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Film review: Arab citizen of Israel, member of the enemy

What is a Muslim woman’s place in a country where Jewish suffering is the dominant cultural theme? A new Israeli film tells the story of Hadeel, a 27-year-old Arab woman who teaches at a Jewish school in central Israel, and explores the difficulty of never fully belonging.

By Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber

Dove’s Cry, Ganit Ilouz’s new documentary (playing at New York City’s “The Other Israel” film festival, November 16-18), tells the story of a charismatic Arabic teacher in a Jewish elementary school in Israel. Edited by Sara Salomon, the film speaks to both the possibilities as well as the limitations of implementing an intercultural Arabic learning program in a Jewish school. Dove’s Cry follows the journey of 27-year-old Hadeel over the span of an entire school year, the film focuses on her successes and struggles with her Jewish students and colleagues, as well as her immediate family. The film is a sobering testament to the rigid boundaries within Israeli society, and the complicated dynamics of acceptance and exclusion.

Hadeel is a single Muslim woman and citizen of Israel. She lives in Wadi Ara in northern Israel, and makes her way every day to the town of Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, to teach her sixth grade students both spoken Arabic and about Arab culture. This vision is part of a welcomed attempt to incorporate the Arabic language into the educational system in a more holistic way (and early on in the children’s lives). But while Hadeel is fully accepted by her fellow teachers, and mostly beloved by her students, navigating between her Muslim identity and what is regarded in public as the culture of the enemy, is often challenging.

On a personal level, Hadeel is loved by everyone. She is charming, smart, funny and attractive. Viewers can’t help but fall in love with her. The interpersonal relationships unfolding on the screen are often heartwarming and encouraging. Even the most cynical among us can feel hope and optimism at the sight of Hadeel chatting with a fellow teacher about the horrors of dating, getting her nails done in red polish by another teacher, and a birthday dance performance by adoring students. To the viewer outside Israel, it seems like a potentially happy co-existence between Muslims and Jews, despite the complicated political situation. But no more than 20 minutes into the film, as viewers witness the first of many selective memorial ceremonies – reality bites hard.

Exhibit number one: Holocaust Remembrance Day. As an Arab citizen, Hadeel feels excluded from the memorial ceremony. The many texts read at the ceremony recite the narrative of Jews as victims, leaving no room for recognizing any other victims in history, let alone those who were victimized by Zionism. The national anthem is heard clearly emphasizing the uniqueness of the Jewish state, excluding Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. The camera captures Hadeel standing, yet still appearing very much alone. The other memorial services are no different. When she tries to voice her feelings she is promptly schooled by the principal:

Hadeel: “It was hard for me. Hatikva is a Jewish song only. We do not have a joint song, but we are citizens of this country too.”

Principal: “It really hurt me that you didn’t identify with my pain. You can’t compare the Holocaust with any other pain.”

Hadeel: I didn’t mean to hurt you when I stood up and everyone sang the national anthem. Everyone is looking at me. It is very unpleasant – I feel that I don’t belong to the place where I was born.”

While the idea of intercultural education sounds good on paper, in a country so consumed by Zionist narratives (and where Jewish suffering is a dominant cultural theme), the path for accepting other perspectives couldn’t be any farther away. Hadeel has no problem tackling tough questions about stereotypes and prejudice against Muslims in the classroom. Even when she is clearly hurt after being called a “stinking Arab” by one student, she is still able to handle it with grace. Hadeel is naturally optimistic, although at one point in the movie she lets her guard down, saying “I don’t know if I can do this much longer, I am exhausted.” After one of many bomb shelter drills, one of the teachers asks her: “Do you also go to the shelter in your village?” “Yes,” she replies, “we are Israeli citizens too.”

While the film captures many universal and personal difficulties, such as remaining single in the face of a push from her traditional culture to marry, and the need to feel attractive and accepted despite wearing a hijab, Hadeel’s main struggle is devoted to maintaing her cultural and political identity.

