Free Speech, Palestinian Stories and the Oscars

21 April, 2021
Posters for Hany Abu-Assad's Oscar-nominated features, Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013).
Posters for Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated features, Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013).


[The Present did not win the statue on April 25th; the Oscar went to Two Distant Strangers.—Ed.]

Jordan Elgrably

Despite the increasing diversification of the film industry in liberal Hollywood, the odds are long against writer/director Farah Nabulsi’s The Present winning the Best Short Film Oscar award on Sunday. That’s not because her 24-minute story (now on Netflix) doesn’t pack a powerful wallop, for viewers are confronted with the galling reality of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank — we watch in anger and disappointment as a humiliated Palestinian father takes his daughter shopping, and has to grovel his way through checkpoints manned by trigger-happy soldiers. Starring the talented Saleh Bakri and child actor Maryam Kanj, The Present deserves an Oscar, but Palestinians have received nods from the Academy before and been snubbed on the big day.

Back in 2006, Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and was nominated in the same category for an Oscar, marking the first time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had recognized a film from “The Palestinian Territories” about Palestinian culture. Paradise Now lost out to the South African feature Tsotsi. Abu-Assad received a second Oscar nomination for his 2013 feature, Omar, but lost out to Italy’s The Great Beauty. The first time Abu-Assad received the Oscar nom, several Israeli and Jewish groups successfully petitioned the academy to change the entry from “Palestine” to “Palestinian territories,” as if to say Palestinian identity is one thing, but statehood is another — let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Farah Nabulsi is a British filmmaker of Palestinian heritage who lives in the United States, while her Oscar-nominated producer, Ossama Bawardi, is an independent producer working in Palestine and Jordan. Bawardi has a track record of supporting Palestinian narrative films, including working with Abu-Assad on Paradise Now and Annemarie Jacir on Salt of This Sea.

“My primary concern has always been that most people do not know enough about the reality Palestinians live under (if anything at all),” Nabulsi says. “Even when they do, they do not necessarily feel enough with Palestinians — they do not empathize enough.” Nonetheless, she reports that she has already seen her career buoyed just from the Oscar nomination. “It seemed to be opening opportunities even from when we made it to the shortlist, let alone a nomination. The BAFTA nomination and recent win has also lent some great interest and momentum. I have written my first feature film, The Teacher, which I hope to direct soon. I hope that the Oscar nomination helps make that sooner rather than later.”

Would taking home the Oscar for The Present do anything for Palestinians that decades of activism has failed to achieve?

Hany Abu-Assad, speaking from his home in Amsterdam, wasn’t placing his bets. He agreed with the William Goldman axiom that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” and that the industry is evolving. “My experience is what you know today is no longer accurate tomorrow,” he said. But in terms of whether an Academy Award for a film about the occupation and oppression of Palestinians could signal a sea change?

“We like the idea that films can make a difference, but at the end of the day it’s not movies that make a difference in the big picture, it’s politics, and politics sometimes uses movies to sell ideas, so the more money you have, you know, the more you can sell ideas.”

Abu-Assad is of the opinion that the United States is in so much political and economic turmoil, it’s headed for a major downfall. He also suggested that despite all its military and economic power, “Israel has become passé…Israel and Palestine are irrelevant in the big picture when you look at the fact that we are on the verge of collapse, for all humans, in terms of the environment and the fact that we have a world economy based on corruption and greed. Can you imagine? Our economy is built on greed — how I can be more rich than you? Which genius expects that this economy is sustainable?”

We know that capitalism is completely unsustainable, which partially explains why Europe has put in place stronger social nets than the United States, where greed is the cult of the billionaire class. Meanwhile, justice for Palestinians, Abu-Assad suggests, has to take a ticket and get in line, as the world faces certain collapse, and disaster.

As an American, you want to understand the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has continued unrelentingly since 1948, costing U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. As a Jew, you have a received narrative about the heroism that came with the creation of Israel, and how with Israeli independence came several Arab-Israeli wars, followed by the Palestinian intifadas of 1987 and 2000. As an Arab, you view the end of the existence of Palestine as a crushing defeat, which Palestinians themselves call the Nakba, or catastrophe; and with the Nakba came the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, Palestinian exile, and the 1967 Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian writer/directors Hany Abu-Assad and Sameh Zoabi (r) with Jordan Elgrably in Los Angeles.
Palestinian writer/directors Hany Abu-Assad (l) and Sameh Zoabi (r) with Jordan Elgrably in Los Angeles.

