In a blistering op-ed column two weeks ago, Andrea Levin, president of the pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA, accused the Sundance Movie Channel of hosting “a lineup of startling one-sided and sometimes blatantly propagandistic anti-Israeli documentaries airing in the summer and fall on the Sundance Channel.” In pointed contrast to the Israel-bashing slate on offer at Sundance was the Eureka International Film Festival, which ran for nine nights (Oct. 22 - Oct. 30) in New York’s lower Manhattan. Eureka admirably adhered to its mission statement of accepting films from all across the political spectrum. Indeed, it even recognized a film that was—gasp!—pro Israel.
The recipient of that award was the documentary film maker, Pierre Rehov, an Algerian-born French Jew, who won the Audience Choice People’s Award for his film “Fighting Shadows.” Certainly it wasn’t a surplus of pro-Israel sentiment that earned Rehov the distinction. Of the 40 films featured at the Eureka festival, a majority, including shorts, were from the left side of the political spectrum.
Rehov may be best known to readers as the filmmaker who caused a stir with “The Road to Jenin.” In that courageous documentary, Revok took apart, point by point, the Palestinian filmmaker Mohammad Bakri’s film “Jenin, Jenin.” A largely spurious work of propaganda, Bakri’s film attempted to lay a massacre, which in fact never happened, at the hands of Israel’s Defense Forces. Rehov marshaled such compelling evidence against “Jenin Jenin” that his research and film were even used to support a successful lawsuit in the Israeli Supreme Court brought by five IDF reservists against Bakri. Bakri, for his part, ended up admitting under oath to knowingly making misrepresentations in his film.
The new film, “Fighting Shadows,” is actually a threaded-together composite of two of Rehov’s documentaries, “Hostages of Hatred,” and “The Silent Exodus.” The first recounts how the Arab States, the Palestinian elites, and the U.N. have been instrumental in keeping Palestinians festering in refugee camps since 1948; the second tells the largely forgotten story of the nearly one million Jews were forced to flee Arab States in the wake of the 1948 war. (He has also shot a film called “Holy Land: Christians in Peril,” documenting Christian fears of marginalization (and worse) at the hands of the Palestinian Muslim majority in a future Palestinian state, as well as a documentary called “The Trojan Horse.” Exposing the real agenda of Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, the film contrasts their double talk in Arabic and English before different audiences.)
Both segments of “Fighting Shadows” use the technique of archival footage interspersed with contemporary interviews. A mainstay of Arab propaganda that the Jews “kicked the Arabs out of Palestine” was effectively dealt with early on in the “Hostages” portion. Arab newspaper and magazine accounts are shown on screen from both before and after the 1948 war documenting Arab leadership’s many calls for Palestinians to get out before the impending war started. (So much for the charge that the Jews expelled the Arabs out of Palestine). Arab leaders didn’t want them in their way during the attack and they promised the Arab inhabitants that they would be back within two or three weeks after the Jews were thoroughly defeated. Of course, as the film shows, unlike any other refugees in the world a special bureaucratic agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, was set up for the Palestinians, the only ethnic or national group in the world to ever have their own refugee agency, which has more than anything else, ended up as a permanent employment program for 22,000 bureaucrats who live off Palestinian misery.
In the portion “Silent Exodus”, former Jewish refugees originally from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia, some who speak English, others who speak Hebrew, Arabic or French describe in riveting accounts their stories of living under dhimmitude, the Muslim sanctioned permanent second class citizenship for non Muslims in Muslim countries. All experienced daily humiliations which included always holding ones tongue out of justifiable fear of physical attack; special taxes called jazira taxes - paid only by dhimmis, part of a ritualization of humiliation simply because one wasn’t a Muslim; systematic unfavorable treatment in courts; and in most instances being unable to buy and sell property unless one had an Arab partner. There were also special inhumane treatments in accordance with which country you lived in, for example, forced conversion of Jewish children to Islam in Yemen, who were taken from their homes if one of the pair of Jewish parents were no longer in the household. All these actions taken, whether it was against Jews or Christians or other marginalized dhimmi people, were supported under sharia, the law of the land.