The last scene of the film demonstrates the power of the political reality in Israel, one that often seems stranger than fiction. As Hadeel prepares for her end-of-school year class party, the celebration is interrupted by the piercing sound of a siren, indicating yet another shelter drill (students exit the classroom and make their way to a bomb shelter). As the students file out, Hadeel is left alone – her exclusion starkly illustrated by the long shot of her sitting in the back of the classroom. She then slowly picks up her bag and exit the class. There, but never fully belonging.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber is a professor of Media and Journalism at Suffolk University in Boston.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. ‘Principal: “It really hurt me that you didn’t identify with my pain. You can’t compare the Holocaust with any other pain.”

      Hadeel: I didn’t mean to hurt you when I stood up and everyone sang the national anthem. Everyone is looking at me. It is very unpleasant – I feel that I don’t belong to the place where I was born.”’

      I guess African Americans, descendants of slaves, have an even more powerful argument, being surrounded, in the 1950′s at any rate, by the descendants of their ancestors’ oppressors in the South. And, indeed, many whites in that South did see their neighbors as foreigners. Yet things have progressed.

      The violence unleashed by slavery and later Jim Crow America was not as condensed as the Holocaust, but it lasted over 150 years, damaging generation after generation.

      Israeli Arabs are not responsible for the Holocaust in any way, notwithstanding some visit by a local indigenous Arab to Nazi Germany; indeed, that visit pales before what plantation owners did. Nor should Israeli Arabs be mute to their own travails as price of their citizenship or benefit to Holocaust descendants. It’s silly and emotionally exploitative.

      But the film was made. And that is progress.

      ‘After one of many bomb shelter drills, one of the teachers asks her: “Do you also go to the shelter in your village?” “Yes,” she replies, “we are Israeli citizens too.”’

      Shelters for all.

      Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        I honestly don’t care what she thinks about the Holocaust. I don’t need her to identify with my pain. I expect several things –

        1. Understanding and accepting that Israel is a Jewish state, with the anthem and everything. She is part of Israel as much as I am and deserves the same, but she should also be under the same obligations. One of which is loyalty.
        2. The courtesy to stand up when required and participate in ceremonies like a dignified person.

        I honestly cannot understand why the Holocaust memorial day should have “room for recognizing any other victims in history”. It’s a Holocaust memorial day. You are free to recognize other victims whenever you wish. If I’ll participate in an event about Arab suffering during 1948, wouldn’t it be extremely stupid of me to require they also leave room for the Holocaust?!

        Now, myself and most of Israelis would not have any problem with recognizing this suffering if Arabs would disconnect it from the creation of the state. I mean that I’d love to study the stories and I will be truly be sorry for the unfortunate fate people suffered. I would not, for an instant, would consider that Israel is somehow sinful by its very nature, or that it has less right to exist due to these events. That would be like demanding that Germany would be destroyed every Holocaust memorial day. Yet they are always connected and most Israelis would not participate in such events.

        Reply to Comment
        • Elisabeth

          “Now, myself and most of Israelis would not have any problem with recognizing this suffering if Arabs would disconnect it from the creation of the state.”

          Really? How good of you.

          (The arrogance and entitlement of Israeli’s of your sort never ceases to amaze me.)

          Reply to Comment
          • Vadim

            Are you also amazed by Arabs that cannot recognize the Holocaust unless you also mention the Nakba in the same sentence? (Or better yet – say they are the same, or even better – say that they suffered the REAL Holocaust)

            Are you amazed by Americans that can recognize the suffering caused by Fat Man and Little Boy but would not consider this to be a reason to question the right of the US to exist?

            Are you amazed by people from Great Britain that recognize the suffering caused by the bombing of Dresden but fail to see why would anyone think their country is inherently evil?

            Are you also amazed by people that don’t know you yet form strong opinion about people “of your sort”?

            Reply to Comment
          • Vadim, for some, I don’t think it is the Holocaust that is the focus as such but the perceived use of the Holocaust to shield present acts and policy. Nakba has become a counter ploy, yes, just as the right of return is a mirror for the Law of Return. All of these notions, on both sides, are flung out like ground to air weapons to destroy the other’s conceptual vessels.

