For the last ten years, literary and film critic Meital Orr has been teaching a course she developed titled “Re-examining the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Literature and Film” at Georgetown University. A professor at the university’s Center for Jewish Civilization, Orr has a doctorate in modern Jewish literature and a Master’s of Philosophy in Hebrew literature. When she first had the idea for the class, she was planning on featuring only literature, but she decided to include film because cinema, she feels, creates an immediate experience—an experience in real time—that is very impactful. “The emotional learning achieved by film is hard to equal,” she says. “Films have an incredible power to change minds and hearts.”
Orr’s course examines how Israeli and Palestinian literature and cinema have historically depicted “the Other,” from the early years of Zionism to the 21st century.
She says that it is her most difficult course to teach because it constantly takes calibration, re-evaluation and a consciousness of whether she is being evenhanded in capturing all the complexity of the conflict. She starts out spending about two weeks teaching the history of the Israel-Palestinian situation, since she can’t assume that students are coming into the class with a good understanding of it.
What really moves her students, and surprises them, she says, is how critical and self-critical many Israeli artists are, whether they’re authors, directors or screenwriters. Most of the films in the class are created by Israeli left-wing, liberal artists who can be very critical toward the Israeli position and this connects with many of the students. There’s also a perceived feeling that these artists are the conscience of their nation in the way that they seek to point to the common and shared humanity of both sides.
“Literature and film humanize politics and history,” says Orr. “They reveal the soul— the minds and hearts and passions—of the people involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” She is hopeful that through the exploration of these works her students can come to a deeper understanding of the interrelationships and parallels between these two peoples and maybe get a glimpse of the path that could lead them closer to an understanding of each other.
Orr spoke to Moment’s Arts Editor, Diane M. Bolz.
How did you assemble the list of films for the course?
The two older films I had seen in graduate courses on Israeli cinema and Middle Eastern cinema at Columbia and Harvard. The majority of the films I found by researching online and watching hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian films, searching for those that could meaningfully shed light on the conflict in a way that could capture its complexity.
Why is film a good way to learn about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Apart from literature, I think that film is the best way to learn about the conflict because it can capture very complex truths in a short time, and in a way that makes us feel vicariously part of the conflict. This brings immediacy and relevance to issues that otherwise may feel very removed from our lives or seem too involved to understand or explain—showing is more effective than telling. Unlike a documentary—or pseudo-documentary, of which there are quite a few out there—a truly great film doesn’t spin the conflict for its purposes, doesn’t simplify or reduce the issue, but reveals very subtle, nuanced and difficult truths, on both sides. Not only is a film a faster way to learn about the conflict—say than reading a novel for days or weeks—it can also teach so much on so many levels, both intellectual and emotional.
Do you think your students have gained insight into the conflict and into understanding the different points of view as a result of viewing the films? And which did you (and/or they) think were most effective?
I absolutely think that my students have gained insight into the situation as a result of viewing these films and reading the literature in the course. They attest to this in their course evaluations every year and most say that they feel they have gained an “inside window” into the conflict and understand it much more thoroughly than before. I think what surprises them most is the complexity of a conflict that the media has portrayed all their lives as a “black-and-white” issue, and also the liberal humanism of Israeli filmmakers.
I think all the films speak to the students, but especially the more modern ones. And of those, the films about young people their age are the most impactful as they allow the students to vicariously feel the issues on their own skins—for instance, A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, The Other Son and A Borrowed Identity. The film Lemon Tree offers a feminist perspective on the conflict. I feel that there’s a shared feminist zeitgeist recently, after the turn of the 21st century, both in Israeli and Palestinian literature and film. Each nation is looking to women for possible solutions to the conflict with the empathy and balance they bring to their perception of the problems.
I’ve gotten very positive responses to the course—probably the most positive of any of my classes. I think it’s because of the unique insider perspective that the course offers. It’s one thing to study the conflict from the perspective of history, politics, economics or international relations, and quite another to see, to go inside the minds and hearts of these peoples and their struggles and suffering.
Why do you think there aren’t more recent films that open a window on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Part of this has to do with the hesitation directors have about approaching such a controversial subject in a holistic and evenhanded way, especially so that the diverse audiences in Israeli society (secular and religious, left and right, Jewish and Arab) can all appreciate the film. This is compounded by the fact that Israeli audiences often view a film on the conflict very differently than Jewish-American audiences, or international ones. So it’s difficult to cater to so many different audiences at the same time, and ensure the success of a film, without receiving backlash. Mostly though, great films on the conflict are rare because it takes such a fine sense of proportion and balance, so much conceptual fair-mindedness at every step—from screenwriting, to directing, acting, editing, etc.—to deal with the subject matter well. Few production teams can produce a work of enduring art that masters that intricacy, and filmmakers know that addressing the conflict can make or break a film, or a career.
