Israeli Filmmaker Makes a Documentary About America’s Most Radical Family and Finds His Mother

Left-wing activist Udi Aloni made many people angry when he described Israel as fascist. Now he has made a film about Black civil rights icon Amiri Baraka and found similarities to his mother, late Meretz leader Shulamit Aloni

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Udi Aloni
Udi Aloni. Even if I was subjected to persecution, I am not a persecuted person. I am a privileged individual.Credit: Aviv Abramov
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

A few minutes before our interview is set to begin, Udi Aloni sends me a text with a link: “I feel like you should see this,” it says.

The link opens to a short video of his mother, Shulamit Aloni, in the twilight of her life: The activist and politician, the indefatigable human rights activist, the woman who over the years became one of the most admired leaders of the Israeli left. In the last days of her life, she sits in her backyard, weak and forlorn, breathing heavily, not speaking, with a tired look upon her face. Over the images, plays a voiceover of the eulogy that her young son delivered at her graveside: “Some say that radicalism is born of judgement. But you taught me that it is born of kindness. You taught me about radical kindness,” he says. “You constantly reminded us that human beings were created in the image of god. Every human being. Every god.”

The interview with Aloni is held by video call. He has lived in the United States for several years. While he’s usually based in New York, that morning he was in San Francisco on a press tour to promote his new film, “Why Is We Americans?”

Amina and Amiri Baraka from “Why Is We Americans.” The Baraka family home became an important focal point of Black culture.Credit: Corinth Films

The previous evening, Hollywood actor Danny Glover led a panel as part of a screening of the film. While Glover was interviewed for the film, his segment ultimately ended up on the cutting room floor, Aloni explains. Nevertheless, the successful actor put his ego aside and joined in the efforts to promote the film.

“Why Is We Americans?” is a documentary that focuses on an African American civil rights icon: Amiri Baraka was a poet, playwright and author, as well as a charismatic activist who drew many people into the struggle against racial discrimination. A well-known member of the New York bohemia in the ‘60s and ‘70s and one of the dominant Black voices of the past century, his name is signed onto some of the formative texts of Black American culture. Baraka authored a series of books of poetry and prose, was a close friend of Allen Ginsberg, penned political essays and cultural critiques, established a publishing house that provided a platform for the Beat Generation poets, and led Black theater groups in his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, as well as in Harlem, New York.

The film is relevant to local struggles, Palestinian as well as Mizrahi. It also offers insights on the connection between art and activism.

Baraka was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Malcom X, changing his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka, adopting Marxist ideology and positioning himself at the forefront of the Black struggle for equal rights. He fought discrimination in the streets, but also used his art as a tool of the struggle and a means to change reality. He referenced his art in his revolutionary writings, and never hesitated to write about white racism and Black oppression. Baraka drew more than a little fire over the years. Among other things, he was accused of being a chauvinist, homophobic and antisemitic

The new documentary directed by Aloni and Ayana Stafford-Morris is available for streaming on eventive.org (Haaretz readers get a 50% discount with the coupon code WIWA#50). It offers an opportunity to get acquainted with Baraka’s work and historic role, but also a broader perspective on his close family: Those who made his work possible with their support, many of whom paid a dear price for it, and continue his legacy to this day, eight years after his death. The film reveals his widow, Amina Baraka, as an equally interesting and original radical revolutionary, and presents their son, current Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, as living proof of how art and struggle can change reality.

Amina and Amiri Baraka from “Why Is We Americans.”Credit: Corinth Films

Though it chronicles an American story, the film also offers several points of consideration that are important from an Israeli point of view. First and foremost, the film is relevant to local struggles – primarily Palestinian, as well as Mizrahi struggles. It also offers insights on the connection between art and activism, how they can serve one another, or at times interfere. The film also offers an intense look at the ways in which women are all too often pushed out of the frame in favor of the men they stand beside, and how radicalism and activist fervor can be passed from parents to children – as with the Baraka family in Newark and the Aloni family in Israel.

“The way I see it, the film is, in many ways, about my mother. When I met Amina Baraka, I saw a matriarch who built a tribe and knows how to adapt in the face of reality, just like [my mother],” Aloni admits. “Amina was raised in the toughest of circumstances, she grew up amid Black nationalism and even lived for a time in a state of polygamy: During her early years with Amiri Baraka, another woman lived with them. But over time, she abandoned her previous beliefs, became a Marxist and realized that what happened in the past was not necessarily a mistake, it was part of the path. The ability to constantly evolve is also one of the things that always amazed me about my mother, who fought for Zionism in 1948, but later declared it to be apartheid; who fought all of those years for the rule of law as a primary value, then suddenly began supporting people who refused to enlist in the army.”

