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Stepping inside the shoes of occupation deniers

Does watching footage of human rights abuses change the way people think about the occupation? A new film challenges us to put ourselves in the shoes of our political rivals in order to change their minds.

By Tom Pessah

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian boy during a protest in the West Bank city of Hebron, following US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on December 7, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian boy during a protest in the West Bank city of Hebron, following US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, on December 7, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Conversations across political worldviews are difficult. If we feel someone sees what is most fundamental to us entirely differently, how can we engage them respectfully? Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s groundbreaking new documentary “The Viewing Booth” provides us with a deeper look into the contradictory ways people interpret images of human rights abuses, and offers insights into how we might bridge those divides.

Alexandrowicz, an Israeli filmmaker who previously made “The Law in These Parts,” set up a lab at the American university where he studies and invited student volunteers to watch short films depicting the occupation — some filmed by Palestinians for Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, and others made by settlers or soldiers. The lab includes cameras that film the students as they watch the films, verbalizing their reactions and discussing them with the filmmaker.

“The Viewing Booth” focuses on one such student, Maia Levy, an American Jew born to Israeli parents. Throughout the film, she is seen watching several of the videos and then discussing them with Alexandrowicz. Six months later, Alexandrowicz shows her the footage of their previous discussions and reflects on it with her. While the procedure may seem complicated, the questions it raises are simple and fundamental: why do we react to images the way we do? If those who document this reality want to change our minds, at what point do they succeed?

For Alexandrowicz, Levy is an ideal viewer. She doesn’t already share his views, which means his film can potentially change them, and she is self-reflective and open-minded to an extent. Levy had already seen similar videos in an anthropology class and was initially shocked, but then she spoke with her Israeli mother who told her B’Tselem videos are usually staged and lack credibility.

To borrow a phrase from French social scientist Bruno Latour, this is a film that plays “chicken” — it comes close enough to placing the viewer within Levy’s shoes, as someone who tries to keep intact her suspicion toward the Palestinian testimonies, yet never crosses the line to doubt the testimonies themselves. This may seem strange: why would Alexandrowicz, a committed anti-occupation activist, allow himself to be so empathic to someone whose reactions seem, at times, callous and cynical?

An Israeli soldier attempts to block the view of a photographer as soldiers body search Palestinian men in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 22, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

An Israeli soldier attempts to block the view of a photographer as soldiers body search Palestinian men in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 22, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

As Jewish activists critical of the occupation and of the deeper structures that created it, we are constantly pulled by two conflicting emotions. When we view the reality “on the ground” — entire commercial districts in Hebron closed off to Palestinians by the army, nets to protect passersby from the trash settlers regularly throw at them, residents who must climb past walls to enter their own homes after the army sealed off the entrances, the demolition of schools – it can fill us with anger. And it is this righteous anger that creates a sense of urgency and a drive to commit ourselves to changing the situation.

However, simply exhibiting our rage is a cop-out. We Jewish activists are not the victims of the occupation — or of the original expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Our role is not to pretend we are Palestinians, but to take responsibility for transforming our own Jewish communities and to rid them of the racism that enables the situation to continue. We must interact with Jews who do not yet share our views, and this kind of communication requires empathy – the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of those whose views differ from ours in order to convince them.

And yet, we cannot simply forget the anger that propels us to do all this: our empathy must therefore be limited and cannot overshadow our commitment to our values.

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How can we pull this off? One way I use is to imagine the person with whom I am speaking (who is often younger than me) as my past self. I did not always hold the views I have now; just as I can empathize with my younger self, I can see current racist views someone holds as a prelude to more progressive ones and ask myself what it would take to make them undergo such a transition.

But Alexandrowicz’s film, and the way it dissects viewing practices, has helped me approach this problem in a new way. Anyone who grew up in Israel or within Zionist communities abroad has been exposed to racist depictions of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims in the media. Our gut reaction to mainstream images of “Arab violence” may be no different than that of our wider communities.

Yet we remember our community of Palestinian and progressive Israeli and international activists, and through our connection to them, we train ourselves to think critically. We learn to deconstruct this gut reaction, to ask where it comes from, what in the framing of those images triggered it, how is the mainstream media trying to make us respond, and how can we maintain our independence and critical faculties and respond differently.

The film helps us understand how some right-wing viewers do the same thing — but in reverse. Their initial reactions to such videos are empathic: why are the soldiers kicking the child? Can those really be setters throwing stones at a Palestinian family in its home? Why is the army not intervening?

Palestinian fire fighters try to extinguish a fire that was set by Israeli settlers, during an attack by Israeli settlers on the West Bank village of Asira al Qibliya, April 30, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Palestinian fire fighters try to extinguish a fire that was set by Israeli settlers in the West Bank village of Asira al Qibliya, April 30, 2013. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

After this initial response, however, they remember their connections to conservative friends and family members and start deconstructing and doubting the images: why does the Palestinian father continue to film his frightened children as they cry instead of putting down the camera and putting them to sleep? Why aren’t we told what the Palestinian child did before the soldier came and kicked him? Wasn’t that a response to something that we weren’t told about? Isn’t it all like a reality show, seemingly depicting real interactions but actually staged?

For those who have experienced the reality of the occupation, it’s easy to grow exasperated by such reactions. But if we want the Levys of this world to change their views, we need to have just enough empathy to put ourselves in their shoes, and think: how do we change that?

Alexandrowicz’s film offers no easy answers. But the film does challenge us as activists to think deeper, to figure out new and creative ways of approaching this problem in order to amplify the voices of the Palestinian families who managed to film these videos against all odds.

Tom Pessah is an Israeli sociologist and activist.

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