The Real Threat of the Israeli Security-prison Documentary Series 'Megiddo’

The key danger in this TV program isn’t a political or 'anti-Zionist' message, as some right-wing leaders and activists claim. Instead, it is the troublesome realization that even the most despicable murderers are human beings.

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Palestinian prisoners at Israel's Megiddo Prison.
Palestinian prisoners at the Megiddo Prison.Credit: Itzik Ben-Malki

The demand that we identify with murderers is not a trivial one. You don’t have to be a bereaved parent or populist minister of culture to feel difficulty in the face of televised text that sheds a positive light on people who stabbed, bombed or abetted the murder of other people in cold blood. Even from a purely artistic point of view, there is something that evokes unease in advocacy art, in a work that is entirely an ideological manifesto.

Happily, when it comes to Itzik Lerner’s documentary series “Megiddo,” we encounter no such test, since the series does not dish up simplistic ideology. Instead, it presents something that sends “Im Tirtzu” up the wall and frightens Culture Minister Miri Regev more than anything else: complexity.

In the world of the culture minister and Im Tirtzu head Matan Peleg, the answers have been given, and the entire story can be told in simple-to-understand terms – us and them, good and bad, allowed and forbidden. In that world, security prisoners and convicted terrorists are not appropriate fodder for a TV show; even their status as human beings is debatable. Regev says they’re “human animals.” That is not an unusual comment by any criteria: politicians on both sides love resorting to it when seeking to clarify that there’s no point in seeking rational, understandable human thinking behind the actions of terrorists. They’re wolves tearing innocent gazelles to bits.

“Megiddo” sets itself up against this certainty. This is not a subversive text placing itself in opposition to the state or its symbols, nor left-wing indoctrination. (If Regev or Peleg would take the trouble to watch the show, they would have realized as much by themselves.) This is a series that presents the complex reality of prisoners and wardens alike. There is no danger of identifying with the enemy – it’s very hard to identify with Hamas terrorists who give interviews in which they demonstrate no remorse, and if given the opportunity, seem prepared to repeat their crimes. There is no fear that the average viewer will decide that the prisoner sentenced to nine life terms plus 50 years for killing settlers is an innocent victim of the system.

Moreover, the series focuses on wardens and the complex decisions they have to make just as it focuses on the prisoners. Different viewers will take different things from the show. But it isn’t political messages that caused Im Tirtzu to fire off an urgent letter to the culture minister, making cynical, unauthorized use of the Bereaved Families Forum’s name while at it. It wasn’t the show’s “leftism” that pushed Regev into hastening to announce that she vowed to withdraw funding from “Megiddo.”

The key danger in this documentary series isn’t a political or “anti-Zionist” message. It is the troublesome realization that even the most despicable murderers are human beings. Versus the “animals” that we read about in the papers, in Megiddo Prison we see rational people with families, ideas, ideology. These are people who would murder innocents for their faith. They are detestable, violent, sly, frustrated, angry and yes, they suffer, too.

Acknowledging that they are human does not minimize their deeds, or strengthen terror, but it certainly does force us to think about them, not just hate them.

It makes us think about them, and then about ourselves. Because maybe the worst part of watching Megiddo isn’t the glimpse into their lives, but the mirror it places before ours. Because not only the terrorists in Megiddo Prison are angry and frustrated; not only they are prepared to kill or be killed for their beliefs. The Israeli viewer knows well the feeling of resistance at any price to what seems to him like oppression.

The minister is afraid, and rightly so. Because when Abed al-Basat, an imprisoned Hamas leader, talks about ownership of the nation’s assets, crushing the enemy and identification with “our religion, our symbols, our heritage and our history,” he sounds exactly like Miri Regev.

The author has a master’s degree in English literature from Tel Aviv University, and researches refugee and minority literature.