By Seraj Assi
‘They whom got shy died,’ goes the Arab proverb. In Hebrew they call it Chutzpah, that is, the quality of extreme audacity. Nowhere is Israel’s Chutzpah more acute than in the story the Palestinian actor and director Muhammad Bakri and the Sisyphean war waged on his 2002 documentary Jenin Jenin.
The story began in April 2002, when the Israeli Defense Forces invaded the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, leveled it to the ground, killed more than seventy people and buried civilians alive in their demolished homes and smoldering buildings.
During Operation Defensive Shield (the Israeli official name for the Jenin massacre), the IDF refused to allow journalists, human rights and humanitarian organizations into the camp. Jenin remained sealed for days after the invasion.
Bakri was among the first to enter the camp after the massacre and collect oral testimonies from local residents in Jenin. His Jenin Jenin came to narrate the story of the ruined camp and the massacre’s survivors.
On 23 June 2002, the film’s Executive Producer, Iyad Samoudi, was killed in Alyamoun at the end of the filming by Israeli soldiers. Bakri continues to receive death threats. The war on Jenin Jenin continues to this very day.
Israel’s hysterical campaign against Jenin Jenin is not over the film’s politics; quite the contrary, its provocative professionalism. Anyone who watched Jenin-Jenin was struck by Bakri’s genuine capacity to maintain a high degree of professionalism in the midst of a wasted camp. Neither ideology nor politics was allowed into the narrative. Bakri does not talk in the film. He allows residents from the camp to tell their own story. His commitment to truth was the only narrative operating in the film.
The film earned two awards: the “Best Film” award at the Carthage International Film Festival in 2002, and the International Prize for Mediterranean Documentary Filmmaking and Reporting.
The film was banned by the Israeli Film Board. The Israeli High Court labeled it a “propagandistic lie,” while some in the press rushed to classify it as anti-Semitic. But this is not the end of the story.
In 2007, five Israeli soldiers who took part in the Jenin massacre sued Bakri for “emotional distress.” The soldiers did not appear in the film. Yet their claim was rational enough for the Israeli court to demand that Bakri apologize to the solders and reproduce the film in a way “not offensive to the feelings of the Israeli soldiers.” Bakri refused to apologize.
Israel’s policy towards Palestinians has long been predicated on ensuring that Palestinian blood remains far cheaper than the “feelings” of its solders. Yet we must be reminded that when Israel demands apology from its victims, it is serious about it. For violence against Palestinians is not only legitimate from the Israeli perspective; rather, it is necessary. Its rationality stands alone and has its own logic and morality. That Israel demands that Bakri apologize for its own crime is not a mere audacity. It is a colonial mentality.
Meanwhile, liberal writers in Israel chose to wage their war on the hypocrisy of the state continues to bill itself as the only democracy in the region while banning people from telling the truth. Yet one might wonder, isn’t precisely this democracy what permits Israel to kill Palestinians and ask them to apologize when they lament their victims? Isn’t the oxymoron of the Jewish/democratic state what after all enables its soldiers to kill Palestinians whenever they please and feel offended when they are reminded of their crime?
How else could we make sense of the sundry Knesset bills starting from the Nakba law through the loyalty law, religious conversion bill, the bill regulating admission to “Jews-only” communities, the bill against foreign boycotts of the settlements? What could Israel’s democracy be than a democracy goaded into the service of a colonial enterprise and ethnic hegemony?
If our criticism of Israel will continue to revolve around its contemporary political hypocrisy without we take into consideration its colonial foundations, we are wasting our time. For occupation by its very nature is hypocritical and functions on hypocrisy. We shall not let our criticism of Israel’s violence against Palestinian fall into wasted polemics and political exercise. Nor shall we forget that for a country founded on racist colonial mentality, violence is not subject to moral negotiation.
Jenin Jenin’s team is neither the first nor the last victim of Israel’s campaign of terrorization of Palestinian filmmakers, artists and activists whose struggle for truth could hardly keep pace with its unrestrained violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel itself. Israel will continue its Sisyphean war on truth. People like Bakri will continue to do anything to tell it. That is where our struggle should begin.
Massacring Truth was the title taken by an Israeli journalist to label Bakri the subject. That is to identify the victim with the act of massacring; a theme so characteristic to Israel’s Chutzpah whose insistence to manipulate the truth and reorder the world is maintained regardless of any evidence disputing it. It is into this manipulation industry of truth where executors become victims and victims become executors. No wonder systematic victimization has become the founding narrative in Israel’s political discourse.
Here I insist on the title’s reversed meaning to remind us that truth can never be manipulated. It is to remind us that, to end with another Arabic proverb, “No right is lost, as long as someone remains asking for it.”
– Seraj Assi is a PhD Student in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.