Interview: Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon on his upcoming documentary focusing on one-state solution

The above video is the trailer for the forthcoming film A People Without a Land by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon (writer, director, cinematographer) and Pennie Ungar-Sargon (producer). Eli and Pennie are old friends of mine; Eli and I studied together about ten years ago at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and were involved with a student group that invited guest speakers to give critical analysis on topics related to Israel and the Palestinians.

Since then, Eli has completed and toured his first feature-length documentary, Cut: Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision and is currently finishing his second documentary, A People Without A Land (full disclosure: I’m on the board of the film’s IndieGoGo fundraising campaign). I recently interviewed Eli about his new film, and his journey from a religious Zionist background to advocating for Palestinian rights. The below interview was edited for length.

Maureen Clare Murphy: Tell EI’s readers a little a bit about you and your wife Pennie’s background, and why you feel strongly about this issue.

Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon: Absolutely. So I’ll start with my background. My family moved to Israel when I was 13 years old and we moved to a suburb of Jerusalem that is actually technically a settlement, called Ramot. I lived in Israel between the ages of 13 and 19 years old. Growing up there and having a very important part of my life there, naturally, the conflict was of great importance and interest to me.

Pennie actually came from an evangelical Christian background and grew up in a Christian Zionist household and when we met in England, she was a Christian Zionist, pretty hardcore. We both went through these transformative journeys that eventually led us to making this film.

MCM: What precipitated your political awareness? Was that part of the process of making this film?

EUS: The film was an important part of my evolving political awareness. Already when I lived in Israel, I was trying to grapple with the fact that Israel was an occupying force in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and I had a sense even back then that I wasn’t okay with that. I had a key moment where we were all graduating high school and all my friends were figuring out which unit in the Israeli Defense Forces they were going to serve in, and I just realized that I didn’t want to serve in the military at all. It’s important to note that my family had not become Israeli citizens for the specific reason that my parents didn’t want us to be drafted into the IDF; they wanted us to be able to make the choice. It was very much a conscious decision on my part; there is a lot of peer pressure to join the IDF, and at the time, even though my political awareness wasn’t as evolved as it is today, I had the sense not to join the military.

At the time I was kind of like an Israeli leftist; I was rebelling against the religious Zionism of my parents and I joined the Meretz youth group — Meretz is the most left-wing party in the Israeli Knesset [parliament]. So I was trying to express this resistance to some of the things I found problematic with the state of Israel, but at the time I still firmly believed in a two-state solution, and my belief in the two-state solution along the 1967 borders kind of stayed with me for a very long time. It wasn’t until I came to Chicago and started interacting with people like Omar Karmi and Raja Halwani [our teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] and you and Ali Abunimah [that my thinking shifted]. I didn’t know him so well back then, but I started to listen to his discussions of the one-state solution, and that’s when things changed for me. I guess it prepared the grounds for me becoming more aware of what was going on and the history of the conflict. I think that was really key for me.

When I graduated from art school, I was looking for different kinds of work, and one of the jobs I took was artist in residence at the University of Chicago’s Hillel. During the eight-month period of time I was there, they were preparing to send their first Birthright trip to Israel [Author’s note: Birthright is a program funded by the Israeli government and wealthy private donors that aims to indoctrinate young Jewish North Americans through free trips to Israel]. The Hillel actually had a lot of control of the orientation and framing of the trip. One of the staffers was actually going to be leading the trip and we had hours to prepare the Jewish students who were about to go. I was lobbying really, really hard to try to incorporate into the orientation some political discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I was met with an enormous amount of resistance. And from that frustration, and frankly from that anger — I think a lot of activism comes from anger — I decided that was the time when I needed to invest a serious amount of my life into making a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So then it was just a matter of what was the film going to be about and we took a quick exploratory trip to Israel in 2008-2009. In the course of that trip, I did something that I had never done in six years of living in Israel, which was go into the West Bank and actually talk to Palestinians who lived there. It was through that process that I realized that the two-state solution was something that people had completely given up on. As I started doing more research, I realized that even if it were possible — and I don’t believe it’s possible anymore — and Israel were to somehow magically withdraw to the precise 1967 borders, and a Palestinian state were to be established, it wouldn’t actually solve the conflict, that it would just signal another stage of the conflict. And so that was my journey.

MCM: There is no shortage of films that have been made about the conflict. So how is your film different?

EUS: There are a couple of things that make our film different. The first is that as a result of my personal connections and my familiarity with Israeli culture, and the fact that I speak Hebrew fluently, we have a kind of access that people of our political persuasion don’t typically have. This gave us access to a family in the settlement of Ofra, so we have some remarkable footage of what it’s like to live in a settlement and what the settlement perspective is, and also some pretty influential people in the Israeli regime.

The other thing that sets [our film] apart is that we’re focused on solutions. That’s the focus of our film and we’re specifically looking at the practical and moral failings of the two-state solution, and looking at possibilities of a one-state solution. There’s a lot of great work that’s been done to raise people’s awareness about the realities of the occupation and there’s even been some good work about raising awareness of the Nakba. But the idea of focusing in on where the sort of partition solutions have failed, and outlining and imagining possibilities for a one-state solution, we think that’s pretty unique.

MCM: You did some 500 street interviews for this film and your analysis about the racism you heard from young Jewish Israelis was published on The Electronic Intifada. Why did you think that doing the street interviews was important, and what else did you find during the street interviews?

EUS: The street interview project was important to us for a number of reasons. First of all, we felt that when you’re talking about political solutions, it’s really, really important to get a gauge of public opinion. You can get a sense of that from reading polls, but when you’re talking about a documentary film, we feel that it’s really immediate and interesting and engaging to just talk to people, just random people on the street, and get what their opinion is. What do you think about a one-state solution? What do you think about a two-state solution? And just get a sense of where people are in relation to these political possibilities, which they’re eventually going to have to live with.

We did an interview with Uri Davis, a Jewish-born Israeli who made a life for himself in the occupied territories and was eventually elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council. We asked him his perspective on the issue of anti-Semitism among Palestinians, which you hear a lot about from Israel apologists, and Israel lobby fixtures. He said that while there is some marginal anti-Semitism among the Palestinians, it’s a marginal phenomenon, whereas anti-Arab sentiment among Israelis is a mainstream phenomenon. We thought that was a very provocative statement, and we thought that the bar of proving or disproving that statement was not so high. We could actually do that with our cameras. We went out and we were pretty shocked but what we found. In short, we feel that professor Uri Davis’ statement was substantiated.

MCM: When can we see the finished film?

EUS: Currently we’re in post-production and I’m working around the clock on the editing, and in the last few weeks we’ve launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise finishing funds for the film. So I’m doing everything I can in terms of editing but there are things I’d like to collaborate with other professionals on — graphic design, motion graphics, music, sound editing, these sorts of things which are not my forte. So we’re raising money to hire people for that and further translation that we need. I’m hoping to have everything done by the end of the summer and then we’ll start applying to festivals and shepherding this film out into the world.

MCM: Is there anything that you wanted to add that I didn’t ask?

EUS: Maybe just to re-emphasize that the vision of the film is moving away from partition solutions to integration solutions. This is our vision. Insofar as people talk about this as one state, two states, we prefer the one state solution. But I do want to underline that whether it’s one state or two states is not as important as moving away from a partition paradigm in which Israel as an ethnocracy is maintained at the expense of the rights of the Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. So we’re trying to describe and indeed facilitate a paradigm shift away from ethnocracy and towards inclusive democracy, whatever the final political solution that embodies those principles is.


Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.