We Need to Talk About Palestinian Art in Israel

I was ready to defend the film about three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv. Then I watched it.

Illustration: A scene from the movie 'In Between.'
Amos Biderman

I’m not sure I’ll get through this column in one piece, but I’ll try, hoping I won’t come across as a conservative – a trait I may have picked up from the American Midwest. Two news items related to Palestinian-Arab art within an Israeli framework made my blood boil this week. They reminded me that the reason for our flight was that there was no longer anywhere to flee to. Neither the racism-rife Jewish city nor the violence- and conservatism-rife Arab ghetto can provide a shelter and a haven.

The first item was about a University of Haifa art student from Umm al-Fahm who related how she had been vilified and even threatened for hanging up a prayer rug in a classroom with the inscription, in Arabic: “God is dead, complete your prayer.” The second item was a report that the Umm al-Fahm municipal government was calling on the Israeli Arab public to boycott Maysaloun Hamoud’s movie “In Between,” because it’s offensive to city residents and disrespectful to its young women and to Arab women generally.

The two reports stirred the same disturbing feeling that occasionally surfaces: that there’s nothing left to struggle for and that ruination is the fate of the Palestinian society in Israel to which I belong.

Sometimes I still imagine in my mind’s eye that peace treaties have been signed and that the Palestinians in Israel have been recognized as a national minority and granted cultural autonomy and an equal share of resources. As part of this new freedom, art foundations and boards of film, theater and dance companies are created, separate and independent from the Israeli ones and not subject to its favors. Arab art experts – and maybe an honorary Jewish one, too – evaluate and choose between the various projects that are requesting economic support.

At a time when Palestinian artists are being attacked, the vision of disengagement from Israel’s cultural grip, however humane and peace-loving it may be, becomes a nightmare. Reading about defamation and calls to boycott creative artists, I start to wonder just who will one day serve on these artistic bodies. Will they be renowned, intrepid professionals who will support subversive projects and will not hesitate to fund a play or a film even if it’s not compatible with the frame of mind of many of their fellow Palestinians? Or will the committees be composed of representatives of parties and ideological streams, each of whom will argue in favor of his particular interpretation of art? And why not have members of the Islamic Movement on these panels, considering the influence they wield in society, so they can support art that aims to promote sharia, faith and piety? Would that not be a just demand? Maybe the nationalists will want all cultural activity to be in the spirit of creating a national identity, or perhaps the communists will want to disqualify every movie that doesn’t address class issues.

I am assailed by many heretical thoughts at a time when a movie, which as far as I know from reviews and interviews with the filmmakers, is about three Palestinian women who rebel against their patriarchal society and seek freedom, as the director put it, is attacked. It’s sad to see women being silenced, when a courageous female director finally lashes out at the Arab male – and I admit that I represent that species – because we deserve it, by heaven we deserve it.

And no, I don’t want to dignify cultural relativism, and I won’t go into the mutation of the coerced structure of the rural, family-based Palestinian community, or the question of the possibility of individual freedom of action and choice in a non-urban, segmented society. Those are not excuses for total inequality between men and women. Nor will I accept any explanation for why a man and a woman should not be free to live the life of their choosing. (Again, these are things I believe in, even though I don’t act in accordance with them. Maybe they are deep cultural vestiges that are hard to shake off completely, or maybe, as my acquaintances say, I am just a shit of a person who would make the life of any partner miserable, whether I was married to an Arab woman or to an Ashkenazi man from the land of the white people.)

I saw “In Between” (called “Bar Bahr” in Arabic, and “Lo Po, Lo Sham” in Hebrew) this week, with the initial aim of attacking the chauvinists who are denigrating it, and scolding the people of Umm al-Fahm, along with their political movement and their city government, for suppressing both women and art. I was also apprehensive that a “kosher certificate” from me would serve as proof that the religious public is right, for a heretic I am, and I am counted among the traitors. I expected a subversive feminist movie that slams men bloated with dubious honor, and I was convinced – from the spirit of the articles I’d read – that the Umm al-Fahm municipality abhorred the character of the village girl in the movie because she was “liberated” and thus liable to wield a bad influence over pious womanhood of the kind we expect. But that’s not what I found.

Watching the movie, however, I understood much of the rancor that the people of Umm al-Fahm’s felt. And no, it’s not because of the character and behavior of Nour (Shaden Kanboura), but because of her fiancé, Wissam (Henry Andrawes), who’s also from Umm al-Fahm and is a member of the Islamic Movement. It would be one thing if the bearded Wissam were depicted as a religiously observant Arab male who doesn’t accept his fiancée’s choices, or if he were just one more oppressive man who prefers that his wife stay at home after they are married even though she’s completing a degree in computer sciences at Tel Aviv University. But Wissam, the man of religion from Umm al-Fahm, is a violent and abusive individual, who attacks Nour cruelly, rapes her and leaves her there, bleeding.

There’s no justification in the script for making the religious character the rapist, there’s no justification for the person from the Triangle (and unfortunately there’s no way to avoid mentioning the untenable differences in status between a ruptured community located in that area, in central Israel, and locales in the Galilee and Negev and anyway what can you do if the filmmaker is from the Galilee) to be the violent man. There is no doubt that these are stereotypes of religious people that reflect Israeli and Western conceptions. The fact that the rapist is from Umm al-Fahm is meaningful in a society where the village you’re born in serves as a central identity marker. Imagine, for example, a film about the oppression of women in Paris where the violent rapist is a Jew.

After I saw the film, I read the city’s communique and discovered that it indeed includes a call to boycott the film, because it sullies the city’s reputation, but in addition there’s a request to avoid denouncing and maligning the filmmakers, because they don’t deserve it. “In Between” is an important movie, and not only because of the discussion it has provoked, which might benefit the local film industry. The movie is important and so is the response from Umm al-Fahm’s city hall. The discussion it has sparked, as long as it doesn’t spill over into mudslinging and vilification, is a legitimate one that I can imagine taking place in culture committees or in the independent Arab educational council – insh’allah.