With the recognition of Hany Abu-Assad’s films Paradise Now and Omar, the entertainment industry acknowledged that there is not just one narrative; that the Israeli-Jewish story must make room for Palestinian stories about themselves. But questions of identity and identification are rarely without complexity, and Abu-Assad is the first to acknowledge this. For decades, Israelis and some Jews in diaspora did not acknowledge the Palestinians as a people, but this has begun to change, not only due to evolving political discourse, but also in part as a result of popular culture which is creating awareness of an alternative Palestinian narrative.

In a conversation I had with Abu-Assad in 2006 as Paradise Now was winning awards, he said, “I don’t make films to create awareness. I make films to resist. There is a civilized way to resist, by using art to tell your story, or the uncivilized, violent way. I don’t believe in bullets. I make films to tell stories, and to have a dialogue, but without denying the rights of others to have their stories.” At the time, he declared that, “Israel as a state denies our stories; their leaders are using fear in order to make others inhuman and to continue this injustice. And you know, I don’t understand this fear? When you are stronger than me, and you are afraid of me,” he says, “you don’t need politics to solve your problems; you need a psychoanalyst.”

Today the writer-director, whose next film, Huda’s Salon, also speaks of contemporary Palestinian life, says, “I am using Palestine as a metaphor for, let’s say, human experience…Palestine for me is the weathervane, the compass, this is how I see Palestine now. If you want to know if somebody is intelligent and has integrity, and also is a brave politician, man or woman, a brave artist, you ask him for his opinion about Palestine. If he is corrupt he won’t dare to tell you his honest opinion about what’s going on there. If you want to test anything in the world, just ask about Palestine, and you’ll know…It’s the only case in the world where if you are honest about it, you will be punished. Everyone knows that.”

#Humboldt3 BDS activists Ronnie Barkan, Stavit Sinai and Majed Abusalama, in Berlin in 2019 (Photo Andreu Jerez, courtesy Truthout)
#Humboldt3 BDS activists Ronnie Barkan, Stavit Sinai and Majed Abusalama, in Berlin in 2019 (Photo Andreu Jerez, courtesy Truthout)


A Conversation with BDS activists Stavit Sinai and Ronnie Barkan

Here we are, 15 years later, and Israel’s military occupation of 1967 has only become more entrenched. Gaza remains besieged (putting one in mind of the Warsaw ghetto in WWII), the illegal West Bank settlements have expanded, and life for Palestinians inside Israel resembles South Africa’s apartheid of the 1980s more than 21st-century democracy. And as Abu-Assad has pointed out, we’re penalized when we talk about it.

In response to Israel’s strangehold over all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has gained so much momentum that the State of Israel has become unnerved, and continually pushes back against pro-BDS activists, in the United States and Europe. Speech critical of Israel is heavily policed in France, for instance, and sometimes its critics are accused of anti-Semitism. Even so, the BDS movement seems to be gaining ground, as did the anti-apartheid movement to reform South Africa.

The case of the #Humboldt3 in Germany is merely one example of a state’s attempt to silence Israel’s critics. In June 2017, BDS activists Majed Abusalama, Stavit Sinai and Ronnie Barkan were present at Berlin’s Humboldt University to protest against Israeli Knesset speaker Aliza Lavie, whom they identified as one of the Israeli leaders responsible for the 2014 onslaught on Gaza. The three were arrested by German police and brought to trial two years later.

For me as a writer, an editor and a free speech advocate, the oppression of free speech — whether it is those who speak against Israeli apartheid and persecution of Palestinians; the injustice of American policing of people of color; the Moroccan and French silence about the 2,700-kilometer separation wall between Morocco and the Saharaouis; or any number of other human rights abuses — what is happening to activists and journalists today is truly disheartening. And the policing and oppression of free speech has only worsened during the pandemic, as a Washington Post story pointed out.

