Opportunity in a Middle East identity crisis

Exploring his own character as a Palestinian Jew, Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni says a universal identity is needed.

Udi Aloni play
    An exploration of character led director Udi Aloni to adopt a universalist identity [Udi Aloni/ Al Jazeeera]

Udi Aloni is a well-known Israeli filmmaker, theatre director, writer and activist, whose recent work includes such films as Forgiveness, Local Angel, and Kashmir: Journey to Freedom. His new book, What Does a Jew Want?: On Binationalism and Other Specters, is published by Columbia University Press (2011).

Mark LeVine met with Aloni in Ramallah as he was beginning rehearsals for a production of “Waiting for Godot” with students from the Jenin Freedom Theatre and continued the conversation in the United States. The US premiere of the production will take place at the Miller Theatre in New York, on October 18.

Mark LeVine: Your book starts off with a seemingly provocative question, one which would seem to be impossible to answer. How can anyone claim to answer what Jews collectively want, or Muslims or Christians for that matter?

Udi Aloni: The idea for the book arose from the contradictions that I felt exists between my work as an artist, as a writer, and as an activist. In particular, a difficulty in expressing how one can move from one’s particularity – in my case as an Israeli Ashkenazi Jew – to a universal ethic and aesthetic, and to create a new identity in the process. The task, I suppose, is to show people that you can open yourself to your most dreaded “other”, that you can forge relationships outside of your group that are even more meaningful than the ones that have always defined you.

To do that, I had to accept the position of speaking from weakness and vulnerability, in contrast to the strength Israelis and American Jews imagine they have (but are really afraid that they don’t possess). I argue that from this weakness, we can create new possibilities, or openings.

ML: Edward Said was clearly a big influence on you, it seems. How does a Palestinian thinker help you gain a deeper understanding of your own identity as a Jew?

UA: Said was very important, especially his work “Freud and the Non-European” and the way he read in Freud, who of course was Jewish, the kind of “unresolved sense of identity” that clearly exists in Israeli and Palestinian identities as well. My book opens with a quote from Said about Freud, asking whether the kind of “deeply undetermined history” of Israel/Palestine “could ever become the not-so-precarious foundation in the land of Jews and Palestinians of a bi-national state in which Israel and Palestine are parts, rather than antagonists, of each other’s history and underlying reality”.

Even if you show people the truth time and time again, they will still be blind to it

– Udi Aloni

Reading Said’s book was so different from reading a standard academic text. It made me realise the importance of being both intellectual and emotional at the same time, to not allow the two modalities to split our understanding of the realities on the ground. So this led me to ask how I can be totally active, responsible and engaged at the same time as a writer, without losing my art. What Does a Jew Want? is the outcome of this process.

ML: But Freud is seemingly so out of style right now. Why is he, and psychoanalysis, so important for you?

UA: For me it comes down to forgiveness, which is also the name of one of my films. I’m drawing a line between me and what I would call a kind of positivist activism in the US. There are people I adore, like Chomsky and others on the left, who give the feeling that if you just tell people the truth, stop corporate manipulation, etc, then people will choose the right thing. But this is clearly not the full truth. There is also a trauma zone that prevents the truth from changing people.

Even if you show people the truth time and time again, they will still be blind to it. And so, for example, the demonstrators who march for housing in Tel Aviv couldn’t see the link between their struggle and the Palestinian refugees’ longing for home. American Jews can be so liberal in the US and yet use proto-fascist language when it comes to Israel.

One possible conclusion is that these people are just evil or duplicitous, but I don’t believe that. Rather, there is clearly a social unconscious that blinds people to the truth. This is beyond changing individual consciousness or having a logical conversation. It can be an infuriating experience to invoke logic and see that people don’t understand your arguments, and this is in part why the left often becomes so angry and bitter. Psychoanalytic theory helps us understand why people don’t get it, so to speak. As Said understood, and as [Slavoj] Zizek – who recently worked with me in Ramallah – does too, psychoanalysis offers us tools to dig in, to figure out, to understand what is in all of us that makes us so blind, so hardened to the truth.