Amina Baraka at her living room from “Why Is We Americans.”Credit: Corinth Films

Culture as a weapon

Like Amiri Baraka, the 62-year-old Aloni has, for decades, pursued a career that zigzags across three focal points: Art, activism and theory. He started as a painter, directing his first film in the ‘90s. About a decade later, Aloni joined up with Juliano Mer Hamis, who became his closest friend, teaching beside him at the Free Theater in Jenin. Aloni lived for several years in Jenin and then Ramallah. In parallel, Aloni has long been active in the ranks of the radical left, fought against the Israeli occupation in the territories and been an active voice in the theoretical and philosophical debates surrounding the local political arena. Among other films, he has directed “Forgiveness” (2006), “Kashmir: Journey to Freedom” (2009), and “Junction 48” (2016). He counts the philosophers Judith Butler and Slavoj iek among his friends. Aloni has divided his time between Israel, Berlin and New York for many years.

Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar in Aloni’s “Junction 48” (2016). Credit: Amnon Zalaita / Tribeca Film Fes

As a diligent left-wing activist, Aloni has found himself involved in public political disputes. The most recent took place seven years ago, when “Junction 48” was released. The film tells the story of a Palestinian youth from Lod (played by Tamer Nafar), who lives among drug dealers but dreams of being a musician. It premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Panorama Audience Award (the top prize voted on by ordinary moviegoers). From the stage, Aloni declared that Germany was supporting “the fascist Israeli government” and called for the country to end submarine sales to Israel. Then-Culture Minister Miri Regev was enraged, of course, and hastened to make it clear that Aloni represented “creators who undermine the state with defamation, hurting its legitimacy, and who should not be funded at the taxpayers’ expense.” It opened the floodgates for an all-out attack on Aloni and his film. The media covered the dust-up, the social networks went wild, and Aloni took more than a little damage.

“The chaos didn’t ensue because I said that Israel was ‘fascist.’ Rather, it happened because I called on Merkel not to sell submarines to Israel, to boycott it militarily and spend the money on forging a just peace,” claims Aloni. “That angered the Israeli cinema industry. As far as it’s concerned, what I said was a terrible taboo. And the sheer volume of attacks was just insane. I was shocked to see the extent to which the media fell into line with it.”

Slavoj Žižek. A friend.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“Lots of people say ‘fascist government’ – it was being said at [the protests on] Balfour, the anti-vaxxers said it. What unites all these different ranks are calls to boycott Israel. But look, I used the word ‘fascist’ in the heat of the moment. The truth is that the terms ‘anti-Zionist’ and ‘fascist’ don’t really resonate with me. As far as I’m concerned, what’s true is that Israel is an apartheid state and therefore a boycott should be imposed on it.”

“At the same time, I must stress – I am not persecuted. Even if I was subjected to persecution, I am not a persecuted person. I am a privileged individual, I am not a political exile. Sometimes people try to hurt me, but I have the tools to protect myself.”

“It is an incredible poem that has one stupid stanza,” Aloni says about the work that forever stained Baraka’s legacy. “In it, he mentioned some conspiracy about who bombed the World Trade Center, and put Israel in there, too."

Even earlier, in 2009, Aloni was ready to risk a public storm when he criticized figures in the Israeli cinema world who agreed to participate in a tribute to Tel Aviv, marking 100 years since its founding, at the Toronto Film Festival. “You are allowing yourselves to become ambassadors or propagandists of the state, and are blurring the injustices of the occupation,” he wrote in an open letter to filmmakers participating in the festival.

But Aloni says that the attacks he faced following all these provocative incidents were not why he chose to live in the United States. “It’s just that when I lived in Israel, I’m so involved, emotionally and practically, that it’s hard for me to contain it all,” he says.

His new film is his first opportunity to touch on what he terms as his “Americanness” – the feeling of belonging that came with long years of living in New York, where his two children were born (the artist Yuli Aloni Primor, 35, from his first marriage to the artist Sigal Primor; and Adler, two-and-a-half, whom he is raising together with his current partner, psychologist Sarah Kamens).

Four years ago, Aloni visited Newark. The city was a nexus of the Black struggle in the 1960s, following a series of violent clashes between police and residents. A friend introduced him to the Mayor, Ras Baraka. “All of a sudden it dawned on me that this was the son of Amiri Baraka, about whom [Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish once told me, ‘You have to read this very important Black poet,’” Aloni relates. “So I had read some of Baraka’s work and was smitten with him. And now I was meeting his son. His friend turned to me and said, ‘We hear you make rather radical films. What do you think? Maybe there’s a story to tell here?’ I replied, “What can I, a chubby Jew from Kfar Shmaryahu, do with the story of the most radical family in America?’ But they said, ‘Go meet mother, then let’s talk.’”