These conditions of course predate anything having to do with the Palestinians. And there is hardly a person interviewed by Rehov who doesn’t scoff at the notion that life was fair, let alone harmonious under Arab Muslim rule. Well, actually, there is one: a representative of the Palestinian Authority, Dr. Abdel Shafi, who thinks that there were never any problems. Aside from Dr. Shafi, though, everyone insists that this is an absolute myth. These are people whose families and often they themselves lived through anti-Jewish pogroms: 1941 in Iraq; 1945 in Cairo; 1948 in Morocco (generally portrayed in the West as a tolerant country), with synagogues burned to the ground, Jews being murdered in the streets, in particular being hung in the public square in Baghdad. Many lived in specially cordoned off ghettos. By the late 30’s and early 40’s as Rehov documents, Nazism and Hitler were revered in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and segments of the Arab population in Palestine. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, El Haj Amin Husseini of the Husseini clan, which is Arafat’s clan, in particular loved Hitler. Their meeting point: they both hated Jews. The grinning little imp with mass murder in his heart spent the war in Germany as a guest of Hitler’s, making propaganda, and forming both an Arab and Bosnian Muslim brigade to fight on the Eastern front for the Nazi mass murderers. These are facts one is unlikely learn from the fare at the Sundance festival.
But one does learn about them in this stirring documentary. That one million Jews were banished from Arab lands after 1948--many whose ancestors in those lands date back millennia—and 750,000 came to Israel between 1948 and 1952 to be integrated into a country with a Jewish population of 650,000 was unknown to at least several people in the audience. During the question and answer session with Rehov, one young woman revealed that, despite taking a few advanced history courses in college, she was unaware of the history of the Jewish refugees. Another young woman, more informed on such matters, stated that Middle East Studies Programs have by and large been captured by a combination of Palestinian and left-wing activists and have robbed students of the ability to study all sides of the story.
Rehov’s decision to combine the two films into one for festivals was an inspired idea, if only to put side by side the story of how one country accepted its brethren, Israel, and 22 countries, sometimes referred to as the Arab Nation, rejected theirs. Most of the original 750,000 Jewish refugees, some of who arrived with barely the clothing on their back, (Iraq for example let each Jew take one suitcase, with no money at all), lived in tents, huts, or shacks for periods averaging about four years. Israel, obviously not the economic powerhouse it has become, didn’t have much in material goods to give them, but as former Israeli President Issak Navon stated, they were welcomed and treated “as brothers”. This was hardly the case with how the Arabs treated “their brothers”. In one particular example, Rehov’s film thoroughly documents housing developments that Israel built for the Palestinians in Gaza only to be turned down and left vacant by Arab leaders.
Disappointingly, a prestigious festival such as Sundance seems to go out of its way to present only one side of the Israeli/Palestinian story. So despite Rehov’s record of accomplishment, which includes some international recognition, particularly with “The Road to Jenin”, Lisa Magnus, Rehov’s North American representative, fellow editor and collaborator, told me that Sundance will not even return her calls or even pay her the small courtesy of acknowledging receipt of public relations packages.
Perhaps they will wake up soon enough. Rehov is currently in the finishing phases of editing and mixing “Suicide Killers: The Psychopathology Behind Homicide Bombers”, an exploration into the minds of would be suicide/homicide killers, many of whom he has interviewed in great depth in Israeli prisons. In a question put to him about the yet-to-be-completed film, Rehov mentioned the sexual component: Not just the promised 72 virgins, but the culture that has stymied the way a typical teenager or young man or young woman can express their sexuality in the Palestinian world. Given most people’s natural interest in sex, and the phenomena of suicide bombing, “Killers,” which will certainly be screened at colleges and local film festivals, may put Sundance in the embarrassing position of publicly ignoring him. It may also contribute to its reputation as a festival that honors left-wing politics as much as, if not more so than excellence in filmmaking.
One other note which might put some pressure on Sundance: Lisa Magnus tells me that she has been in contact with the Cannes Film Festival. They’re interested in taking a look at Rehov’s new film.