My Neighborhood is a new documentary from the creators of the film Budrus.
The story is ostensibly told from the perspective of Mohammed al-Kurd, a Palestinian teen whose house is divided into two so that settlers can move in (with the backing of the Israeli courts). “I hate them,” Mohammed says of the settlers. “I hate them for a reason, because they are making our life the worst life in the world.”
But then, three weeks after the eviction, hope arrives in the form of “good” Israelis protesting against the settlers, waving banners in Hebrew, chanting and banging drums. We see the start of the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah, which reinvigorated the Zionist left in Israel for a time.
Mohammed is skeptical of the Israelis at first, but soon warms to them. “I learned about something called right and left and that opinions differ within societies,” he tells the filmmakers. By the end, he has decided he wants to be a lawyer and use the courts to remove them from his home.
But this film is deeply problematic for several reasons.
Beyond the fact that Palestinians are being kicked out, we learn little of their story. There is very little in the way of context or history. The viewer learns almost nothing about Palestinian struggle in East Jerusalem.
The film is really about something else: what American-Israeli journalist Joseph Dana once called the “fight to save the Zionist soul” (“One year in, the Sheikh Jarrah movement faces its biggest challenge – Zionism,” Mondoweiss, 9 August 2010).
Aside from Mohammed, we hear very little from Palestinians, and a whole lot from Israeli activists. At a key point in the film, one of these activists says, “we came up with the idea of holding marches” against the evictions.
Was this an initiative of the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, or did these Zionist liberals just decide to swoop in and “save” them from the nasty settlers? As this activist has it, it seems to have all been the idea of the heroic Zionist liberals. But we simply don’t know, because the film does not explain it.
The same activist also says that “our struggle is not against the settlers … it’s against the state.” At this point, it becomes crystal clear the film is fundamentally about an internal Israeli debate. The few Palestinians featured in this film are little more than ciphers.
We meet the parents of that same activist, and learn about their relationship with their children and how they were scared to join the demonstrations at first.
Although they claim to be non-political, we learn they moved from the US and the Netherlands to settle in occupied Palestine. Apart from the artificial and entirely arbitrary green line (Israel’s internationally-recognized armistice line with the occupied West Bank), one might ask: what really makes them so different from the religious/right-wing settlers they denounce? And actually, it’s not even clarified in the film whether these activists live in “East Jerusalem” or not.
At the London launch of this film which I attended, the co-director, Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha, said that Israeli activists are “very afraid” of opening up the issue of the Palestinians kicked out of their homes during the 1948 Nakba, the systematic ethnic cleansing that led to Israel’s establishment.
This is because the al-Kurd family were originally from Haifa, but were kicked out by sectarian Zionist militias in 1948, and resettled in East Jerusalem.
This film is a good example of what law student and activist Budour Hassan once described as “the sham solidarity of Israel’s Zionist left.”
Maybe the Palestinians in East Jerusalem love being swamped by hordes of young liberal Israelis banging drums in their front yard. But we simply can’t know because the Israelis in the film are too are busy explaining their feelings.
Bacha’s earlier film Budrus was also problematic in similar ways, but at least you could learn about Palestinian stories and struggles, and at least it succeeded as a film in itself, even if it did overly pander to American liberal sensibilities. My Neighborhood has all the negative aspects of Budrus, magnified but with few of the redeeming features.
The film ends on a sour note. An Israeli activists claims that the demonstrations (which have now apparently died down) did achieve a pause in the evictions, but that the settlers occupying the al-Kurd home remain. The wider, unmentioned, reality is that Israeli evictions in other Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem (and, in fact, all over Palestine) continue unabated.
The activist doesn’t mention this because of the film’s exclusive focus on Sheikh Jarrah. At another point in the film one settler described his takeover of the al-Kurd home as “the continuation of the Jewish-Zionist project.” Some right-wing Zionists still maintain a sense of perspective that liberal Zionists lack, it seems.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist from London who has lived and reported from occupied Palestine. His website is www.winstanleys.org.