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Encounters with Israeli cinema

January 22, 2011

This post is a consideration of Ella Shohat’s discussion of her book, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary at Alwan for the Arts in New York this week. Academic writing about Palestine/Israel, especially Zionism (described in Shohat’s book as ‘an anomalous project—at once a liberation movement for Jews and a colonial imposition on Palestinians’), is still a contentious endeavor, though as she recounts, conditions for serious critique have improved drastically since the 1980s. In lieu of summarizing or reviewing the book itself, which is widely available in a reprinted edition (with an expansive new postscript), this is an attempt at understanding the book through the after-experiences of its author, with the hope that it allows a glimpse into the historical trajectory of cultural studies, Palestine-Israel and American academia.

Ella Shohat’s Israeli Cinema, written in 1986, was based on her doctoral dissertation at New York University and was ‘published virtually unaltered’ three years later by the University of Texas Press. The timing is significant as it was written before the first Intifada, a pre-Oslo time that Shohat remembers as hostile to any utterance of Palestine in the American academic context (she remarks dryly: ‘Palestinians didn’t exist’). In the face of daily onslaughts on Palestinian under occupation and their racial segregation in Israeli society today, it is worth looking back to the discursive handcuffs doled out just 20 years ago on anyone who dared question national mythologies:

Merely enunciating the word ‘Palestine,’ or displaying images of the Israeli and Palestinian flags side-by-side, was considered unpatriotic and even treasonous by the mainstream. Meetings between Israeli citizens and Palestinian representatives were banned, and Israelis who dared cross the lines risked imprisonment. The dominant Israeli media and academia resisted any Palestinian counternarrative, while also silencing a Sephardi/Mizrahi/Arab-Jewish perspective dissonant with the premises of the Zionist masternarrative. The only ‘legitimate’ Sephardi/Mizrahi position was to parrot the standard rhetoric of a ‘population exchange’ between Palestinians and Jews of Arab/Muslim countries.

Shohat discusses other personal risks associated with writing the book, such as her collegiality and friendship with Edward Said. As an Israeli citizen and academic, having any encounter with Said was considered impermissible. ‘Meeting with Palestinian intellectuals, to put it in a polite way, was not easy.’

Linking migration to the question of Palestine and Orientalism was one other difficult step. One early reviewer said she and Said were ‘bewildered colonial niggers.’ The true sting of this attack was that it originated from left-wing Israeli society in Tel Aviv. While that culture is generally opposed to the occupation of Palestine, ‘ethnocentrism and Eurocentrism are deeply embedded in Israeli society.’

Initial reception to the book was mixed, and Shohat was most ruffled by the default assumption that she espoused a Zionist and/or nationalistic perspective. What she set out to do with the book was exactly the opposite, that is, a deconstruction of Zionism that rather than conceding its dominance (which peer publications did at the time), questioning how it depicted Palestine and the reverse image of itself in its cinema.

Secondly, she wanted to place rightful emphasis on the ‘agency of cinema in narrating the nation.’ Cinema in Israel was born, she reminds, when Zionism was born there. The creation and representation of a ‘modern Israel’ were so intertwined that the streets of Tel Aviv would be cleaned before shooting a film. There was something unique about this relationship: cinema would aid in engineering a new nation and national culture. And unlike literature, cinema is consumed publicly, making its cultural reach even more diffusely felt on a national ‘community.’

Early cinematographers in Israel would show ‘an empty land, even when you could see Palestinian peasants in the shot.’ When Palestinians could be dismissed as ‘indigenous’ extensions of the land, it was easier to turn them into semi-invisible motifs. It’s a terrifying case of art imitating life, retroactively emboldening the State’s un/official motto ‘a land without a people, for a people without a land.’

(An interjection by way of ongoing land grabs: On 16 January, 2011, two days before Shohat’s talk, the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) and a significant police presence continued its demolition of the Bedouin village of Al Arakib for the ninth time since its destruction in July 2010, as part of a plan to ‘rid the Negev of its Bedouin residents.’)

When Palestinians were not depicted as ‘monstrous’ or cut out of the visual imaginary altogether in Israeli cinema, positive representations remained circumspect. They were drawn as ‘good Arabs’ in a similar way to ‘good Indians’ in early Westerns when they accepted the premise of a Zionist state. In other words, positive portrayals were contingent on palatable and sycophantic ‘applause’ toward Israel.

Even recent ‘good’ films like The Band’s Visit carry the consequence of national amnesia. For Shohat, an Iraqi Jew who grew up in Israel, this is a hugely (and rightfully) sore point: the Mizrahim in that film, much like in Israel’s social and cultural history, are deracinated from any traces of a formerly Arab culture: ‘It’s like they forgot they were Arab upon entering Israel.’ If Zionism enacts the punishment of invisibility on Palestinians, it also denies forms of Arab cultural practice to Mizrahi Jews.

The book’s struggle in the publication process, she continues, was ‘no smooth sailing. Her case shows the importance of early reviewers in the publication process, and the advances made when astute book editors overlook ideological oppositions in making their decisions. A political science reviewer wrote ‘PLO PROPAGANDA’ in uppercase letters on every other page of the manuscript (the PLO was a designated ‘terrorist’ group at the time). The book only moved ahead when the editor sought out a film and cultural studies reviewer, a field that Shohat describes as more expansive and less beholden to lagging ideas vis-à-vis cultural critique.

Shohat was offered lucrative contracts but ultimately decided on University of Texas Press because of its ‘critical context of colonial discourse,’ and as she writes in the book, ‘because of its substantial list of books devoted to what used to be called “Third World Literature and Cinema.”‘ Initially, a graphic designer wanted the book to be covered in ‘blue-and-white, with a big Star of David’ on the front. When Shohat contested that choice, on the grounds that her book’s premise was a critique of nationalism, the designer told her: ‘You don’t know anything about publishing.’ The book was first published without a photographic cover until its reprint, for which Shohat chose an image from Route 181, a film she calls an ‘alternative, collaborative project on partition’ by Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan. (In a case of tragicomic error, the book was published in Egypt with the translator’s picture on the back. A more cumbersome error is Shohat herself described as an American Jew, leaving out her identity as an Iraqi Jew and a critical scholar raised in Israel and not the United States.)

Her choice of Route 181 is a fortuitous one, I think. It shows how reception, spectatorship and censorship play acute roles in the afterlife of films, especially ‘alternative’ or independently-minded films that upend nationalistic mythologies. The film was redacted by the French Ministry of Culture, which issued an unprecedented statement at its exhibition:

The Centre Pompidou and the Bpi have together decided to reduce the number of screenings of the film to one, instead of the two originally planned, and to warn the audience before the screening of the dangers of any unilateral point-of-view.

Update: This post has been reprinted on Mondoweiss.

(Photo: production still from Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel.)

[Related: ‘We make films, not wars’: on Michel Khleifi’s Zindeeq]

[Related: Pasolini filming Palestine]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mehammed permalink
    January 23, 2011 11:12

    Hey M I really admire the discipline of your blog! Totally bookmarking.
    The French censorship saga continues this week. The Ecole Normale Superieure, where I was an exchange scholar last year, canceled an event supporting those who launched the academic and cultural boycott movement.
    I also ironically like how the Centre Pompidou has called “unilaterally” biased a film directed by a Palestinian and an Israeli.
    When censorship affects the halls of high-culture and higher-learning, you know you’ve got a problem on your hands.

  2. South/South permalink*
    January 23, 2011 14:21

    The French have an alternative expression for censorship: laïcité. It’s alarming that secularism has been turned into a politically correct mandate, under which the government gets to decide who/what is ‘unilateral’ and how far they can go.

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