Sderot: Nostalgia For The Future

Danae Elon at Cinema South
You would think Prime Minister's Netanyahu's insistence that Israel could never go back to the "indefensible" borders of 1967 would play at least as well in bombarded Sderot as it did in the Congress. He certainly thought it would, or that Congresspeople could be suckered into thinking it would. "Imagine that right now we all had less than 60 seconds to find shelter from an incoming rocket," Netanyahu said, rolling to his next standing o. "Would you live that way? Would anyone live that way? Well, we aren’t going to live that way either."

I visited Sderot earlier this week, to attend the opening of the wonderful Cinema South film festival, curated by my friend, the filmmaker Danae Elon. Danae teaches in Sderot's Sapir College, which also happens to be the festival's inspiration and host. She has often spoken to me about the comparatively open-spirited atmosphere of Sderot and the Negev, about how much more hopeful, or at least pragmatic, people at the college and community are than what you find in Jerusalem, far from the missiles, complacent in a kind of misty borderlessness. Anyway, this seemed a chance to take it all in.

TO OPEN THE festival, Danae and her committee chose "Eidut," or "Testimony," by gadfly director Shlomi Elkabetz, a film, in which actors speak, well, testimonies collected by groups such as Breaking the Silence, all of them translated into Hebrew and delivered with fierce eyes in barren landscapes.

The film was obviously meant to dramatize for ordinary Israelis what it has been like for ordinary Palestinians to live under occupation and, less predictably, what it has been for ordinary soldiers to enforce it; to recruit empathy for both sides, and a deeper sense of how tragically this daily exercise of raw power corrupts Israeli youth. (The most affecting moment--given that the Hebrew made Palestinian testimonies seem a little arch--was when a young actor reproduced the lines of a soldier who explained how, after weeks of exhausting, mind-numbing duty at a blisteringly hot check point, he found himself taking out on Palestinians what he could not take out on his officers.)

And much as Danae predicted, the response of Sapir's faculty and audience would have given Eric Cantor something to think about, if actually thinking about Sderot as a living community, and not just as a convenient prop, were on his agenda. Avner Faingulernt, the head of film at Sapir, was first to speak. It is worth quoting some of what he said:

[Ten years ago] we could not imagine, but we did believe, we dreamed and fell in love with the world of the South. With the images, the voices, the colors, the stories, and with a grasp of the world in which there are warm associations and much love for human beings whoever they are... It is we who have to write a new agenda in light of the great privilege that we have, we the people of the periphery, liberated from the established worldview that you find in the center.

Because of this privilege, we are able to live under the threat of missiles and war and yet believe in peace; because of this it is our responsibility to demand from the government talks with any Palestinian or Arab who lives in our vicinity; because of this we can believe in the fabulous revolution that is taking place beyond our borders, and to demand from ourselves an openness to the world that is next to us, to stop closing ourselves off in mental borders, that cruelly imprison us in a dead-end. We who live on the border know and believe that the residents of Gaza are our neighbors and our partners; we know that Gaza can be the most important commercial center for the western Negev.

And we know that in Gaza there can arise a school for film and a cultural center with which we could partner and create festivals, ones that will bring audiences, creative talent, artists, and people of culture and scholarship from the whole world. We live in a place that perhaps looks cruel and hopeless but especially at this time and in this place we feel the greatest opportunity.

The audience responded with overwhelming warmth. Guests to Sderot could just feel the power of such sentiments, in this place, of all places. Then Netanyahu's Culture and Sport Minister, Limor Livnat, took the floor. And something happened.

IT IS IMPORTANT to understand that opening the festival with this film had caused a good deal of controversy before it was even screened. Likud Party insiders, anticipating a film that would show the Palestinian side of the occupation--or give a platform to soldiers who were prepared to share honest memories and doubts--condemned it in advance for one-sidedness. The mayor of Sderot, the Likud's David Buskila, was pressured to boycott the festival, as was Livnat. Nevertheless, both came to the opening, and Danae spoke with particular respect for Buskila, who stood up to the pressures and remained a strong friend of Sapir College, Sderot's most important institution.

When Livnat started to speak, however, things turned surreal. She brought greetings from the government, and expressed her solidarity with Sderot. She registered her opposition to boycotts; the audience cheered. But then, unwilling to leave well enough alone, she began to lecture the audience about what, in effect, they should be feeling.  She condemned the film for its bias, and insisted that it was an unfortunate choice to open the festival. She expressed concern that "Testimony" would be used internationally to delegitimize Israel, or the IDF, or portray Israel's soldiers "in a negative light."

The audience, almost all of whom had lived under a rain of missiles, erupted. "Why don't you see it first?," someone shouted at her. "How can you condemn a work of art before you see it?" yelled another. The noise grew to Knesset-like unpleasantness. Livnat began to throw back at the audience that they were now boycotting her. After another minute or two, she left for "a previous engagement."

So Buskila took the mike. He appealed for calm, which he got. Then he launched into a disquisition on freedom of speech that would have been worthy of John Stewart Mill. It was important to hear both sides, he insisted. She came and we shouted. The audience, not the Likud politicians, he implied, had failed the test of democracy. They had responded angrily and noisily to Livnat who was, after all, only trying to state her views.

DANAE AND I could only look at each other and shrug. These were the gears of Israeli democracy grinding away. The left advocates for tolerance of the Arab narrative, the right accuses the left of disloyalty. The left cries foul and accuses the right of closed-mindedness, and the right accuses the left of failing to tolerate its views. The left, in this view, is arrogant, hypocritical and one-sided. It tolerates the Arabs but not fellow Jews. Freedom of speech is turned into an internal and purely Jewish conversation in which the left proves its intolerance by refusing to tolerate the right's intolerance.

"In Judea and Samaria," Netanyahu told the Congress, "the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers...This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one god, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw his vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history...could deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land."

Perhaps. But the atmospherics of this room in Sderot pointed to another, moral standard, one in which people are nostalgic for the future, not the past. It felt a relief, much as Danae predicted, to be with people on a genuine Zionist frontier, dreaming of how land might liberate people, rather than how people might liberate the land.