Commentary Magazine


Israelis Flock to See Iranian Oscar Winner

The Iranian regime’s reaction to the country’s Oscar victory, in which the Iranian film “A Separation” beat out Israeli contender “Footnote” for best foreign-language film, was indeed revealing, as Alana noted. But far more revealing was the fact that Israelis have been flocking to see the Iranian entry. For that one fact constitutes an eloquent rebuttal of all those who seek to paint Israel as being “undemocratic” and “anti-peace.”

Here’s how AP, after noting that “an impressive 30,000 Israeli filmgoers” have seen “A Separation” since it opened a week and a half ago, described the scene in Israel: “Ticket buyers stood in a long line on Sunday night at the Lev Smadar movie theater in Jerusalem. Omer Dilian, manager of the theater’s cafe, said ‘A Separation’ has drawn hundreds of viewers, even on weeknights … All the screenings in Lev theaters were sold out last Friday and Saturday.”

So let’s start with the obvious: “Undemocratic” countries don’t show films produced by their worst enemies in theaters throughout the country; they ban them. You won’t, for instance, be able to see “Footnote” at a movie theater in Tehran. That this even needs saying is a disgrace. But given the frequency with which Israel’s critics have been hurling the “undemocratic” label at it, it’s clear many self-proclaimed Western liberals need a refresher course in the basics of democracy.

What’s equally true, however, is that “anti-peace” regimes generally don’t want their citizens to learn about their neighbors’ culture, for very good reason: If a regime really seeks to prevent peace, dehumanization of the enemy is vital. Thus, it’s important to shield the public from anything that might cause it to view enemy nationals as people more or less like themselves. That’s precisely why, for instance, Israeli books are almost never translated into Arabic, nor are Israeli movies shown almost anywhere in the Arab world.

In contrast, a country that seeks peace is intensely interested in getting to know its neighbors’ human side, because humanization enhances the prospects for peace. That is why, for instance, you can easily find translated Arabic literature in Israel, and it’s also why “A Separation” has been such a hit. It’s not just that it’s an award-winning movie, though that obviously helps. It’s because Israelis, to quote AP again, were intrigued “by the rare glimpse it offered into the living rooms of a country they regard as a threat.”

And indeed, that was evident in the movie-goers’ responses. “You see them driving cars and going to movies and they look exactly like us,” wrote an Israeli reviewer. One audience member told AP “she was struck by Tehran’s modernity, which jarred with the image of black-clad women and religious conservatism that has become iconic of Iran”; another “said she was surprised by the humaneness of the Iranian bureaucrats portrayed in the film.”

So next time anyone you know gets confused abpit whether Israel is really democratic or peace-seeking, I recommend the following simple test: Just ask which country shows its enemies’ films and which doesn’t – and in which country the public flocks to see them.