A Dream of Courage to Attain Peace
American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Wars make poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”
More than sixty years after the war that cemented Israel’s statehood, known both as the War of Independence and The Catastrophe, Jews and Palestinians alike can affirm the truth in King’s declaration. In the film, Little Town of Bethlehem, coming out this October, three men from either side of the concrete wall that now separates Israel and Palestine, talk about growing up under the cloud of this long conflict and how it has shaped each of their lives.
Palestinians Sami Awad and Ahmad Al'Azzeh, and a former member of the Israeli military, Yonatan Shapira, share stories about dodging bullets, being turned away at checkpoints and also the importance of family and growing up with pride in their national identity. The similar thread in their stories is how they embraced King’s philosophy of nonviolence, forgave their enemies and began working together to find a new way to resolve the conflict.
This is EthnoGraphic Media’s fifth film dealing with the tension between differing ideologies, each of which focuses on individuals caught up and victimized by clashes. While most think of the conflict in the Middle East as between Jew and Muslim, imagery in director Jim Hanon’s Little Town of Bethlehem - such as the title it shares with the famed Christmas carol, along with the graffiti-like motion graphics of Joseph and a pregnant Mary, on a donkey, moving along the wall that separates Israel from Palestine - reminds Christians of their own roots in Bethlehem.
The film shows how this city, the birthplace of the “prince of peace,” functions poorly as a makeshift home for thousands of displaced Palestinians.
Awad says that he used to travel often to see family in the United States, and he would tell Americans about the conditions in his homeland after Israel’s military operations. “Nobody knew anything about our situation,” he says. “Nobody knew what a Palestinian was. Bethlehem was Israel,” as depicted in the Bible.
Clips from the American civil rights protests, and those in India led by Gandhi, appear in the film as a reminder that this conflict, too, is a struggle for equality. King’s march on Washington D.C., and his dream that “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls” is there, Hanon says, to give the film’s viewers a vision for ending this conflict.
Right now, nonviolent groups march each week in Bethlehem to demand the concrete barrier be torn down, so both sides can learn to live together again. But it will take more than handshakes and happy songs. Just as demonstrators were beaten and hauled off by police in Alabama, the same courage will be necessary to peacefully resist Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Awad said in an interview before the screening at Boston College, “Nonviolence is the path of the strong and the brave…it’s not about sitting together, singing Kumbaya and we’ll see what happens. We say it is not difficult to shoot at a tank that is 300 meters away, but when you are ready to stand, without any arms, right in front of that tank, to not allow it to come into your village, and you’re ready to sacrifice your life in that, this is what bravery is about.”
A poignant part in the film, of which there are several, is learning about the journey to a life of nonviolence traveled by Yonatan Shapira.
While serving as an Israeli helicopter pilot, Shapira attended a Jewish activists meeting and heard a Palestinian man tell of losing his sister in a recent helicopter attack. Sickened by the news and with a new resolve, Shapira drafted and published a letter of refusal to follow orders for missions in Palestine. He convinced 25 other pilots to join him and helped found the group Combatants for Peace. But the loss of his childhood pride in the military, his new understanding of the role his country played in harming innocents, and the desire for his people to exist as a nation, turn his life upside down.
He defended his choice to upset friends and family, citing the principals of the Israeli military. First is a respect for human dignity and to not fight innocents. “The second principal,” he says, “is the Purity of Arms. We don’t kill just to kill. We do everything only to defend. That’s why we call it the IDF, the Israeli DEFENSE Forces.”
Unlike the award-winning 2008 animated film “Waltz With Bashir,” by Ari Folman, which deals with Israeli soldiers trying to cope with their dark memories of violence during the 1982 war with Lebanon, Shapira finds healing and relief from his choice and his entire family, even his father, a decorated military pilot, who also takes up the work of promoting peace and reconciliation.
This isn’t just a film, but a nudge. With optimism at a low in Palestine for the renewed peace talks to be anything more than “just another Oslo,” the men in this film believe it is the nonviolence movement for a liberated Palestine that the U.S. and the global community should support.
“We want to stir their hearts,” says Hanon, a former advertising executive, when asked why the film screenings are on a North American college campus tour. “[Young people] don’t want to just talk. They want to do it, they want to live it.”
Awad and his colleagues welcome the support of a Palestinian-led resistance, and all the men hope their people will achieve King’s dream in their lifetime. “We’ve sat together,” says Shapira, who has met his enemies at the table and looked in their eyes. “Nobody can tell us these things are too far to reach.”
OMB Video Collage of opinions following the film's screening at Boston College. Produced by Annie Shreffler.