A People Without a Land directed by Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, director of A People Without a Land, is a man on a mission. As he says in an interview, his support for a one-state solution is part of a personal journey which has taken him from Zionist Jewish Orthodoxy (and his wife Pennie from fervent Christian Zionism) to believing in single-state coexistence in Palestine.
As such, this film is very much a working through of ideas and convictions, with a clear end point which presents a one-state solution as the preferred outcome — moral and practical — to the situation.
In the course of his film, Ungar-Sargon amasses considerable backing for this argument.
Much of the movie consists of “talking heads” — interviews with major thinkers on the subject. The interviewee list includes many of the biggest names in the field: historians Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris; campaigners Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti, Jeff Halper and Ghada Karmi; politicians Hanan Ashrawi and Saeb Erekat; and Eitan Bronstein of Zochrot.
Between them — and others — they reflect on the experiences of Palestinians affected by the creation of the State of Israel. History experts provide background; dissident Israeli Jews such as Bronstein and Neta Golan of the International Solidarity Movement describe their journeys from Zionist conviction and/or ignorance to awareness of the oppression on which their lifestyles were based.
“Commitment to democratic values”
Well shot and with generally high production values, Ungar-Sargon’s documentary is easy to watch, following a well-defined narrative from the early days of Zionism (framed as an ethnic nationalism from 19th-century Europe), through the Nakba, as Palestinians call the imposition of the State of Israel onto their land in 1948 and the processes of occupation and disingenuous “negotiations” which have happened since.
There are a few contradicting voices, reminders of what believers in genuine “ethical coexistence” (Omar Barghouti’s phrase) are up against. The film opens with a young Israeli man calmly explaining that no gentiles must be permitted to live in the Land of Israel; all Arabs must be expelled between “the river [Jordan] and the sea.”
A heavier presence is Arnon Soffer, a professor in demographics at Haifa University and originator of the wriggling path of Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank. He, unlike most Israeli spokespeople, is at least honest about its purpose: to carve out land on which the majority of the settlements are built and incorporate them into Israel, anticipating a complete separation of Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
He sees the wall as a “compromise,” a way of segregating peoples he believes to be fundamentally incapable of living together.
“If you endanger the Jewishness of my country, my compromise will be on democracy,” he says, making clawing movements with his hands, implying that we have not yet seen what Israel can do if it abandons its “commitment to democratic values.”
Soffer is a somewhat scary individual, with a messianic (irony intended) fervor for his separatist ideology.
This is not so with fellow Israeli Ari Abramson, an army reservist interviewed while protecting a settlement. He genuinely, with absolutely no irony, declares that “I wouldn’t dream of going to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and kicking them out of their homes and saying ‘this is our land now.’” One wonders where he does think his country’s foundation lies.
But he embodies the fragility of the Israeli psyche when pushed on issues such as settler violence — his cheerful, self-confident patriotism unraveling almost instantly into palpable discomfort.
The film does hit a few dud notes. It’s noticeable that casual Israeli speakers are more likely to be personally identified than Palestinians, and there are occasional blips in the English subtitles for Arabic speech.
Overall, though, there is a nagging question of who the intended audience for this documentary actually is.
The clear narrative arc begins with a historical sketch of the origins of political Zionism, working through various problems with the Zionist movement’s claims, and ends with what Ungar-Sargon and some of his interviewees see as the logical conclusion of those problems — namely, a one-state solution.
The basic — not to say simplistic — level of some of the historical background, and the “usual suspects” lineup of interviewees, points to the film as an introduction to those new to the issue of Palestine.
But the fairly detailed discussions of other issues later in the film, and the single-minded conclusion, would better suit viewers with some grounding in the subject.
I can envisage the film working well in a solidarity group debate on one-state versus two-state solutions, although (despite my own position) it would seem only fair for that to include more information on two-state ideas, or at least on the objections of “two-staters” to the single-state option.
Or, going back to the point about the large number of Israeli interviewees, this would be an excellent film for introducing critical Jewish viewers to the arguments for a single binational state, a position often seen as challenging, if not threatening.
After all, one of the more unexpected interviewees is Asher Lopatin, a Zionist rabbi wearing an Israeli flag tie, but advocating a “United States of the Holy Land” with equal rights for all and free movement for both Palestinians and Jews.
The only speaker in the film who sets out defined reasons for two states is Arnon Soffer, the Israeli demographer who calls those who believe in coexistence “nasty liars.” He cites a range of deeply racist — and breathtakingly historically inaccurate — examples of what he sees as Arab/Islamic violence against non-Muslims.
But to see his savage, bitter response as representative of everyone who questions the one-state position is disingenuous. If the film wanted to present a genuinely nuanced debate, it needed to include someone like author Raja Shehadeh — a sober, principled advocate of an (albeit temporary) two-state situation.
In the end, one senses, this is a film which doesn’t quite grasp the opportunity to get its message across. It spends a little too much time building up the (already well-documented) evidence against two-statism while running out of space for a proper exploration of the less familiar issues of how that single state might actually look — and how it might be achieved in political, practical and psychological terms.
Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and is co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.