I spoke to Stavit Sinai and Ronnie Barkan the other day. Both are Israelis who live in Berlin and regularly stage protests critical of their homeland. Sinai did her PhD in sociology with a specialization in the sociology of knowledge. Her book, Sociological Knowledge and Collective Identity (Routledge, 2019) examines the connection between Israeli sociology and Zionism. Ronnie Barkan, who formerly worked in IT and taught mathematics, remains an unpaid BDS activist who derives his living from crypto-currency investments. Here is an excerpt of our conversation over Zoom:

Stavit Sinai: The [German] court wanted to represent me as someone who is unbalanced, although that day we were protesting against somebody who has committed crimes [in Gaza in 2014 with ‘Operation Protective Edge’] on a psychopathic scale…The Israeli official we were protesting against was one of those responsible for the obliteration of 89 families in Gaza…What is relevant is that war criminals are walking around without accountability, and it’s our role as civil actors to confront them. They are persecuting activists who are protesting Israel’s crimes against humanity.

Jordan Elgrably: Why is Germany so adamantly pro-Israel? Obviously there’s still the guilt of the Holocaust, but that’s getting to be an old story. Why is it that today, when Germany is an advanced democracy, that it doesn’t recognize Palestinian human rights; why have Germans bought so much into the hasbara?

Ronnie Barkan: First of all, as you said they have this guilt trip about the Holocaust…but other than that—and obviously if there’s anything to be learned from the Holocaust it’s not to support a race-based state, which as a matter of policy differentiates between what it regards as the superhumans and the subhumans, based on racial or ethnic characteristics. The other thing, I think for Germans it is an easy fix to support Israel — to blindly support the Zionist state — because that also allows them not to look in the mirror, to actually deal with their inherent, deep-rooted racism.

JE: Do you feel, living in Berlin as you do, that Germans can be racist today, if not against Jews, against Turks or Muslims or Africans, refugees…?

RB: I think racism in Germany is a very present thing, not towards us but towards other minorities like Muslims etc, and also in the German psyche, just like Zionists who see everything as if they are better than and more worthy than other people, I think this is also related to the German volk, but Stavit knows much more about German society than I do.

SS: There is the Herrenvolk foundation in politics — by the way, the same basis that allows apartheid, as an ethnocracy, so there is a similar historical background from the 19th century. This is just to say that…Germany is an ethnic democracy, so it has an ethnocratic, ethnocentric base that actually constitutes its political life, and this means that white Protestant males are the dominant group, and everything derives from that. So there is a race-based ethnocratic foundation in German politics that hasn’t been fundamentally challenged since the 19th century. It is similar to Israeli apartheid at the moment.

JE: It’s a good point historically and academically, but on a personal level, have you observed, heard, seen, felt racism in Berlin?

SS: Well, I’m a privileged white woman and although sometimes I get some unpleasant feedback or interactions when approaching public services or bureaucracy, this is to say that there’s some kind of alienation towards foreigners. Still, I’m a privileged woman in society, but when I hang out with my girlfriends, who are not white privileged as I am, I definitely see a horrible treatment that they receive. I’m talking about friends of mine who were born and raised here in Germany who are people of color. And it’s not just one case; there is structural racism in Germany society for sure.

RB: Two friends who are German of Arab descent, one Palestinian and one Palestinian-Iranian, they were born and grew up in Germany, it took them a while to understand that they were being told that they are not fully German, they were living with this ambiguity for such a long time. They grew up in Germany but found they were not looked upon as real Germans by the society.

JE: Could you each tell me how you both, as born and bred Israeli Jews, are such pro-Palestinian activists? How did that happen?

SS: It’s hard to summarize in a few words because it’s an ongoing process and it took many years. I think even before I met Ronnie, I had some liberal Zionist notions that Ronnie helped me to deconstruct. But first, I dodged the military. I said that I was suicidal and they let me go after a few weeks. Back then I wasn’t political, I was a Zionist; I just wanted to dodge the military because it didn’t work with my lifestyle. I didn’t go through the indoctrination and brainwashing that most of the population is going through, and then instead of going to the military, I went to the university where I met radicals, and students who were involved in the Anarchists Against the Wall movement and other coalitions, so I was exposed to Israeli crimes. Before university I didn’t even know where Palestine was; there was no remarks of it, the map was like one entity, one block, from the river to the sea. This was in the early 2000s.

JE: The map of Israel, as far as you knew, included the West Bank, was all of Palestine?

