The heroes of Bill Jersey's TV documentary, Campus Battleground, presented at a special preview screening by Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive earlier today, are a diverse group of more or less likable college students, who have found themselves on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or, rather, that miniature version of it being conducted on America's university campuses.
As one might expect, this is not a film about the conflict itself, but about a different set of struggles altogether - struggles that appear to the protagonists and the filmmakers to be no less momentous than the real wars being waged in the Middle East. This other battle, however, is one with which far more Americans are likely to identify: it is the struggle of the sensitive and articulate American youth for a stable identity and a sense of belonging.
So we meet Khadija, an Iraqi-American student at Columbia University, who recalls waking up to her Muslim and Arab identity when she was 13 years old, on September 11, 2001. In the spring of 2006, when the documentary was filmed, she is active in the Arab Students Organization, which has invited Norman Finkelstein to speak, and identifies generally with the pro-Palestine cause on campus. Khadija complains about Alan Dershowitz, who supposedly ripped up a protester's poster at his lecture (earlier, the film shows him asking an audience member for a sign that reads "Dershowitz hearts torture," and tearing the back of it in half, calling it "bullshit"). "If Finkelstein had done that," an MC activist who raps about Palestinians being uprooted like olive trees tells her, "it would have been all over the news." Khadija then complains about being invited to dialogue groups, even though, as she affirms, "I don't hate anyone." And she doesn't. Despite her activism, she says that she sometimes wishes everyone could just "take a chill pill" about the conflict, since "none of us live in Israel or Palestine, except for those who go back in the summer."
As the movie makes clear, much of the passion invested in the campus battles "against the occupation," "for Israel/Palestine," and "against terrorism," is dedicated to a project much closer to home: the self.
Many of our heroes change in different ways. They claim that they start to understand the other, they grow, and they undergo conversion experiences. For example, in a surprising twist at the end of the movie, we find that Khadija, until now dressed in jeans and a tight top, has decided to embrace hijab (the principle of modesty - i.e., to wear a headscarf), because "this is what God commanded us to do." We follow her as she goes to worship at a New York mosque, and listen to her tell us that she is "doing what [she] always wanted to do but did not have the strength to."
In Berkeley, the other campus featured in the film, we meet Avi Criden, whom I know only from short encounters in the gym (thanks for the spot, brother). In his mid-20s, Avi is the only Israeli student in a class on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict taught by Professor Beshara Doumani of Berkeley's history department. In one of the first discussion sections, he explains that he wants to know whether people on the other side still have hope, because he feels that in Israeli society, after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin z"l and especially after the outbreak of the second intifadah, there is very little.
We also see a photograph of Avi in his IDF uniform, and we hear him describing the difficulties of managing a checkpoint - "you have an NCO spitting in your face on the one hand, and then a pregnant woman who needs to go through but who could be a suicide bomber [this drew laughter from the audience]." Meanwhile, we watch a lesson by Doumani about the "'security fence,' as the Israelis call it, or 'the wall,' as the Palestinians refer to it." Doumani, born in Saudi Arabia and the son of a Palestinian refugee, is as courteous and kind to Avi as he is to all of his students (no surprise, of course) - in contrast, one of the Jewish students at Columbia featured in the film, complains bitterly about a particular professor's abuse of students based on their ethnicity.
Bari Weiss, the eldest daughter of two Jewish community leaders who says about herself that she "talks a lot," is Khadija's counterpart at Columbia. Passionate about social justice as well as Israel, she is seen organizing a protest at the Finkelstein lecture, as part of which students raise signs affirming that "Finkelstein hearts Hezbollah" - signs later copied by the anti-Dershowitz protesters, it seems. Weiss complains bitterly about the fact that before any discussion takes place with pro-Palestinian students, she has to go through endless ideological declarations - that she is on the left with regard to social issues, that she does not agree with all aspects of Israeli policy, that she wants a two-state solution, etc. But by the end of the film, she talks glowingly about the dialogue group in which she has become involved.
Meanwhile, Avi Criden, in his final presentation, outlines a curriculum that he would implement in Israeli schools - challenging nationalist mythologies and presenting the history of the Palestinians alongside that of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. One of his classmates remarks, with barely disguised self-satisfaction at this successful conversion, that "this would turn Israeli culture upside-down." To this, Avi, somewhat taken aback, responds that "there are many very good things about Israeli society."
In Berkeley, we also meet the affable Yaman Salahi, manning a Sproul Plaza booth on Yom Ha'atsma'ut, Israeli Independence Day (which was today), that commemorates the Arab towns and villages destroyed in 1948. Yaman, whose family fled political persecution in Syria, also tells of a religious journey that he underwent alongside his political activism. He explains that until he came to Berkeley, he considered himself an agnostic or an atheist. On campus, we see him at a Muslim service, in a prayer room looking out at the Campanile, the university's famous clock tower. But toward the end of the documentary, in the wake of the Muhammad cartoon riots, he expresses his disgust about the manipulation of religion for political means. Yaman also complains about the use of the Palestinian issue by various autocratic regimes in the region to stifle dissent.
Yaman's partner in crime, who is seen only briefly in the film, is Ehud Appel. The two run a web site devoted to the shenanigans of a clownish agent provocateur named Lee Kaplan. But Ehud, no doubt passionate about human rights and justice, is also a great case study in the real theme of this documentary. In the movie, we encounter Ehud dressed up as an Israeli soldier, holding a huge cardboard gun, and manning a mock-checkpoint at Sather Gate. "If you were a Palestinian, you would not be able to go through," he informs one young woman, shortly before trying, in vain, to stop a grinning, keffiyeh-clad man from bulldozing through.
One cannot help observing how much fun Ehud is having with this shocking performance - which lashes out against the perceived pressures of an American Jewish community seeking to impose its quasi-mythological narrative on young Jews. He has, no doubt, been called a self-hating Jew many times over his career as an anti-occupation activist. But he believes that he is on the side of justice, and cooler than everyone else (certainly, the latter is partly true).
The other character study in the film is Itamar Haritan, an Israeli ex-pat involved with the Israeli Action Committee at Berkeley. Easily one of the most eloquent voices in the documentary, Itamar later has an off-camera meeting with Yaman, at Berkeley's International House. The two get along splendidly, of course, and greet each other after the film screening. In the question-and-answer session that follows the documentary, Itamar raises some subtle criticism of the film and the reality depicted in it:
I'm very tired of talking about the conflict only in terms of my identity. There are far more important economic, social, and political issues that need to be dealt with, and what this film leaves me feeling is that the battleground is not on campus. Discussing one's identity doesn't do anything but make us feel good about ourselves.