Commentary Magazine


The Nonviolent Victory That Wasn’t

The New York Times ran a paean this week to a new documentary, Budrus, that purports to show how 10 months of nonviolent protests in 2003-04 persuaded Israel to reroute its security fence near the eponymous West Bank village. The story has only two flaws: the protests weren’t nonviolent, and the victory was at least partly due to Israel’s own legal system. And those flaws reflect a problem far larger than the film itself.

Though the movie shows occasional stone-throwing, most of the protests look “utterly peaceful,” noted reporter Ethan Bronner. But even some of the protesters themselves told Bronner otherwise.

“It is obvious that the filmmaker was not there,” said one, Jonathan Pollak. “The movie represents what happened as more nonviolent that it really was.”

And Pollak is no Israeli flack He co-founded the Israeli group Anarchists Against the Wall, which regularly joins Palestinian protests against the fence; he’s been injured and arrested repeatedly during anti-fence demonstrations; and he even toured the U.S. with the film’s hero, Ayed Morrar, to fundraise for the anti-Israel International Solidarity Movement.

Indeed, even the usually pro-Palestinian Haaretz admits that most anti-fence demonstrations involve “a great deal of stone throwing” — generally with slingshots, which are lethal weapons — and “many [Israeli] soldiers and Border Police are wounded.”

The other issue ignored by both the film and Bronner is the role of Israel’s Supreme Court. The Budrus protests coincided with hearings on what became a landmark decision ordering the fence rerouted to reduce harm to Palestinian villagers. The verdict was issued only in July 2004. But the government had already begun rerouting the fence in various locales during the previous six months, because the justices’ comments during the hearings made the likely outcome clear.

The film thus turned a highly complex situation (let’s not forget that the fence was built to begin with only to stop the murderous Palestinian terror of those years) into a simplistic tale of good Palestinians versus evil Israelis.

The same is true of almost every other movie about the conflict — and for good reason, as Israeli filmmaker Noa Ben Hagai acknowledged in a stunning interview with Haaretz last month.

After Ben Hagai’s documentary about her own family’s discovery of Palestinian relatives in the West Bank was shown at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival,

[i]nternational producers asked me what my next film was going to be, and hinted that they would be glad if it were about the occupation, but from an extreme direction, from a new angle showing how terrible the reality can be. It was clear that they wanted something very extreme and bloody about the Israeli reality, if possible something about apartheid, and to mix in the Holocaust, too, if possible. I understood that … if I want to succeed in the world, then I have to keep on dealing with political subjects.

In short, if you want money, critical acclaim, and festival screenings, the storyline has to be “good Palestinians versus bad Israelis,” regardless of the truth. And that means viewers should take all such films with a large grain of salt.

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