Occupation Awareness

Acclaimed Israeli Film 'Bethlehem' Brings the War Back Into Our Homes

“In Israel you can’t ‘cop-out.’ It is not that sort of country and we are not that sort of people. America had to use the television screen to bring the horrors of the Vietnam War to the population. In Israel we don’t need television. The radio reports a clash in Lebanon with Israeli wounded. Ten minutes later the helicopter goes over your house on the way to Hadassah Hospital, and you look at your wife and both of you wonder whether your son is on board that helicopter. The war is in your drawing room without television.”

The above quote is from Israel After Begin, a book I published almost 30 years ago, and it shows how much Israel has changed for the worse in the last three decades, because today most Israelis do “cop-out.” Our confrontation with the Palestinians almost never reaches our living rooms, and a majority of my fellow citizens have shut their eyes and their ears to the distress of millions of Palestinians, human beings who live only a few miles away.

A new film, just released, has at least brought the conflict into our cinemas. When it is released on television, presumably next year, maybe it will at last return it to our living rooms. Bethlehem, directed by Yuval Adler, is set in the time of the Second Intifada around 2001. The movie, which had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival before being released here, tells the complex story of an Israeli Shin Bet (General Security Services) agent and his young Palestinian informer. The teenager’s brother is the local commander of the Al-Aksa terrorist group, and the main target of the Shin Bet.

Other elements are the Shin Bet bosses, officials of the Palestinian Authority, including the director of the local prison, the rival Fatah and Hamas fighters, and the members of an ordinary Palestinian family, torn apart by the constant tension and violence.

The director has explained that he did not seek to make a film about the political conflict, the big picture, but to “zero in on a few characters at the center of it.” His aim was to show the lives of the wanted men, the informers, and the handlers, to show “what was really going on in a place with so many power centers based on loyalty.”

In the event he has made a movie that is brutal, horrific, and riveting. All the parties to the conflict come out of it badly: the Israelis are depicted as nauseatingly cynical manipulators; the Palestinians are thuggish, murderous, and treacherous. Children are drawn into the savagery at a heartbreakingly young age. It is manifestly a “feel bad movie.”

Indeed, one of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t preach or take sides. Everyone can take what he wants from it. The self-righteous Israeli Jew can conclude that Arab society is incorrigibly violent and that the Palestinians, whose main purpose in life is to kill Jews, cannot be trusted. Palestinians and their sympathizers can point out the unscrupulous dishonesty and duplicity of the Israeli occupiers. But what emerges above all is the ugliness of the current situation, the inherent nastiness of so much of daily life in the Palestinian territories.

The main casualty of the movie, in my opinion, is the all too popular Israeli concept of “conflict management,” the thesis that, because the problem is insoluble, the current situation will inevitably continue and must be somehow managed. In the revoltingly colorful depiction of Naphtali Bennet, cabinet minister and leader of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party: “We have to live like my friend, a wounded soldier who has shrapnel in his ass.”

Anyone seeing Adler’s film must surely cry out: “This situation is totally unacceptable, it cannot continue!”

Bethlehem has already earned multiple awards here in Israel. After winning the prize for the best feature at the Haifa Film Festival, it received six Ophir Awards from the Israel Academy of Film and Television. Abroad, it has won accolades from A.O. Scott, the veteran New York Times critic, among others. Director Yuval Adler was the subject of a long profile in last weekend’s Haaretz Magazine, and the main actors have been interviewed on all the main television and radio talk shows.

When I saw it last week the cinema was sold out, an almost unique occurrence in today’s Israel. When the closing titles rolled on the screen, there was a shocked silence. I have no way of knowing the makeup of the audience, although on a Sabbath afternoon it was definitely secular, but maybe there is a chance that Bethlehem will force the Palestinian issue back into the consciousness of Israel’s Jewish citizens.

Editor's Note: On Sunday Israel announced that Bethlehem would be its official entry in the foreign film category of the Academy Awards.