            I am much more concerned with the prosecution of actual harm when possible. The charged assailant to the 19 year old soldier is in custody. Those arsonists announcing a revenge attack for this act should also be found and tried. This kind of reciprocity is still possible in this conflict laden area.

            While there are a few Americans who would like to see their land substantially changed because of the Native American dispossession, the overwhelming number feel just as you do about Israel when pressed. Israel isn’t going anywhere. Talk otherwise is more conceptual flak against opponents doing the same thing.

            This film is not about any of this, really, certainly not suicide bombing and dismantling Israel, but of an Arab citizen who can’t fit into the majority patriotism very well. It is not surprising, and that she is there, speaking, is one of the things that makes Israel unique. This is about the civic culture (to be) created among citizen Jews and Arabs. I do think it has someway to go, and I think laws must be changed. Beyond that, it is all up to all of you; it always has been.

            Reply to Comment
          • Vadim

            The Holocaust is indeed used as a shield, but I don’t think it’s used for specific acts or a policy. It’s used as the reason why Israel has a right to exist (That’s why it’s invoked in the context of Iran, their military nuclear program is perceived as an existential threat).

            The murderer is in custody because he was captured, I agree that the arsonists (if there are such) should also be arrested and sentenced.

            “Israel isn’t going anywhere” – first of all, quite a few people disagree with you and work to make this remark false. Secondly, this is not something we can take for granted. This is something we need to work to keep.

            The right of return is not a mirror to the law of return. It’s a failure to accept Israel’s existence. It’s an attempt to change the outcome of the 1948 war.

            My first comment was about the claims in the article, the second was for Elisabeth. Israeli Arabs are seldom too sensitive. If a Jew can be both a Jew and an Englishman or German, I don’t see any reason why an Arab cannot be both a Arab and Israeli. It’s a Jewish country, get over it and enjoy your life.

            Reply to Comment
          • Vadim

            Often too sensitive, not seldom…

            Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      If these are typical of the problems facing Arab Israelis, then Arab Israelis are some of the luckiest Arabs in the world.

      Reply to Comment
    3. The Trespasser

      A bullshit review of a bullshit propaganda docufiction (not quite the same as documentary) movie.

      1) Arabic is taught in MOST schools in Israel, however most students opt for European languages, for obvious reasons.

      2)”navigating between her Muslim identity and what is regarded in public as the culture of the enemy”

      Author makes it sound like while most Israeli Jews view Muslims as the enemy, Muslims does not view Jews similarly.

      3) “culture of the enemy” term might be in wide use at Suffolk university, but not in Israel.

      4) “As an Arab citizen, Hadeel feels excluded from the memorial ceremony”

      Feels excluded = does not give a dead rat’s ass about 6 000 000 exterminated Jews.

      5) “…leaving no room for recognizing any other victims in history…”

      Bullshit. Just bullshit.

      6) “The national anthem is heard clearly emphasizing the uniqueness of the Jewish state”

      Yes. There is only one Jewish state, which makes said state rather unique. What is the problem?

      7) excluding Israel’s non-Jewish citizens.

      Excluding from what? The hymne reflects reality: Jews were dreaming and hoping to have own state for over two thousands of years, while said “Israel’s non-Jewish citizens” (an euphemism for Arabs, however there are more non-Jews) did everything they could to ensure that Jews remain oppressed forever.

      8) “It was hard for me. Hatikva is a Jewish song only. We do not have a joint song, but we are citizens of this country too.”

      a) Hatikva is not a Jewish song only.

      b) Palestinian Arabs were never interested to have any kind of join Arab-Jewish state

      c) I’m still to hear about an Arab who would write a joint song.

      9) “While the idea of intercultural education sounds good on paper, in a country so consumed by Zionist narratives, the path for accepting other perspectives couldn’t be any farther away.”

      Zionist narratives. That’s what prevents accepting other perspectives. Right.

      Me, silly, thought that it is due to the fact that Muslim women face death penalty for dating non-Muslim men, or that a significant part of non-Jewish citizens are doing what they could to destroy the state.

      10)”and where Jewish suffering is a dominant cultural theme”

      Professor has been staying in Suffolk for too long and had lost the sense of the real.

      Reply to Comment

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