‘Good’ Arabs Tell the Israeli Story

If an Arab dares to tell the story of his own people, he's a traitor and enemy of Israel. Actor and filmmaker Mohammed Bakri responds to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s criticism of his 2002 movie, ‘Jenin, Jenin’

Mohammad Bakri
Mohammad Bakri
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Director Mohammad Bakri in court, where he is being sued for libel for his film "Jenin Jenin."
Director Mohammad Bakri in court, where he is being sued for libel for his film "Jenin Jenin."Credit: Ilan Assayag
Mohammad Bakri
Mohammad Bakri

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit submitted a position paper last week stating his belief that the film I directed, “Jenin, Jenin,” damages the good name of Israel’s soldiers. I was in shock. The attorney general is supposed to be the figure who, in a properly run country, stands up for the principles of justice and democracy more than anyone else.

I’ve never claimed to have a monopoly on the truth, because I know that no one has such a monopoly. Truth is relative and multifaceted.

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I was born in the Galilee village of Bana, to Salah and Saida, my parents. My native language is Arabic and my religion is Islam. I did not choose to be who I am, where my home will be or what my identity will be. I was born a Semite, a descendant of Abraham. That does not make me better or worse than others. I never thought that my race was superior to other races. My main interest was and still is the human being as such.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I was born in a land that devours its inhabitants. A land of two peoples, each laying a claim to it, saying that it belongs to them and to them only – while the truth is that both of them belong to the land, because out of it they have come and to it they shall return.

As a Palestinian living in Israel, I have always heard two different stories: the Israeli story and the Palestinian one. Throughout my life, I’ve heard the Israeli story in the street, in kindergarten, at school and university. It was forbidden to hear the Palestinian narrative. Even the word “Palestinian” is considered a slur to this day.

I heard the Palestinian story of what happened here in 1948 as a collection of stories, whispered by my parents and other adults who had experienced the tragedy personally and who described what their eyes had seen.

As an adolescent and later as a university student, I began to ask questions about my identity, about the conflict between the two peoples, as a result of my daily contact with Israelis and experiences during my studies and my life within Israeli society.

I also read Palestinian literature that I had been prevented from reading for many years. My political awareness and identity slowly coalesced. I came to realize that I had a human and a moral duty to tell a different story from the Israeli story.

The sentence, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” was in the air and informed the landscape of my existence and my struggle for understanding, justice and genuine peace within myself and between myself as a Palestinian and myself as a citizen residing in the State of Israel.

I am a citizen who heard and even told the Israeli story on stage and in movies until age of 30, and afterward decided to also tell the Palestinian story so as to be true to myself. People here do not really like to hear the Palestinian story, because it is different from that of the Israeli consensus and often even contradicts the Israeli narrative, although never erases it.

That is how I began to relate my story, in my adaptation of Emile Habibi’s novel “The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist” into a one-man show that I have been performing in both Hebrew and Arabic since 1986. “1948,” the first documentary that I directed, was released in 1998. 

“Jenin, Jenin,” which I directed, came out in 2002. Ever since its release, I have been wandering the corridors of Israeli courthouses – years of harassment and tendentious persecution that can only be explained by the fact that I am an Arab, who is forbidden to touch sacred cows such as the Israel Defense Forces or national security.

An Arab who must be a good Arab and tell only the Israeli story, otherwise he is a traitor and an enemy of Israel who pisses into the well from which he drinks. An Arab who is also an actor, but not only an actor, but rather a man who is different from us, who cannot be and does not want to be like us. Just an actor who enjoys being a movie star that everyone loves because of his blue eyes.

I am 66-years-old. I have devoted most of my life to making a better life for everyone. I’ve told the stories of the oppressed – the Armenians, the Kurds, the Italians, the Jews and the Holocaust, and of the Palestinians. I don’t have much left. Time is short and the work is long, the coronavirus looms, the lunatic right rules the world and has tried to lead us astray. So if not now, when?

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