Saving Israel from itself: Gitai’s nostalgic but uplifting ode to peace

Sophie Dulac Distribution | Israeli director Amos Gitai is back in the occupied territories, 35 years after his "Field Diaries".

In “West of the Jordan River”, which screens at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight this week, veteran Israeli director Amos Gitai looks to grassroots movements for reasons to remain hopeful about peace in the Middle East.


There’s another film festival on the shores of the Mediterranean, and it’s a world apart from the glamour and hoopla of Cannes. It has its own red carpet, though this one is laid on the rubble of homes destroyed by war. In the distant Palestinian enclave of Gaza, the third edition of the Red Carpet Festival has just drawn to a close. It featured around 40 films by Palestinian and foreign directors, but no movie stars to stride the 100-metre red rug. Organisers said its length was designed to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, with which the British government committed itself to the creation of a Jewish home.

According to Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, that home is now on a path to self-destruction, blinded by ideologues incapable of compromise. His latest film takes him back to the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories, 35 years after he documented life there in his seminal work “Field Diaries”. An untidy documentary, but moving, insightful and surprisingly optimistic, “West of the Jordan River” is named after the waterway that both Israelis and Palestinians claim as the border of their homeland. It is made with the urgency of a now 66-year-old man who has never given up on his hopes for peace, but who senses that time is running out.

“We have ten years to save Israel and the Zionist project from suicide,” says prominent writer and reporter Ari Shavit, in one of several interviews that punctuate the narrative. The former Haaretz columnist notes that failure to bring about a viable two-state solution will inevitably lead to one of two outcomes: the incorporation of a much larger and disenfranchised Arab population and thus the end of democracy, or the end of the Israeli state’s Jewish character. Either way, it will spell the end of the Zionist project.

Point of no return

Like much of Gitai’s recent work, “West of the Jordan River” is steeped in nostalgia for former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination in 1995 left the peace process orphaned. More than two decades on, the vacuum is still there, leading to inertia and paralysis. “There is no neo-Rabinism,” says Shavit. “There are no longer the political, cultural and intellectual elites that can carry the fight.”

Concomitant with the decline of the progressive camp is the rise of hardliners one simply cannot talk to, like Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, who rebukes Gitai for using the word “occupied”. There is no such thing as “occupied territories”, she claims, referring to land seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967, and since then pockmarked with settlements built in violation of numerous UN resolutions. “The settlements are not a problem, because this is our land,” Hotovely adds, invoking Holy Scripture, and thus precluding all possible debate. “We each have our own narrative,” notes Tzipi Livni, a moderate former foreign minister. “The problem now is that a small group of ideologues is leading us to the point of no return.”

But Gitai finds hope elsewhere, looking beyond a stultified and radicalised political establishment that has largely given up on peace, to reveal a string of initiatives emanating from civil society. Some are well known, such as Breaking the Silence, the much-maligned organisation that collects testimonies from Israeli army veterans about their service in the Palestinian Territories. Others are less prominent, including The Parents Circle, a group that brings together families bereaved by the conflict, who may speak different languages and belong to different faiths, but whose “tears are the same”.

Often very interesting, the interviews stress how hard it is for the warring sides to escape the prism of their respective existential fixations: on the one hand, the Israeli fear of annihilation, and on the other, the seething sense of injustice that haunts Palestinians. Regrettably, while Gitai talks to several Israeli politicians and intellectuals, not all of whom think like him, the absence of Palestinian counterparts generates an imbalance. The Palestinians he does meet are always ordinary folk; never devoid of interest, but inevitably less articulate.

‘Peace is made with enemies’

A recurrent theme throughout the film is the notion that there are indeed two opposing camps, but not the ones we are accustomed to. In Gitai’s view, the fundamental divide is not between Israelis and Palestinians, or Jews and Arabs; but between those who believe peaceful coexistence is both possible and necessary, and those who don’t. While the extremists on either side of the conflict naturally hate each other, the filmmaker contends that they actually work hand in hand to achieve the same objective: the impossible annihilation of the enemy, and hence a festering status quo.

Amos Gitai finds hope in these Jewish settlers who survived a knife attack but want to reach out to neighbouring Arab villages.
Amos Gitai finds hope in these Jewish settlers who survived a knife attack but want to reach out to neighbouring Arab villages.

It was a Jewish extremist who killed Rabin, Gitai points out, but his actions were aided by the unprecedented bombing campaign carried out at the time by Palestinian extremists in order to derail the peace process. Looking for a way out of this vicious cycle, the film draws from past interviews with the slain prime minister. The point, Rabin says in his interviews, was to avoid creating the sort of terrain upon which extremism and hatred of Israel prosper. And the only way to do this is through step by step measures that prove the two people can coexist.

In one of the most poignant exchanges, a Jewish settler expresses her readiness to engage with the Arab dwellers of neighbouring villages, despite having been stabbed by a Palestinian assailant while pregnant. “We are the ones who actually live side by side,” she says, not the politicians. If an understanding is to be reached between foes, Gitai suggests, it is by involving the very people who live in and around the areas of friction. And to those who label him naïve, pointing to the acrimony and hatred built up over decades of conflict, he answers, naturally, with a quote by Rabin: “Peace is made with enemies, sometimes dire ones.”

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