Who is afraid of Julian Schnabel?

Jews who embrace narratives other than those sanctioned by the pro-Israel community often inflame others.

who is afraid of julian schnabel?
Director Julian Schnabel’s ‘Miral’ has brought the Israel-Palestine conflict into the mainstream [GALLO/GETTY]

Miral, currently in theatres, portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an entirely Palestinian perspective. It is nothing earth-shattering (a brief filmography at the end of this article offers other films that do this far more effectively) except that it was made by a Jewish filmmaker.

Several Jewish organisations and the Israeli government have seen fit to protest against the film. They say it does not tell both sides of the story. But that is precisely the point. When director Julian Schnabel – previously lauded for his lavish features Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – decided to make this film, based on the book by Palestinian journalist Rula Jebreal, his intention was to tell the story Rula tells in Miral.

Schnabel is an Academy-Award nominated director, and his film has brought “the conflict” into the mainstream. The fact that he happens to be Jewish while representing the Palestinian perspective inflames some in the Jewish community, who consider his film an act of betrayal.

Conflicting narratives

I saw the film earlier this week in a special screening hosted by Javier Bardem, who starred in Before Night Falls and wanted to support Schnabel’s “brave film”. The director was there with his daughter Stella, who appears in the film, and with his new wife – Rula Jebreal. I could not help but wonder what the Jewish community thinks when a Jew marries a Palestinian.

More to the point, why are some Jews afraid of Jews who embrace narratives other than those officially sanctioned in the Jewish and Israeli community? Why do such narratives when told by Jews – including books by Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, and Israeli revisionist historians such as Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé and Tom Segev – cause such ire?

I am one of these contrarian Jews. Why do I strive to see things not only from the Jewish perspective but the Arab one? Because my father’s family lived for centuries in an Arab country, Morocco, and because long ago I recognised that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about nothing else if not conflicting narratives.

Jews see 1948 as the year of Israel’s establishment and a glorious liberation from persecution with the benefit of an independent state for Jews who had no place to live in the Diaspora, or who wanted to join Zionists in their “return” to the Holy Land after nearly 2,000 years of Roman exile (see Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People for an alternative history that suggests the Romans never exiled Jews in 70 AD).

Palestinians experienced 1948 as the year of their defeat, a national catastrophe or Nakba. After centuries of dominance by the Ottoman Empire and then British occupation, Palestinians wanted their own freedom. In fact, the national Palestinian identity movement (as Rashid Khalidi explains in his book Palestinian Identity) was nearly the same age as the Zionist movement. Contrast that fact with the myths propagated for years by David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and other early Zionists, who made a point of telling us that “there is no Palestinian people” and that Israel was “a land without a people for a people without a land”.

The Arab world began to wake from domination as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling in a renaissance movement known as al-Nahda. People in Palestine were active in their desire for independence from outside control and occupation. Little wonder that the 1947 UN Partition Agreement was almost universally rejected by the Arab world. Why would Palestinians want to lose half of Palestine after living for centuries under foreign rule – particularly when Jewish land ownership at the time was just a fraction of what the UN was awarding to the Jews (see The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939, by Kenneth W. Stein)? Why would Palestinian Arabs embrace Zionist Jews who were primarily European in origin and who trumpeted their culture as decidedly superior to Arab culture?

These are the questions you ask when you want to see things from the other side of the story. Jews have always been good devil’s advocates – so why can’t we also advocate from the Palestinian/Arab narrative? Every attorney, every judge and everyone who has ever sat in a courtroom realises that there are at least two sides to every story. As we like to say, if you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions.

Embracing the ‘other’

My challenge to Jewish readers of this and my other columns is to see if you can embrace the other. Try Kant’s “enlarged mentality” – the ability to exercise empathy, to “stand up in the mind of others”. What is it like to be a Palestinian today, living under Israeli occupation? What is it like to be an Arab citizen of Israel? Do Arabs enjoy equal rights under the law? How can we have a Jewish state that is also a democracy – isn’t that an oxymoron?

Why doesn’t Israel have a constitution that equally protects the rights of all its citizens? Why do we insist on besieging Gaza, prohibiting Gazans from having a functioning airport, seaport and international highways, so that it can grow its economy (all of this was in place before Hamas won elections in 2006)? Why does Israel continue to build settlements in the West Bank, when it tells the world that it wants peace, and has invested so much publicity and time in negotiations, starting with Oslo?

I enjoyed Miral, but the film should not be particularly upsetting to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with the history of the conflict. As reviewer Omar El-Khairy writes in his Electric Intifada review: “In Schnabel’s film, the violence of the occupation is never dealt with explicitly and ends up being either aestheticized … or completely occluded.”

He adds: “Much has been made of the film’s supposedly pro-Palestinian stance and what has been presented as Schnabel’s bold position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. People will point to its depiction of everyday Israeli abuses and the interrogation scene in which Miral is whipped by Israeli security forces, but the calculated script lacks the political engagement and personal imagination necessary to rupture the dominant discourse on Israel and the Palestinians.”

That is how Miral looks to at least one Arab observer. See it yourself and make up your own mind just how much it challenges what you know about the conflict.

Features and documentaries on Israel-Palestine from the Palestinian perspective include:

Chronicle of a Disappearance, director Elia Suleiman
Life in Occupied Palestine, director Anna Baltzer
Occupation 101 – Voices of the Silenced Majority, directors Abdallah and Sufyan Omeish
Paradise Now, director Hany Abu-Assad
The Time That Remains, director Elia Suleiman
Tragedy in the Holy Land: The Second Uprising, director Denis Mueller

Jordan Elgrably is the executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. His views are his own and do not reflect that centre’s policies.

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