ML: Of course, in the Jewish case, the sources of this trauma are clear, centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. How can art help overcome, or at least transcend, such a powerful trauma that has been so successfully integrated into a [form of] colonial-nationalist politics?

UA: For me, art, theory, and action function like the Holy Trinity. The one is three and the three are one. Or perhaps it is better to say: each is a means for the other and an end in itself. For example, when I come to Palestinians as an Israeli Jew, I’m don’t come with my ideology only, but also with my identity, my feelings, and my own language, the same way a lover relates to the one he or she loves. I could say that when one tries to be with Palestinians but belongs to the culture that oppresses them, this “being-with” necessitates baring one’s hands and soul like a lover, with all one’s contradictory parts. That is the only way we can attempt to create a true togetherness.

ML: What role does bi-nationalism play in this process and, through it, in your book?

UA: When I make my art in order to create a binational language, a mutual space for all of us, I have to use all of these tools and bring all sides together, rather than trying to keep them isolated and separate. In this context, the question in the book’s title, What does a Jew Want? is like Freud’s question, “What does a woman want?” It’s not a question to answer, but rather the start of an investigation, of opening up from this Israeli particularist identity within which I grew up – and trying to reach out, beyond the many layers that still prevent us from envisioning a different, more universal identity.

This problem has always plagued the left in Israel, and I suppose in a sense I’m trying to go where the Zionist left failed and, as we say in Hebrew, do a tikkun, or healing for it. At the same time, this process has totally motivated my activism and art to cross borders, to move to Jenin to teach at the Freedom Theatre, to work and to live with Palestinians. This is part of finding out who I am as a Jew, which is something profound – but often seems difficult for others to understand.

ML: Especially if they are still living in a traditional nationalist Jewish or Palestinian identity.

UA: Absolutely, yes. But this is precisely what my relationship with Juliano Mer-Khamis [the well-known film maker and founder of the Freedom Theatre who was assassinated in April 2011] was based on. He was, because of his parents, both Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian-Arab. Working with him, and the amazing students and colleagues at the Freedom Theatre, taught me how to think as a Palestinian Jew – and that’s how you reach bi-nationalism.

ML: What is a Palestinian Jew? It’s a very old term, no? Before 1948, all Jews in Palestine were called that. So it seems like you’re going backward instead of forward with that identity, not to mention constructing an identity that is sure to alienate most Israelis or American Jews.

UA: Well, there are “American Jews” and “French” or “Italian” Jews. Why can’t they understand me as a Palestinian Jew? I am not nationalist anyway, that is not the point. To be within an identity is not something holy; it’s the beginning of a discourse, not the end of it. The problem is when people make it dogmatic.

ML: True, Herzl saw Zionism as a means to an end, a tool to end anti-Semitism, not the end in itself.

Look, we are like Noah’s Ark, we keep the language of bi-nationalism alive while the Israeli state is becoming more unbearable, more fascist, all the time.

– Udi Aloni

UA: Yes, exactly. And here, I would say that those who insist on a one-state solution, in an alienated way, based on egalitarian relationships between individuals, are not offering the most viable or even desirable alternative. I use the term bi-national because to say “one state”, like South Africa, doesn’t acknowledge the particularity that each community still wants to retain in any solution to the conflict. It doesn’t recognise that we’re all in a universal world, but yet, at the same time, we want to build that universality out of particularities, the particular places and cultures in which we stand.

So when I say I’m a Palestinian Jew, it means that this is where I begin the dialogue, not necessarily where I want to end. Said says it so well in “Freud and the Non-European”, where he explains that he does not expect that Jews and Palestinians will become one people, but that, within these tensions, something new will arise that is one at the same time. In short, this is not a naive form of universality.

ML: But isn’t bi-nationalism still just a utopian dream with no practical reality?

UA: Look, we are like Noah’s Ark, we keep the language of bi-nationalism alive while the Israeli state is becoming more unbearable, more fascist, all the time. But when this discourse finally collapses – and eventually it will have to collapse – we can offer something positive as a new alternative.