SS: I had no recollection of any Green Line whatsoever. And I still believe that if you go to Zionist schools [today] they wouldn’t show the Green Line. By the way, I don’t think that matters anymore now, I think that line is actually instilled for propagandist reasons. There is the small occupation of ’67 and the big occupation of ’48, and ’48 is the meaningful one and the one we have to attend to. No, it was just one block and like everyone around me, I was just a white supremacist who thought I was entitled to everything. There were no kinds of demarcations in my consciousness, but as I went to uni and got radicalized, I got exposed to one horrible case where, it was in 2006 I believe, where an IDF soldier killed a Palestinian girl and went to verify the execution. The procedure is called “execution after death,” and that really shocked me. I couldn’t believe it, and then I joined a group of students who were protesting this…Ronnie has helped me understand that the Occupation is not the real issue. Israel committed that crime not only in ’67 but in ’48 and beyond, and this what you have to keep your eyes on—not on the crimes committed in ’67, but on the whole scope of genocidal endeavor.

RB: I think we’re all lucky in a way, to overcome the brainwashing in whatever we were told, certainly growing up in the Zionist race state (it is a race state from the get-go)…I remember when I used to pick up my nieces from kindergarten and you walk into their class and it says My Israel, you have the map, which obviously has no borders on it, it’s the entire land, also very stereotypical imagery on the map. In the Negev you have the token Bedouin, things like that, and it we have the anthem which is a racist sort of anthem and you have the prime minister and the chief of staff and it’s all very… the brainwashing starts very early on. There’s military all around…I was contemplating the idea of whether I was willing to serve in the army or not, for about six years, at the same time I was contemplating whether I should eat animals, becoming vegetarian or not, then I later became vegan, and I think in both cases, after a long time of living in this sort of dilemma, eventually something happened, there was a sort of eureka moment, when I realized, I got drafted into the Israeli army, because I couldn’t convince myself that I wouldn’t be some sort of parasite, or traitor, because that’s what we learned to believe. If you’re a good person you want to serve your society, you have to serve in the army, it’s kind of a given. I got drafted but beyond anything I realized first and foremost I was a human being, and the only thing I believed in was something that is universal. So then the only thing I could be a traitor of was a traitor of humanity…

JE: How did you get out of the army?

RB: I fought the system for about a year and a half, because I was already in the system. I wasn’t smart enough, like Stavit, to get out of the army in the first place, and once you enter the military it’s much more difficult to get out. So I never did anything as a soldier, it was just a long process to convince the authorities to release me, to get exempted. I went to physicians and mental health doctors and tried to convince them, but I would say I’m not part of this, not part of your game.

SS: [To return to the #Humboldt3 trial] Ronnie and Majed got acquitted after three sessions in court, in a trial longer than two years, and I got convicted with the minimum fine of 450 euros. As an act of civil disobedience, I refuse to pay it, so I would spend 30 days in jail. But they haven’t issued the fine yet so I’m actually looking forward to keep engaging with them.

JE: They may just drop it. But promise me if you do go to jail, write about it. I mean 30 days in a German jail for being an Israeli, pro-Palestinian activist? It’s almost a movie.

SS: In my opinion, they are not issuing the fine because they know what’s at stake.

JE: They don’t want the adverse publicity.

SS: They would rather smear me with lies, saying I was the violent one although I was the victim [who got punched in the face]. They flipped the whole story upside down. I’m more than willing to continue challenging them on the principal of civil disobedience…You can be a Zionist only if you are deluded.

JE: With respect to what happened at Humboldt, there are witnesses, video, etc, so it seems it’s difficult to paint you as the villain in the story.

SS: For me the whole trial was illegal and that’s because they found me guilty of a crime they didn’t accuse me of, so there’s no correlation between accusation and punishment, which is completely illegal. [The misbegotten trial] has just intensified our work as activists. We’ve actually furthered our actions since, and we’re going to go even further.


Further Reading
The Humboldt 3 blog.
How apartheid declarations are shifting political opinion in Washington.

Jordan Elgrably is an American, French and Moroccan writer and translator whose stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in many anthologies and reviews, including Apulée, Salmagundi, and the Paris Review. Editor-in-chief and founder of The Markaz Review, he is the cofounder and former director of the Levantine Cultural Center/The Markaz in Los Angeles (2001–2020). He is the editor of Stories From the Center of the World: New Middle East Fiction (City Lights, 2024). Based in Montpellier, France and California, he tweets @JordanElgrably.

apartheidFarah Nabulsifree speechHany Abu-AssadOscarsPalestine/IsraelThe Present

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