Rolling hills unmarred by the hands of man, the water of the Jordan river trickling along its way, olive trees rustling in the breeze — this is the land of the Galilee that Melkite priest Elias Chacour so loves, and this is the imagery he says Jesus enjoyed when he was living in what is now referred to as the Holy Land. To understand Chacour’s background is to understand his connection, and his family’s ties, to the land of the Galilee, and so it is appropriate that filmmaker Claude Roshem-Smith opens with beautiful scenes of Galilean pastoral greenery in his biographical film Elias Chacour: Prophet in His Own Country.
While Chacour says, “I don’t preach about being tranquil and calm,” adding that he’s not afraid of stirring things up, he rejects violence as an appropriate response to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Chacour, originally from the now destroyed village of Ba’ram, insists on fighting through other means — like education — and so he has initiated successful school initiatives for marginalized Israeli Arabs and is working to further this cause. A calm Palestinian voice that has been embraced by even Israeli members of parliament, Chacour is a fascinating figure of moderation in a land known for anything but.
Chacour is a visible symbol of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who struggle with self-identity and conflicting loyalties to their Jewish friends in Israel and their freedom-seeking brothers and sisters living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Not only does the film explore the ideas and philosophy of Chacour, but it also reveals some of the complexity of life that are unique to Israeli Christian Palestinians. One of Chacour’s female relatives, explaining that she is stuck between Jewish and Muslim extremism, says, “We’re torn in two; other’s can’t explain us.”
But Elias Chacour, whose nickname is Abuna, recognizes that because he is Christian, he enjoys a cultural relationship to Europe and the U.S. that his Muslim counterparts do not. “You can destroy 1,000 mosques and the Western world does nothing,” says Chacour. But destroy one church, and the world is up in arms, he adds, while discussing his Mar Elias church being constructed in the Galilee. Shaped like a boat, the church symbolizes the Palestinian population’s need to move forward.
Although Chacour and his Muslim and Christian students are Israeli citizens, they do not have the same rights and privileges that are endowed to Jewish citizens of Israel. Chacour says that he was denied building permits for his school in Ibiliu, which was to be erected on a hill that would have been perfect for Jewish construction. Chacour built anyways. An Israeli official asked him during the construction process if he had a permit, and Chacour said no. How can you build without a permit, the official asked. “I build with iron, cement, and stone,” not permits, responded Chacour.Chacour doesn’t reserve his language play to just discriminatory Israeli permit laws. Speaking to a group of visitors, Chacour explains, “I don’t know about you … I was not born Christian; I was born a baby.” It is gems like these that reveal Chacour’s distinctive way of interpreting the world.
It is clear from the film that Chacour’s father had a great influence in his personal philosophy and peaceful demeanor. “A simple Galilean,” Chacour says his father urged his community to welcome the Jewish immigrants before the Palestinian dispossession. “ ‘Don’t be afraid,’” Chacour’s father said of the immigrants, “ ‘They’ve escaped a madman named Hitler … We must prepare a grand feat for them to show they are welcome. … We cannot forget that they are our blood brothers!’”
Chacour’s family was “deeply hurt” by the Jewish immigrants’ reaction to their hospitality, when they were chased from their homes and their village demolished four years later. Currently, a kibbutz stands on their former village of Ba’ram, and the state of Israel will not even let the family resettle in a piece of overgrown forest that rests on where the village once stood. Shimon Peres once asked Chacour when he would forget about his family’s claims to Ba’ram, which Chacour presents to court every few years. Chacour told Peres, “Mr. Peres, you left Palestine 2,000 years ago and you came back to make our life hell. When are you going to forget that Palestine is also your country?”
It is Chacour’s goal to heal the souls and regain the dignity of his people. He hopes to convert people “not to Christianity, but to hope.” Chacour is one of those preachers of non-violence that the rest of the world says the Palestinians need to offer before the international community can be bothered to do anything about their plight. And young voices are following in his wake; a young female student of his says that while she feels out of place as an Israeli citizen, and notes the discrimination she faces, she has decided to stay put instead of going to Canada because Israel “would love” to have the Palestinians leave.
Elias Chacour is a visually rich film that shows its viewers a part of the conflict that is not widely known — the experience of Palestinian citizens of Israel. And Chacour himself is a Palestinian man of peace and non-violence whose message, unfortunately, doesn’t make it to the news reports on death and destruction. While the film does have a few awkward moments — there is a scene that recreates a moment of Chacour’s childhood that seems out of place, and the use of digital effects in some scene transitions is gratuitous and inconsistent — it successfully profiles Chacour as an important thinker, while addressing the complex problems faced by Israeli Palestinians and the conflict in general. Israel is becoming a state for Jews alone, Chacour warns, “not a Jewish state — this is very dangerous.”
Maureen Clare Murphy, a recent graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is Arts, Music, and Culture Editor for EI