When an Oscar Drives a Wedge Between Israeli and American Jews

The publicity spurned by Oscar nominations will bring two Israeli films into the view of prime-time audiences, revealing a truth that will cause American Jews to doubt the good intentions of the people and government of Israel.

Joel is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace. All views expressed are personal. He tweets @Braunold.
Joel Braunold
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Joel is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace. All views expressed are personal. He tweets @Braunold.
Joel Braunold

The Israeli film industry is going through a golden age. This year, not one but two films got the Oscar nomination for best documentary. Israel has never before had a film nominated for best documentary; now it has two.

Yet, despite having had two films nominated for the most famous film award in the world, the Israeli diplomatic missions in the United States have failed to mention the achievement on their websites (by the time this went to press). Here are two films that received Israeli taxpayer money to be made, have been selected as the best of the best, and these websites - that normally burst with information on every Israeli achievement and innovation – omit this incredible accolade.

The diplomatic missions are in a bind of how to promote this achievement without talking about the content of these films.

For so long, the popular image of Israel in Hollywood was told through the blue eyes of Paul Newman in Exodus. Though not lavished at the Oscars, it created an epic narrative that captured the minds of the country. With the selection of these two Israeli documentaries, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is showing its respect for those who document the reality of Israel today, rather than the narratives told in the past.

The Israeli films nominated for Oscars this year, “5 Broken Cameras” and “The Gatekeepers,” tell the same story from the viewpoints of two different protagonists. 5 Broken Cameras demonstrates the non-violent resistance movement that has been growing in the West Bank over the past few years. It brings Israeli activists together with Palestinian landowners who are seeing their land confiscated and cut off; weekly marches and demonstrations have been taking place for years.

To many skeptical pro-Israel folks who feel that the non-violent marches are a façade and that there is always a security threat in the demonstrations, “The Gatekeepers” bluntly tells them of the need to give Palestinians their own state, portraying this message via the most powerful messengers around; six former directors of the Shin Bet security service.

Here, the men who were charged with keeping Israel safe go on camera stressing the desperate need for two states. Each man, in his own way, tells the camera that they know all there is to know in the security realm and have come to the same conclusion.

Without an Oscar nomination, this film would have a limited impact on the Jewish-American community. While large Jewish communities regularly host Jewish film festivals and arts events that showcase films from around the world, the audiences at such events are niche. One would be hard pressed to say these events reach the “mainstream” population.

But the publicity garnered by an Oscar nomination pushes these films out of the dark of their niche audiences and into the light of prime time.

This may be present to Jewish Americans, for documenting the reality of the occupation is deeply uncomfortable to a community so invested in the Jewish state. While many groups will point to how these films demonstrate the democratic nature of Israel, they will be silent on the content of the films. The fact is that if either of the films win the award, they will have a bigger impact on both the U.S. Jewish community, and the U.S. film-watching public more generally, than any hasbarah group. Already, some of these groups are on the record attacking the films.

These two documentaries deserve all the praise and awards bestowed upon them. Their nominations will help them reach a wider audience internationally as only an Oscar nomination can do. Yet each director, I am sure, would trade all the international attention for domestic interest if they could.

The same does not go for the Israeli public. While these films will further reveal the ugliness and danger of the occupation to the wider world, the Israeli population will remain disinterested in the run-up to their own election. And they will continue to disappoint American Jews, who will go in droves to see these films, kvelling with pride at the Israeli nominations, only to discover a truth that encourages them to wonder what the people and government of Israel want, when the facts on the ground seem so clear as to the precarious nature of the status quo.

Joel Braunold is a Bnei Akiva alumnus and a former staff member of OneVoice Europe who is currently living in Brooklyn.

Guy Davidi, the Israeli director of '5 Broken Cameras,' in Bi'lin.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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