By Daoud Kuttab
When movie star Richard Gere last visited Ramallah, the Palestinian city was under curfew by Israeli occupiers. His insistence in June 2003 to meet with Palestinian Culture Minister Ziad Abu Amer, legislator Hanan Ashrawi, artists, filmmakers and civil society leaders won the Hollywood celebrity high points among Palestinians.
This courage allowed him to make a semi-public visit to the Palestinian cultural capital, despite being asked to stay away by leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
In Ramallah, Gere met Saturday with former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Speaking by phone to Arab News from the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, Gere called Fayyad “an old friend and one of the smartest Palestinians I know.”
The star of blockbuster movies, such as “Pretty Woman,” “Chicago” and “An Officer and a Gentleman,” said of Fayyad: “You have one of the most energetic and optimistic leaders. It’s very important to have optimistic people. This optimism you can’t buy with money.”
When Arab News asked Gere if he is still in a listening mood, as he said he was on his first visit in 2003, he replied: “I’m still listening, although I have a point of view. I’m always trying to update myself.”
Upon his arrival in Tel Aviv, he proved he has a point of view, saying: “In my past visits I always heard as many points of view as I could. Now clearly the situation has become almost impossible. The occupation must end. The occupation is destroying everyone on both sides. A bi-national state won’t solve anything, and it will only turn Israel into an apartheid state. There needs to be two states for two peoples, with Jerusalem as the capital of both nations.”
Before going to Ramallah, Gere visited the old city of Hebron and was shocked at what he saw, calling it a “surreal” and “depressing” experience. The “clash of narratives is pretty stark here.”
He said he was excited by the energy he saw among young Palestinians, adding that one of the most important meetings he had was with a group called “Yal-La young leaders.” They “are young people who work in cyberspace, organize classes on the web and have started communications between all parties, including Jewish Israelis, Palestinian Israelis and young people in the Arab world.”
He added: “I was so impressed with their ability to look to the future, be optimistic and see things in the long term. It isn’t just from an emotional base. They’re able to get past their prejudices and start knowing the other and liking them. I’m optimistic with the generation of these young people who are in their 20s and 30s.”
Gere also met with young Palestinian creative artists who voiced frustration over financing and distribution challenges. “They told me it was harder for them as Palestinians to make and get their films to be seen than Israeli filmmakers. I told them it isn’t easy for anyone in this business to find money and distribution.” Gere told Arab News he had to find independent funding for his last five films, and it was hard getting them distributed.
His visit to Palestine coincided with the premier of his latest film “Norman,” about an American Jewish fixer (played by Gere) who he buys expensive shows for a deputy prime minister of Israel who later becomes prime minister.
The BDS leadership had urged him not to go to Israel, saying: “In 2008, you called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics for it would be ‘unconscionable’ to attend the games if China failed to deal with the protests there peacefully. In the same vein, we urge you to cancel your upcoming participation in the Jerusalem premier of Norman, even though you starred in it.”
Close friends say Gere was in a quandary, because he wanted to show respect to the boycott call but also wanted to engage with the parties and update himself on the conflict. He said BDS leaders were respectful to him.
“I understand their position, but in this case I felt it was more important for me to speak truth to power as much and as often as I could. It was more important for me to have these experiences, and to see for myself how this oppression is destroying everybody. One thing everyone needs to know is that I’m not owned by anybody. I’m not owned by the Israelis or the Palestinians. I’m owned by the truth. I try to update my knowledge of the truth.”
Arab News asked Gere, who has been involved in films about the people of Tibet and other human rights issues, if he is willing to appear in a Palestinian feature film. “Why not,” he replied. “My only criteria are the quality of the script and the production. Naturally I’d have to be emotionally connected, but that isn’t enough. It has to be a quality film. I won’t discriminate if it’s a Palestinian film. In fact, I’d look closer if it was a Palestinian director.”
Gere concluded: “I have a special place in my heart for Palestinians, and I have a special empathy for their suffering.”