In fact it’s already starting to happen, with the “J14” social movement that sprang up around the housing protests this summer. On the one hand, it’s easy to be cynical, since for the most part the leaders refused to make the obvious connection between social justice for Israelis and the much more basic national justice for Palestinians.

But the protests did show that people are open to new ideas. You can’t imagine how important it is that for the first time Israelis did not look to the West and the US as their model, but in fact looked towards young Arabs, towards the revolutions in the Arab world. This is incredible and will have far-reaching implications for Israeli identity in the long run.

ML: How has your work with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement – which, on the surface, should have alienated you more from mainstream Israel and Jews – affected this?

UA: My work with BDS has been crucial to my personal development. Because I joined BDS, I found a new solidarity, and I was able to open a true dialogue with Palestinians. In Hebrew, there is a play on words here: I moved from seeing Palestinians merely as the “other” (acher in Hebrew) – who, according to good left Zionist discourse should be “recognised” and “respected”, so long as it doesn’t actually demand anything of Israel – to seeing them as a brother [ach], someone with whom I share a common identity, who shapes me just as I shape him.

I am not trying to be naive here. I don’t think working with BDS will “bring the revolution”, but we are creating a language that will help us to survive this unbearable present and create an opening to a new understanding. If for no other reason than the fact that this situation cannot last much longer.

ML: Can you talk a bit more about how BDS actually makes much deeper collaboration possible, since many critics of BDS claim it actually prevents collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians?

UA: Because in making this leap, you open yourself up, you create trust, and you can create a new identity. My support for BDS allowed me to work with the Freedom Theatre on Waiting for Godot. There are very hard moments in Godot; but there are also those small moments of true friendship and fidelity which reflect the possibilities that open up when you take this leap, embrace the other, and become brothers.

I should say, though, that I didn’t go into Waiting for Godot trying to make great art, but rather out of responsibility to Juliano. And yet it turned out to be great art, not just a good deed. And this is the vision of Said – and of thinkers such as Adorno or Benjamin he admired – to create high cultural elements, great art, as the core of a new identity and a new language.

ML: Are you hopeful for the future – despite all the negative realities of the present?

UA: Yes, I am. Let’s look at BDS. When I first joined about four years ago, people were literally ready to kill me. But now I’m not so isolated; there are people who are beginning to listen. The growing number of Israeli and diaspora Jews who accept and even work within the BDS framework are becoming less marginalised. We are not merely seen as traitors anymore. I just participated in an amazing panel with other progressive Jewish activists and artists on BDS in a synagogue in Brooklyn. 250 Jews came and the discussion was very well received.

Let’s not think of ourselves as marginalised just because the organised Jewish community says that we are. In fact, as I show in the book, the more you want to be Jewish, the more you should support Palestinians. Put another way, to fulfil your particular identity you need to think universally.

ML: It is like your film Forgiveness, no? You need to ask for forgiveness, and yet forge a new identity that transcends oppression and victimhood at the same time. To not merely deconstruct, as the great philosopher [Jacques] Derrida taught us, but reconstruct something new.

UA: Derrida taught me so much, especially his last lectures in New York, after 9/11, when it was clear he was dying of cancer. He was, physically, becoming the “spectre” that he famously wrote about, but his call to show absolute hospitality even to our perceived enemies made him more relevant than ever. My film Local Angel was born of a confrontation with that angel named Derrida, and my film Forgiveness was born of the wish to hug him and hold back the wind that was carrying him away.

And that experience led me to end my book with the following prayer, by Martin Luther King Jr: “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Let us pray that the stars we see will not be the missiles over Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Gaza announcing with their shining tails the apocalyptic war bequeathed to us by the Israeli government. Let us hope that the stars are of grace and justice. Stars that can open the gates to our mutual Middle East, for life.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He also is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and the soon-to-be-published An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

Follow Mark LeVine on Twitter: @culturejamming

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.