Monday, April 23, 2007

Campus Battleground

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).

Itamar Haritan in front of the PFA

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.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to play my old tune again and again and again. But if a Syrian, to arrange his inner self, can stand with a sign of the Arab sites in 1948 Palestine can not a Jew, any Jew, stand with a sign of the numbers and % of Jews and Jewish communities in Syria in 1948 - 1975, and the whole Arab legue for that matter, and Arabs in Israel in 1948 - 1975.

yaman said...

Your distortions:

1) My family did not "flee" "political persecution" in Syria. Such persecution exists in Syria, and I cited that as a reason for a closed atmosphere when it comes to political issues. Syrians talk about politics all the time in casual settings--but when it comes to activism, people are not so willing to participate because this places them in a position of vulnerability. My family came here for economic opportunity, not to "flee" an oppressive environment. I merely offered the political anecdote as a possible explanation for why they are not enthusiastic about my activism. There are, surely, many other possible explanations.

2) Actually, I do not appear in the footage of Muslim students praying at the YWCA.

3) I did express my disgust at the manipulation of religion for political means, but this by no means was something I realized for the first time after the Danish cartoons. In fact, I had always been aware of that, and even when I was a Muslim, I expended much effort warning against it.

4) I don't know why you mention Ehud in this article. He is not a focus of the film, and certainly all the things you have ascribed to him are things you have gathered from other places or other encounters with him, and not from the documentary. I would disagree with your patronizing characterization that Ehud was "having fun" with what was really a not-so-shocking performance (let's reserve "shocking" for what actually happens, okay?). Finally I don't know where you get the theory that he is "lashing out" against the Jewish community--this is not conveyed in the film, it has never been conveyed in his writings, and it is certainly not something he conveys in person. And, since you did seem to put quite a bit of energy into this personal attack on Ehud, I have to say, Ehud by no means flatters himself with the idea that he is "cooler" than everybody else.

The film's distortions (in brief, as I carefully prepare my formal response):

1) I did not change my religious views as a result of the Danish cartoons, nor were they instrumental in this change. That portion was highly emphasized in the film, and I can't begin to explain why this was the case.

2) Itamar and I actually knew each other well before the documentarians knew that we knew each other. We did not "later" meet off-screen--we met long before we were interviewed on tape, and we certainly had the I-house meeting (which documentarians only knew about from anecdotes through Itamar and I) before this as well. Later, after the summer after that semester had passed, we were asked by the documentarians if we would have lunch together on camera. Itamar and I mutually agreed that this was contrived and that we would not participate in something which would, effectively, be exploiting our relationship, and we rejected the offer.

3) I agree with Itamar's criticisms, which were echoing, I think, what Tom had said about the film makers' fixation on selecting only people who fit into the Jewish-Arab divide. Of course, the film makers had interviewed dozens of people, including Israelis and Jews in SJP and other groups, and also Palestinians in SJP, but in the end did not use any of those. I agree with Tom that the Palestinian voice was unheard in this film and there is not even so much as an allusion to the fact that this conflict, not to mention activism, is a bit more complicated than "extremists" versus "people who speak English well and have lunch at the I-house."

4) You wrote that "much of the passion invested in the campus battles... is dedicated to a project much closer to home: the self." This is precisely the image that the film gives, and I think this is one of its weaknesses. From personal experience I know I spoke a lot more when they asked me about things that were NOT about me OR my feelings, but those were the parts that they decided to focus on. I guess that is the kind of film they were looking for--I was expecting something else. But, I suppose they did create a film that successfully confirms middle class Berkeley liberals and the way they think about the world. If you were there for the audience's reactions, then you noticed this as much as everybody else. In other words they succeeded in making a film about Israel and Palestine that ignores every single pressing issue on the ground, from terrorism to occupation, and focuses on people that have quaint lunches at the I-house.

5) The film seems to glamorize Itamar and I as if we are "exceptions" on the campus scene, or even on the political/social scene in general. Maybe we are supposed to be the "hope" for the future since we can talk to each other without screaming, or something simplistic like that. I don't know. But the point is that we are not exceptions, but by and large the rule.