Ras Baraka, the Mayor of Newark and one of Amina and Amiri's children.Credit: Corinth Films
Ayana Stafford-Morris. A partner in directing the film.Credit: Amandla Baraka

Indeed, the encounter with Amina Baraka left a strong impression on Aloni. The charismatic woman, who became as much the star of the movie as her husband, came across as an intelligent and impressive activist. Right away, she reminded Aloni of his mother. “The meeting with her really wowed me. It almost felt like making a movie about my mother, because it’s that feeling when you meet women who possess the truth, who speak the truth. Everyone expected me to make a film about Amiri Baraka, but I realized that I had the chance to tell the story of the women who stoked that intensity, and somehow their story hadn’t been told.”

“Amina – unlike my mother who put herself out front – had the same strength and influence on her entire family and politics, but she’s not a figure that many people know. That kind of disturbed me. So I told her, ‘I have an opportunity here to make a film that will correct that and will also help me learn about America.”

Aloni promoted his assistant, Ayana Stafford-Morris, to a full partner in directing the film. As someone who is both Black and a Newark native, he understood that, with her inside knowledge of the place and the struggle, she could guide him and keep him on target. Together, they set out to reenact – through a long series of interviews with family members and others – the story of Amiri and Amina Baraka, their children, and the Black community in Newark.

“Why Is We Americans?” explains how Amiri Baraka’s oeuvre was part of the Black community’s struggle, and highlights the power of his poetry, which is rhythmic, political, sweeping and sharp. He is considered to have paved the way for hip-hop and spoken word, and for good reason.

At several junctures in the film, the tempo of the poetry dictates the tempo of the editing. Several American film critics criticized the film’s editing, but in Aloni’s opinion, the rhythm is an inseparable part of the language of Black struggle in America. “In this struggle, the how and the what are linked together. It does not speak the language of white, written, narrative history. The tempo here is part of the oral history. It retells the story of the ships that brought them to America, It’s part of the foundation,” he says. “In every interview we did for the film, it didn’t matter who, at some point they started singing. Every single one. Ras, too, the mayor, when he gives his annual speech before the crowd, he starts singing on stage. So the tempo of this poetry and the way that Amiri reads it out is a critical part of the story.”

Amina Baraka. I saw a matriarch who built a tribe and knows how to adapt in the face of reality.Credit: Corinth Films
Shulamit Aloni. “The way I see it, the film is, in many ways, about my mother."Credit: GPO

Over the years, the Baraka family home became an important focal point of Black culture. “We used culture as a weapon,” Amina says in the film. Baraka also enlisted Black celebrities to come and demonstrate their presence in support of the struggle. He brought Stevie Wonder and the Supremes to Newark, among others. Nina Simone was not only a frequent visitor, she actually lived with the Barakas for a while. They brought a piano especially for her.

Despite the long-standing alliance between the Jewish and Black communities in America, Amiri became an enemy of the Jewish community about 20 years ago. In the wake of the terror attack on the Twin Towers, Baraka released a poem called “Somebody Blew Up America?” In the poem, he insinuated that Israel knew about the planned הattack. Commotion soon ensued. In New Jersey, residents and Jewish community activists demanded that the state government revoke the title of New Jersey Poet Laureate. In 2002, an amendment was passed that allowed the state to do just that, and Baraka was stripped of the title.

“It is an incredible poem that has one stupid stanza,” Aloni says about the work that forever stained Baraka’s legacy. “In it, he mentioned some conspiracy about who bombed the World Trade Center, and put Israel in there, too. It is stupid, but there is nothing antisemitic about it. Amina told me that she said to him: ‘What a stupid line you pushed into this astounding poem, get rid of it,’ but he said: ‘No. I heard that they’re trying to hush it up.’ The way she tells it, he was so angry that she had told him to get rid of it that he took revenge by dedicating the poem to her,” Aloni says, smiling.

While watching “Why Is We Americans?,” and seeing the documentation of the Black struggle and hearing Baraka use words like “occupation” and “apartheid,” one might be tempted to make a comparison to the situation in Israel. “As I was making the film, there was a constant tickle in the back of my head calling me to make such analogies and see what it could teach us about local struggles. And I almost put it into the film,” Aloni confesses. “But I decided to separate the forces and try to understand the Black Marxist struggle in its own context. Only after I showed the finished movie to comrades from the Palestinian struggle and the Mizrahi and feminist left, did I realize that this film should be mandatory viewing for every Israeli who believes in change.”

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