Which of the films were the most popular in Israel?
Director Eran Riklis’s films were very popular in Israel, and for good reason, as he has fine-tuned the art of addressing the conflict in a credible way. Also, since he has long been part of the Israeli cinema scene, he benefits from having garnered trust on the part of his Israeli and international audiences. Cup Final, Lemon Tree and A Borrowed Identity were relatively successful. [Read all the film synopses in “A Cinematic Window on the Conflict.”] Interestingly, For My Father, by the little-known director Dror Zahavi, was a hit as well (but only in Israel). It was nominated for seven Israeli “academy awards” because it presented an alternative reality for Israelis who wanted to believe such a scenario could be true, but it also presented possibilities for reconciliation that have rarely been done as well.
As I understand it, there has been some controversy in Israel vis a vis funding for some films.
Complaints about why Israel is funding films that are sympathetic to the Palestinians is one major reason why relatively few films have tried to holistically broach the subject of the conflict. As artists, filmmakers tend to be liberals, but they also tend to be humanists, which is why the greatest of their works (the most intelligent and nuanced of them) are so important for Israeli and Arab/Palestinian audiences to see.
How has October 7 impacted your class?
Since I teach the course only in the spring, I have actually not taught it since October 7, but the enrollment for the coming spring semester is the highest I have seen, due to interest, now more than ever, in understanding the conflict. I’m curious to see how the questions and perceptions have changed after this critical juncture in the conflict, which precludes any simplifying view and shifts an almost half-century-old narrative.
Have there been any instances of antisemitism or major demonstrations at Georgetown since October 7?
We’ve seen a lot less than, say, at George Washington University. There have been people putting up posters reflecting their views of the conflict and there are chalked messages on Red Square, the center of campus, but I wouldn’t say that these are antisemitic per se. They’re just very political. There was a rally one afternoon early on where people were chanting “From the river to the sea, all of Palestine will be free!” It was small and it wasn’t clear that everyone came from Georgetown, since I saw people leaving campus on a bus. I personally would say that that statement is antisemitic because it’s calling for all of the land to be Palestinian, meaning no State of Israel. But the rallies have been small here, and I believe this is because most Georgetown students understand that this is not a simple, black-and-white issue.
At the same time, I have had Jewish students come to me and say that they feel very uncomfortable on campus and in classes sitting next to people whom they know harbor animosity toward them. And they have heard antisemitic slurs in passing—they wouldn’t tell me what exactly—but they have definitely lost confidence in their feeling of security on campus since October 7.
What are some of the liveliest and/or most productive discussions evoked by the films?
Dror Zahvi’s For My Father, which came out in 2008, gets pretty controversial. The Israeli title is A Weekend in Tel Aviv. It’s about a Palestinian would-be suicide bomber who has a problem with the switch in his suicide vest. Over the course of one weekend he has to find a way to get it repaired. As a result he ends up getting to know some Israelis, and his interactions with them begin to change his mind about his mission. The Israeli public really loved it.
My questions for the students are: Why did they love it? What was its message? Was it realistic? Was it representative? And what were the problems with it? Some students come away from seeing the film very, very upset, especially Jewish students, because they say, “This is just leading us to feel empathy for a would-be bomber? And it’s just another lefty Israeli movie.” Others say, “No it is possible—look at his suffering and look at what he went through. And why would someone want to blow himself up?” So there are some heated debates. And we talk about how for years Israelis have been afraid to go to cafes or ride on buses because of the threat of suicide bombers. I was studying in Israel 20 years ago, and I would stand at a bus stop looking at a plaque in commemoration of all the school children who died on a particular bus. And we also talk about all the defensive wars that Israel had to fight. Much of this comes as a revelation to the students. I keep reminding them that they have to keep an open mind so that they can learn and engage with these works with a blank slate so that they can be challenged in their views. That’s the basis of learning and of education.
Go here for the full titles and summaries of seven of the films Meital Orr recommends. Many thanks to professor Orr for her critical contribution to crafting these descriptions.
The titles of the films below link to primary viewing sources, with additional options listed after year and director information. — Diane M. Bolz
- Beyond the Walls (1984, Uri Barbash)
- Cup Final (1991, Eran Riklis)
- For My Father (2008, Dror Zahavi)
- Lemon Tree (2008, Eran Riklis)
- A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2011, Thierry Binisti); also on Tubi and Plex
- The Other Son (2012, Lorraine Levy); also on YouTube, googleplay, Tubi and AppleTV
- A Borrowed Identity (2015, Eran Riklis); also on Amazon Prime, googleplay and AppleTV