Amos said...

Dear Yaman,

Thanks very much for your response and your corrections of my distortions.

1) I must have misheard the narration in the film. I do remember that they showed photographs of your family members in Syria, and that you explained that some of your relatives had been imprisoned once. This was not part of some tendentious reading of the film or the Middle East - I was simply trying to convey some background that I thought the film had also conveyed. Anyway, thanks for clarifying, and my apologies for the error.

2) My bad - I thought I saw you in the background - the film cut straight from an interview with you to the prayer room, as far as I remember.

3) Not my distortion but the film's, no?

4) I didn't mean to be patronizing, and my description of Ehud "lash[ing] out" was actually not derisive. I've only met Ehud once, and I thought he was a good guy. I don't know why you immediately assumed that this was a personal attack on him. He is in this post because he appeared in the film, in a scene that many people would actually find shocking (wasn't that the point of setting up a mock checkpoint in the first place?), because he was mentioned in the discussion, and because he is a Berkeley student activist.

The remark about Ehud being cool was facetious in a very innocent way; I was actually trying to give the guy props. I included the link to and description of your Lee Kaplan Watch web site in the same spirit.

In any case, my interpretation of Ehud's behavior is just that - an interpretation. It was certainly not meant to detract from his activism. If I offended Ehud in any way, he can contact me and I will apologize to him myself.

I have to say that I am a bit taken aback by your assumption that the point of this review was character assassination. In fact, the heart of my critique of the documentary was precisely the point you made in #4 (under "the film's distortions").

yaman said...


I don't remember if I mentioned in the film that some of my distant relatives had been arrested in the past, but I made references to stories about neighbors disappearing in the night and the like.

Re 2: Yes, the beauty of editing. I assume that that is the impression it's supposed to give. No worries.

Re 3: Yes, mostly, but since you summarized it I felt I should address it. Not your fault, the film's.

Re 4: I'll take your word for it that you were not intending to personally attack Ehud. It just seemed like an odd recap to me to include information that was not really relevant to the film. I don't think he's seen this post yet, but I'm sure he will harbor no hard feelings after reading your explanation.

Thanks for the response.

Bhumika Ghimire said...

i get an impression through this writing that is it some how "wrong' to be pro Palestine..? why is that?

Psikhi said...

Not sure, Bhumika. Check with your therapist maybe. I'll definitely ask mine.

Tom said...

Hazbani, as the grandson of Syrian jews (who came to Israel in the 1930s), I refuse to be drawn into these symmetry games, where one wrong ends up cancelling out other wrongs and we are all left without rights. No Palestinan expelled jews from Iraq or Syria or anywhere else, and Syrian jews were not the ones who planned the Nakba. Palestinian rights do not depend on the policies of the Syrian or Iraqi governments - ditto for the rights of "Mizrahim". Instead of what Prof. Yehuda Shenhav calls "creative accountancy", where each side's property rights cancel out the other's, we should pressure both the Israeli and Arab governments to compensate their respective victims - but the linkage gets us nowhere.

Amos said...

Thanks for reading, Tom. I thought your critique of the film at the screening was very perceptive.

To your comment above, I would add only, "as the descendant of Persian Jews who came to Jerusalem in the late 19th century" that Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Rumanian, and German Jews also "were not the ones who planned the Nakba."

I know that these days it is popular to bad-mouth the "hegemonic" Ashkenazim, and to claim some kind of solidarity with the Palestinians as an "oppressed mizrahi." I find this kind of identity politics as distasteful as the sort practiced in the U.S.

In any case, responsibility for the plight of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants lies with many different individuals - Jews and Arabs (Muslims and Christians), from all parts of the respective societies who had contesting interests in or claims over the area in 1947/48 (and beyond).

Anonymous said...

I didn't mean this to come over as an accusation against Ashkenazim in general. I blame political elites, not ethnicities.