Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians began last month, at about the same time that the movie The Attack was playing in area theaters. The Attack is a film about a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv and its effect on Dr. Amin Jaafari, a secular Muslim who is deeply integrated into Israeli Jewish society. His complacency is threatened, however, when he discovers that his wife, Siham, a Christian Arab from Nazareth with no history of political extremism, was the suicide bomber.
Directed by Ziad Doueiri, a Lebanese-American who worked as a cameraman for Quentin Tarentino, The Attack garnered a number of positive reviews, in part for its even-handed approach.
I went to see the film because I was curious to see what someone from Lebanon had to say on the subject. In a Jerusalem Report article, Doueiri expressed a similar curiosity: “I was brought up believing that all Israelis were gung-ho Goliaths,” he explained. “But when I arrived [in Israel], I found that I was working with people who think like me and have a decent perspective of the conflict.”
Reading this, I began to wonder: what would it be like to get to know — perhaps even to have coffee with — a man like Doueiri?
For the first two-thirds of the movie, it seemed to me we might share a “decent perspective of the conflict.” But I began to question that view when the characters in the movie explained that Siham was radicalized because she saw the aftermath of the Israeli army’s incursion into Jenin in 2002.
The line that relates this information to the audience is almost a throwaway. As the Village Voice review explained, “We discover which particular controversy radicalized her, but neither Jaafari nor the movie makes much of that.” Indeed, for those less knowledgeable about the conflict, “Jenin” is merely a placeholder for generalized suffering by Palestinians at the hands of Israelis.
But “Jenin” refers to something quite specific: in response to a suicide bombing in Netanya that killed 29 people, the Israeli army reoccupied Jenin, which was seen as the heart of the West Bank terrorist infrastructure. Rather than relying on airstrikes, Israel sought to minimize Palestinian casualties by sending in ground troops. A total of 23 Israeli soldiers, most of them reservists, were killed.
Immediately following the incursion, allegations of a “massacre” of thousands of Palestinian civilians began to spread and were repeated by credulous members of the media. The truth was later confirmed by a United Nations investigation: there were 52 Palestinian deaths. While the numbers were dismal, this was no massacre.
Many media outlets recanted and some apologized for spreading misinformation. Nevertheless, the damage to Israel’s reputation was done. Meanwhile the myth of the Jenin massacre lives on, ready to be resurrected whenever its destructive power is needed.
Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote that he was bemused by the invitations he received from “well-meaning” European and North American groups to spend time in “idyllic retirement” with Palestinian artists and intellectuals so they would get to know and like each other. Oz explained that Israelis and Palestinians are not victims of a simple misunderstanding; they are combatants in a very real conflict. “This conflict,” Oz continued, “can be resolved through compromise, through a partition, but not by simply having a nice cup of coffee with the enemy. Rivers of coffee cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples loving the same homeland. “
In other words, my coffee date with Ziad Doueiri is not a solution. After exhausting all of the safe topics (film, food, wine) we would have to move to the final status issues: settlements, refugees, Jerusalem. Furthermore, we would have to confront the clash between the ways we see and understand the conflict. On certain issues, it is obvious that we do not — and possibly will not ever — agree. The massacre that he remembers is, for me, a slanderous accusation against the state of Israel.
Nevertheless, I believe that there is no choice but to move forward, As Oz trenchantly stated, “I don’t need to go somewhere for a tête-à-tête with my Palestinian colleagues in order to get to like them — I like them, and yet they are my enemies, and it is precisely because they are my enemies that I believe I need to make peace with them.”
If I were to have coffee with Doueiri, I would have no illusions. No matter how much I might like or respect him, I know that we understand the Israeli-Arab conflict — its past, present and future — in very different ways. Nevertheless, with eyes wide open and always expecting the worst, I still want that coffee date, even knowing that I do not, ultimately, want to make friends. Instead, I want to sit with my enemy and find a way to make peace.
Linda Maizels, who has a doctorate in Jewish studies from Hebrew University, lives in Melrose Park. This piece was adapted from a recent talk she gave at a showing of the movie in Reading, Pa.