Some couples do not look at religion or origin, but simply fall in love with each other because they are more alike than different. It was obvious that this combination of an Arab man and a Jewish woman would load the film with inner tension, and the man would become the immediate suspect in the case even though the [kidnapping] had not been his idea.”

Familiar with the traditional tension with which mixed couples are portrayed in cinema, Artzi sought a new approach. “The love story here was more significant to me than the matter of an Arab man and a Jewish woman,” he says. “In their world, it is not an issue at all. Suddenly, when they are exposed to their environment because of what has happened, it becomes an issue. Other films dealt with the meeting of opposites. Here, the meeting is not the main point. Rather, the main point is two people who have been together for some time and their encounter with the external environment.”

You draw a distinction between your film and films of the 1980s that dealt with “forbidden relationships” between Arab men and Jewish women, but the erotic element is very strong in your work as well.

“One thing I’ve been accused of is that I chose two actors who are very good-looking. I don’t know whether it was a conscious choice or not. Sexual attraction is made up of so many different things that I assume that foreignness plays a part in it - someone who is not from the world you’re familiar with. And there’s the taboo: rebelling against the society you come from and against your family. That adds sex appeal. But I don’t think I dealt consciously with the component of sexual attraction between them. Instead, it was obvious to me that the foreignness and their need for someone else to fill their world contained strong attraction and desire. ”

Michal Zilberman’s film “Everywhere But Here” depicts a meeting between several couples who arrive at a hotel in Netanya for a wedding. The couples come from various places - Paris, New York and Hong Kong. During the film, whose plot takes place over a weekend in the hotel’s corridors and rooms, we see the crises that exist between them. Ania Bukstein portrays Romy, a former Israeli who lives in Paris with her unfaithful husband. Ali Suliman plays Salah, a Palestinian businessman living in Hong Kong with his Russian girlfriend. Both of them hate coming to Israel, and on the last night in the hotel, they fall into each other’s arms for a stormy sexual encounter in the cleaning-supplies closet.

According to Zilberman, the fact that the couple is a Jewish woman and an Arab man has no significance in the film. “The significance in Salah being an Arab man is that there is no significance. It could have been any other actor. I chose him as an Arab, but the statement is an opposite one. I made a film dealing with a generation that is international. I grew up in the United States and studied in Canada. My classmates came from all over the world and went elsewhere to study, and today they are having children and marrying people all over the world. I looked for the other. In Israel, the most other anyone can be is Arab. But as other as he is, he is also not an other. He’s the same. These are two people who have left their homes, each one running away for their own reasons, and that’s what brings them together. Today, we choose our own homes. In the end, the film is a drama about relationships. There was no attempt to make any political statement.”

Even though the film is not political, Zilberman used the taboo to make it a bit spicier. “Forbidden relationships are always sexy, and I wanted to make a sexy film. For me, Ania is a star. I had to find somebody who would be strong opposite her, and Ali fit the bill. It had nothing to do with the fact that he is an Arab. They clicked.”

Omri Tekoa