Translated from the Hebrew by Michelle Shabtai. This interview originally appeared in BaInyanim and has been condensed for space.
Two months ago, when “Foreign Land” won the Israeli Ophir Award for best documentary, director Shlomi Eldar stepped up to the stage and told the audience that when he started filming six years ago, “no one would have considered turning up at the courthouse with a D-9 bulldozer, artists weren’t persecuted and threatened, bereaved parents weren’t reprimanded, Arabs didn’t flock to the polls, annexation was an outlandish notion associated with marginal right-wingers, “religionization’ didn’t exist in our lexicon, and there was no national law that determined so definitively that Arabs, Druze and Circassians are second-class citizens.”
Eldar has always been an opinionated journalist. For years he served as a political reporter for Israel’s TV Channel One, and in 2003 he joined Channel 10 News as a correspondent for the Palestinian Authority. Only after he’d made two documentaries (his first, “Precious Life,” also won an Ophir in 2010) did Eldar begin to present himself as a director first and a journalist second.
At the end of 2012, Eldar resigned from Channel 10, explaining that the stories he wanted to convey as a reporter were no longer what the Israeli public wanted to hear. Eldar became a columnist for a Washington-based Middle East news site called Al-Monitor, a position he still holds. But more significantly, Eldar had a research proposal accepted by the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., and he emigrated with his family to the United States five years ago.
“We’re happy here, but I don’t know whether we did the right thing,” he concludes.
“Foreign Land” tells of the changing face of Israel through two central figures: Shlomi Eldar, observing Israel from his new home in Maryland, and actor Ghassan Abbas, star of the 1980s Israeli TV series “Ha-Mis’ada Hagdola” (“The Great Restaurant”), who feels that he doesn’t belong in Israel due to the racism he’s experienced there. “What concerns me — and others — about Israel,” says Eldar, “is that …whoever doesn’t agree with the right-wing settlement-oriented political agenda, and whoever thinks that there’s still hope, is viewed as a traitor and hounded with curses and threats. It’s a profound social rift that touches almost every facet of life, and its source is at the top, that is, Netanyahu.”
Audience response to the film has been intense. Eldar says that he’s seen people crying, unable to get up from their seats. “One of my friends wrote to me saying that ‘This film beats you mercilessly. Unlike other films that end on a happy note, this film does not deceive you. It doesn’t claim that everything’s going to be alright.’ … I think that those who cried, cried for the State of Israel.”
Aviv Peretz: In the film, Ghassan Abbas says, “Hatred is the disease of this country, which doesn’t relent.” I imagine the symptoms of this disease affected you when the film was screened on Kan [the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation].
Shlomi Eldar: I must say that I thought I’d be cursed more. I was called “Israel hater” and so on, but I’m surprised by the low number of negative responses.
How did you feel when Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, said that “this is a film about the identity and sense of belonging of a person who left Israel yet chooses to teach us values”?
I think that the question today is not only “who is a Jew?” but “who is an Israeli?” Is the definition of an Israeli only someone who currently lives in Israel, or someone who was born in Israel, is an Israeli citizen and loves Israel, even though they don’t live there now? When Sheldon Adelson’s wife donates tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in Sheldon’s name, no one ponders her “Israeliness” or “Jewishness,” but when it’s convenient others are allowed to be harassed. When Israeli government ministers come to the IAC in the USA, to talk to those who feel Israeli and promote Israel, that’s fine. However, when one’s view doesn’t fit the right-wing agenda, suddenly they’re told that they have no right to criticize Israel.”
The film doesn’t mention the backstory leading to the increasing alienation and hostility toward Israeli Arabs that is the result of Israel being targeted by missiles and terror attacks. I’m not justifying this animosity — nothing can justify a situation where an Arab Israeli boy hands over his ID card to a policeman and is then severely beaten — but if someone who watches this film is unfamiliar with the Arab-Israeli conflict, this complexity is not brought to their attention.
Studies show that most Arab Israelis want to be part of Israeli society. The alienation of some stems from neglect. You can argue that there have been several recent terrorist attacks conducted by Arab Israelis, but of all the attackers, one is from the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, another from Wadi Ara and another from Tel Sheva, and that’s about it. To say that all Arab Israelis are traitors and a fifth column … is a far stretch. Suppose a Jew gets caught shooting up a school in the USA, killing some teenagers, does that mean that all Jews are to blame? That all Jews must be expelled from the United States? Latest statistics show that over the past decade the number of Arab Israelis students enrolled in universities has increased by 80 percent. Most Arab Israelis propel toward academia because it’s the only way they can endure living in Israel, and even that isn’t guaranteed. That’s also the reason they’re drawn toward fields like education and the paramedical professions. In “Foreign Land,” Ghassan says that his Hebrew teacher would beat students to force them to learn the language, saying that, “Those who don’t know Hebrew won’t be able to be breadwinners.” Today, for Arabs to survive in Israel, knowing Hebrew is not enough, they have to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
The film is titled “Foreign Land” and you often depict parallels between the United States, which for you is a foreign country, and Israel, which is a foreign country for Ghassan Abbas. Yet there is no correlation between your feelings of foreignness, regarding language barriers and cultural gaps, to the foreignness experienced by Israeli Arabs. The narratives are completely different. Why did you choose this parallel?
