Pessimism spread to every corner of Congregation Beth El's sanctuary Sunday, June 29, as about 200 people gathered at the Berkeley synagogue to watch a film about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and then discuss what they'd seen.
By the end of the evening, there was more lamenting than anything else.
The one-hour documentary, "Relentless: The Struggle for Peace in Israel," was produced by HonestReporting.com, a pro-Israel media watchdog organization. The screening was sponsored by Bridges to Israel, a Berkeley-based activist group seeking to shore up support for the Jewish state.
"Part of our mission is to create opportunities for people in the gray zone," said Hilda Kessler, who co-founded Bridges to Israel with her husband, Seymour. "This film is a fantastic Jewish community education project."
Even those most ardently pro-Israel would concede "Relentless" is a work of propaganda: sincere and gripping, but propaganda nonetheless. Despite the film's well-argued case against Palestinian behavior and strategies, several audience members apparently thought it too one-sided, and they huffily walked out in the middle.
Had they stayed, they would have seen shocking footage, taken from Arab television, showing Muslim clergymen urging Arabs to kill Jews; "summer camps" training Palestinian boys in lethal hand-to-hand combat; children's TV programs — complete with a Palestinian version of Barney — during which 10-year-olds sing the praises of early death, spilled blood, dead Jews and martyrdom.
The film describes in detail the promises both sides made during the Oslo peace process and which, if any, of those promises were kept. As the filmmakers methodically demonstrate, Israel kept all its promises — from return of disputed lands to recognizing the PLO to arming the new Palestinian police force — while the Palestinians kept none.
From removing the "destruction of Israel" clause in the PLO charter to renouncing terrorism to reeducating their children toward peace, the film argues that the Palestinian side not only failed to keep its promises, but actually made the situation much worse through relentless terrorism against Israeli civilians (hence the title).
Most disturbing were scenes of Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, speaking to the home crowd in Arabic, praising jihad and martyrdom, eschewing peace and seemingly sneering at the gullibility of Israel and the West.
By the time the film ended, there wasn't much appetite for the after-show refreshments. Attendees were far more hungry to share their thoughts and feelings.
By all measures, those feelings were mixed.
The entire assembly broke up into five breakout discussion groups, small circles of despair. One woman said she felt "grateful and disturbed," glad that such a film was available but troubled to see how "Palestinians send their children to fight their war."
A man who said he belongs to a "secular chavurah" comprised of Jews and non-Jews, expressed his distress that he "couldn't show this film to them" because it was too one-sided. Another countered, "Why do Jews always have to be so even-handed? So many Jews are on the Palestinian side, but there's no one on the other side who's on our side."
One Israeli expatriate told his group that he had many Palestinian friends and spoke Arabic himself. He vouched for the film's translations of hate-filled Arabic screed uttered by Hamas and Palestinian Authority leaders, urging young people to martyr themselves. "If you don't believe in your own existence," wondered the young man, "how can you believe in my existence?"
Another man, a French Jew with an Oakland A's cap and a Maurice Chevalier accent, made his position clear and concise: "The Palestinians want to make the entire region judenrein [German for "free of Jews," a term coined by the Nazis]."
In fact, one was hard pressed to find a liberal or leftist voice among those gathered, a surprising fact given that Berkeley is the American epicenter of liberalism. But with dissenters having walked out early on, those remaining seemed to be of one voice in their support of Israel.
After watching a film that presented a non-stop parade of apparent Palestinian lies, deceit and treachery, it was hard to feel anything else.
The discussion groups called it a night after about half an hour. Obviously, if 55 years of talks haven't brought about any lasting solutions, 30 minutes of fretting in Berkeley wouldn't either. But most seemed content to have had this opportunity.
Adam Meislik, a kippah-wearing twentysomething who served as a facilitator, was pleased with his group's discussion. "It was therapy for some of them," he said. "It's clear people are tired of the status quo and want it to end. But what does 'end' mean?"
Despite the general glumness, there were a few encouraging voices, even as the crowd thinned out. Said one man heading for his car in the gathering darkness: "The Israeli national anthem is 'Hatikvah,' meaning 'The Hope.' It is said we Jews are prisoners of hope."