Toshikuni Doi is a 50-ish Japanese journalist now visiting the U.S. after spending years in the Occupied Territories with a camcorder. The other day at Columbia he had his first American audience, for a documentary about a family in a Gaza refugee camp in the ’90s.
“I want to give Palestinian people a human face,” Doi said by way of introduction. “You see that Palestinians are human beings like you. They have a family. They love each other. Each person has a name. That is my message.”
The film is nearly an hour long, and is cinema verite, compressed from hundreds of hours of shooting, and without commentary. It was shot chiefly inside the cinderblock rooms of the family of a man called Abu Bassam, and its focus is on father and sons, with only occasional intrusions of the outside world. Some heavily-armed Israeli soldiers, for instance, swing by on anonymous patrols.
The film is utterly desolating. You see a large family having to live almost its entire life within a few square meters. Many times there are a dozen people in a small room, eating or talking, paying cards, watching television. The family’s income is meager, their opportunities almost nil. The oldest son was arrested for his participation in a demonstration and spent two years in an Israeli prison, and now cannot get employment. “I feel like I am slowly wasting away, day by day.” The second son has lately lost his job as a butcher in Israel because he cannot renew papers that were arbitrarily seized at a crowded checkpoint, and the process of renewing the papers involves days of waiting outside, and arbitrary refusals. The third son dreamed of being a doctor. “I wanted to make a contribution to society.” There was no way for him to become a doctor, he became a teacher, and he is unemployed.
Two statements by the aging Abu Bassam frame the film. Early on he describes his own family’s flight from a town called Braer in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence. He was then a boy of 6; he says that Israelis surrounded their town and began firing on it and shelling it at night. “Those who stayed died.” The family escaped at night.
At the end of the film the Palestinian Authority has begun policing Gaza as part of the Oslo Accords—and corruption is about to be a problem—but Abu Bassam states that all he wants is his family’s land back, in Braer, 30 dunams (about 7.5 acres). “Genuine peace is grounded on justice,” he says, from the heart, scripted by no one. And then he says, he will settle for 20 dunams.
After the film Doi asked the audience of 30 what he should do with the film—which is one of only many parts. Should he shorten it, expand it, what? I said he should do nothing to the film, only try and get it shown as far and wide as he can in the United States. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Later I had a few reflections on the film’s message.
1. Debate rages among Israel’s critics and apologists over the creation of the refugee problem. In 1948, somewhere around 700,000 Palestinian refugees left the newly created Israeli state. The “new historians” (a tremendous credit to Israeli democracy) say the Arabs were by and large expelled from Israel due to the determination by Israel’s founders to rule a state composed almost entirely of Jews. The former Israeli Defense Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami says so in his recent book Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. For his part, Alan Dershowitz, who lives in Cambridge, says in The Case For Israel that the Arabs chose to leave in a calculated strategy to destroy the Israeli state.
The simple answer this film offers, evading all the academic arguments, is that this one family of Palestinians was forced off their land out of a real fear of massacre.
2. Dershowitz also argues that neighboring Arab countries bear the blame for failing to absorb the racially “homogeneous” refugees; they should have done so long ago but have allowed the problem to fester, as a way to undermine the Israeli state. Again, this film moves past such ideological argument toward a simple truth: these people are suffering, they are living an inhuman existence, and if Arab states bear some responsibility, the chief agency of their misery would seem to be the occupier, Israel. “The occupation is choking them, they are losing hope,” Doi said.
When the world dithered over whether to establish an Israeli state at all, in 1946 and 47, one of the main arguments for it were the Displaced Persons camps in Central Europe, more than 100,000 desperate and destitute Jews who had survived the Holocaust and were now subject to pogroms in their places of origin. Zionist spokesmen held up the plight of these refugees. They were an important factor in Harry Truman’s decision, under pressure from American Zionists, to defy his own State Department and support the U.N. partition of Palestine in 1947, paving the way for a Jewish state. (Here I rely on Peter Grose’s fine book, Israel in the Mind of America). And in doing so, Truman urged Jews to deal fairly with their Arab neighbors.
Well a year on, in 1948, many of these desperate Palestinian camps were created by the Palestinian expulsion. They have existed under different authority for nearly 60 years: mostly Israeli authority. But these displaced persons have had little effect on world opinion, in good part because Israel’s supporters in this country have denied Palestinian claims to determine their own lives—by insisting that Palestinians are incapable of managing their affairs, or there is no such thing as a Palestinian, or they are terrorists. Americans too bear responsibility for the dehumanization of these people.