It wasn’t planned. My personal life brought me here, and it became part of the story. It was difficult for me to introduce myself as a character in the film, but I soon realized that it was necessary for the film. Living in the United States, I began to feel alienated, not in the way that Ghassan Abbas feels, but it is nonetheless a feeling of foreignness. I’m from the Israeli majority — privileged, a recognized journalist who never felt discriminated against — yet suddenly I was tasting foreignness for the first time, so it almost went without saying that I would be a part of it.
The theme of the film is not only foreignness, but the process a person goes through when looking from the outside at the developments in Israeli society. When I moved to the USA, the producer of the film said to me, ‘When you’re outside Israel you can see the whole forest.’ Back then I didn’t understand what he meant but now I realize that when you’re here, and you have that distance, you’re able to view the changes taking place in Israel much more clearly. Looking at the big picture you can see that Israel is undergoing a dramatic process. People tell me that the USA is in the midst of a more chaotic process, with a president who has no inhibitions. To them I say that, firstly, I don’t identify with the USA on a deep enough level to feel that my home is being destroyed. Secondly, since America is such a huge place, it’s going to take a very long time to destroy it. Thirdly, Israel and the USA differ — dangerous developments in the USA won’t change the fundamental character of the USA, while similar processes in Israel do affect the country’s essence.
In recent years — some say since Prime Minister Yizthak Rabin’s assassination — the identity of Israel’s future is being determined. There’s never going to be peace; it’ll be either a bi-national state or one that forever continues to live by the sword. And what’s determined — whether it’s the strengthening of settlements in such a way that it’ll be impossible to uproot them, or to withdraw from some of them for the sake of potential peace, or the dramatic changes in the Supreme Court driven by Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, or the religionization within Israel’s education system pushed by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett — these are things that cannot be changed.
Most Israelis relocate to another country around their 20s to 30s, while only a few do it in their 40s. Actually, I don’t know anyone, except you, who relocated in their mid-50s.
I came to the United States at the age of 57, but I didn’t come declaring that I was relocating. Relocation was not my intention at all. I initially came for one year as a sort of refreshment. When that year was up I received an offer to join the University of Maryland. The year after that I was offered to move to NYU. In the fourth year I edited an unfinished film that I had made. And now I got an offer to make a TV series in the USA. Somehow, my life circumstances have brought me here, stemming from a reality that arose from my professional situation in Israel, which is somehow connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and from Netanyahu’s attempt to pulverize the Israeli media.
How was the transition experience for you?
The move was very easy for me because I worked within a framework and field that I was familiar with. The moment I landed at the Wilson Center I was invited to lectures and discovered things I hadn’t previously been exposed to during my professional life. For me it was a fascinating process.
Didn’t you experience a language crisis? After all, you went from being a man for whom words are his main tool of expression, fluent in your language, to a man stumbling and trying to gain footing with a new one?
Of course. When I arrived in the USA I was sure, as many Israelis are, that within a year I’d speak English fluently. This isn’t going to happen; I’ll never speak English fluently. I’ve come to terms with it. Sometimes, when I’m invited to give a lecture in English, I decline, because I realize that when you give a lecture in English it’s not enough to speak in English and utter the right words, rather you have to know — as I do in Hebrew — how to play with language, to crack a joke here, to use a nuance there. I don’t have this skill in English.
Once I was asked to film something with [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman, whose film critique of “Precious Life” changed my life. After conversing with him I was left with the feeling that he must think I’m a man … how shall I say it gently … of very basic thinking. You use the right vocabulary, you’re close to saying what you want but often fail to express yourself in the way that you intended. … You ask me whether I see myself living the rest of my life here in the USA? To paraphrase Ghassan Abbas, who says that he doesn’t want to die in Israel — I don’t want to die in America. I don’t want to grow old here, either.”
The Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival will screen the Northern California premiere of “Foreign Land” at 8:30 p.m. Thursday Nov. 8 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10 at AMC Saratoga 14 in San Jose. Director Shlomi Eldar will attend both screenings, with Q&A discussion to follow. Tickets available at the ticket booth and online: svjff.org/films/foreign_land.shtml.
Michelle Shabtai is a writer, translator and photographer, and works for the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival.