Open Zion

03.29.13

East Jerusalem Doc 'My Neighborhood' Wins Peabody Award

It’s a brief film, only 25 minutes long, but it’s not easy to watch: Glass shatters in the pre-dawn darkness as uniformed men break into people’s homes, shouting “Get out! Hurry! Get out!” Old women and children are pushed and shoved; mothers weep as they comfort their children. “In blood and fire,” shout men in religious garb, smiles on their faces, “we’ll kick the Arabs out!”

But that’s not all we see in My Neighborhood, a short documentary about settler expansion in East Jerusalem that this week received the prestigious Peabody Award. Directed by Rebekah Wingert-Jabi and Julia Bacha, My Neighborhood chronicles the story of Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian area in what is today Municipal Jerusalem, where settlers were able to obtain court-backed approval to evict Palestinian residents from their homes—or, in the case of the film’s central story line, part of their home, a home in which the affected family has lived since 1956—but to which other Jewish Israelis soon came in solidarity and support. That story of Palestinian-Israeli cooperation and nonviolent protest is the heart of what the Peabodys describe as an “honest, hopeful documentary.”

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The film (which can be watched in its entirety here) centers on the life of Mohammed El Kurd, a middle schooler who one day comes home from school to find half his family’s house taken over, his grandmother in the hospital as a result of being manhandled by settlers who had literally walked into her home and started to remove furniture. He writes poetry about his family’s loss (“The house has fallen/ Shame! /You pile up the misery/ Shame!/ First it is my turn, then your turn, then the neighbor’s turn/Shame!/ Wake up, wake up!”), and dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, in order to win back his family’s property. “I hate them,” he says simply at one point, but adds: “I hate them for a reason.”

Mohammad’s life becomes entwined with those of two Jewish Jerusalemites, Zvi and Sara Benninga, brother and sister, children of American immigrants, who find the Sheikh Jarrah story intolerable and launch a grassroots effort to stop the evictions. Zvi makes very clear that the target of his activism is not individual settlers, but state policy: “You can find people who are violent and crazy in any society,” he says. “The problem is that here they’re backed up and supported [by the state].”

Mohammad’s grandmother admits that she has a hard time trusting the Jews who have suddenly shown up (“You’re telling me that they will leave their people and their religion and join us?”) but Mohammad himself has no such hesitation: “Some people say that these are Jews and Jews won’t do us any good. But I disagree…. They’re helping us and themselves. Why shouldn’t they?”

We see Sara Benninga dragged away by police; we hear her father, the son of Holocaust survivors, express the anxiety produced by watching his children arrested time and again. We hear the words of protestors, including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own sister-in-law, Ofra Ben Artzi, who says: “Where there is injustice and human rights violations, and people are thrown out of their homes, I have an obligation to be there.” In the two years that followed the launch of protests, evictions stopped in Mohammad’s neighborhood—but they continued elsewhere.

Produced by Just Vision, an organization dedicated to telling stories of Palestinian and Israeli grassroots nonviolence efforts (as in the acclaimed Budrus and Encounter Point), My Neighborhood is both powerful and moving, but by nature of its truthfulness, the hope the film tries to convey is necessarily limited.

“Sheikh Jarrah elicits hope,” Zvi Benninga says toward the end of My Neighborhood, “but it is set in a reality that scares me.”