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Of “Miral”, Goldstone and Israel: The Ambivalent Tones of Jewish Criticism

George Alan Baumgarten, UN Correspondent, May 6, 2011

Miral, the recently-released film by artist/director Julian Schnabel, seems a strange and almost disquieting project: a film made by a Jewish director, with the support and participation of many Israelis, yet deeply critical of Israel, its government and its policies. And it was shown—despite vociferous protest from the Jewish community—in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations.

Schnabel is primarily an artist, and—in my short conversation with him—made clear that he still regards himself as such. But he has made one previous major film (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). And he wanted to make this film to tell some of [what he regards as] the truth about the Middle East, and—ostensibly—to inspire some efforts toward peace, between Israel and the Palestinians.

Miral was first published as a novel by the Palestinian journalist (then resident in Italy) Rula Jebreal. It tells—in a loosely autobiographical account—of a Palestinian teenager, growing up in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, during the so-called “First” Intifada.  (This appellation in fact reflects a major lapse of historical memory: that uprising was, in fact, the fourth intifada, having been preceded by  previous uprisings in pre-State Palestine, in 1920, 1929 and 1936-’39.). Why these previous events escape the collective memory of the media and modern historians has always been a mystery to this correspondent.

The story in fact begins nearly half a century earlier, on the eve of Israel’s foundation, with scenes in Jerusalem’s historic American Colony Hotel. Bertha Spofford Vester, daughter of its founder,  is portrayed as having been something of a midwife to the Dar el Tifel Institute, a British-style boarding school for Palestinian girls founded by the educator Hind Husseini. Ms. Vester, played by the British actress Vanessa Redgrave, is made a major character in the opening chapters of the story. Ms. Redgrave, who was at the U.N. premiere, told me that she very much wanted to be involved in the project, and—knowing her propensity for bizarrely extremist causes—I did not press her for any further opinion. Suffice it to say, however, that the whole early thread of the plot and the involvement of Ms. Vester in it gave rise to one [rather justified] criticism of the film: that it meanders dramatically for some 45 minutes before we are even introduced to Miral, who is to be the main character.

Miral (Rula Jebreal’s fictionalized characterization of herself) is taken as a very young girl to Hind Husseini’s Dar el Tifel Institute, after her mother’s unfortunate suicide. While a teenager in the days of the Intifada, she becomes involved with some suspected terrorists whom the police are seeking. There is a graphic scene of her torture, under detention, which is the single most controversial aspect of the story. Ms. Jebreal did not say whether she believed this alleged torture (the marks of which director Schnabel says he has seen) was done as a matter of policy…or merely the work of sadistic, out-of-line police officers. But it does color the film…and its ultimate message. Shortly afterward, Miral is sent off to Italy for further studies, and an ultimate journalistic career.

The “panel” which followed the film showing was moderated by Dan Rather, and featured Schnabel and Jebreal. Also included were the Egyptian-born Palestinian journalist,  Mona Eltahawy, Rabbi Irwin Kula, a Conservative Rabbi who heads the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL), and Yonatan Shapira, a retired officer in the Israel Air Force.

Rabbi Kula and Eltahawy spoke of the need for understanding between Palestinians and Israelis. Elthahawy in particular told me afterward that recent efforts toward peace have been virtually worthless. But the most radical words came—ironically—from Shapira, the former Israel Air Force officer.  He spoke of the evils of Israel’s “occupation” of Palestine. And—in a tone that could only be described as “talking down” to his audience, railed on the importance of “B.D.S.”, as though no one in the audience had ever heard of it (The reference was to the current campaign—particularly on college campuses—for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”, against the State of Israel.).  Quite a mouthful, from a former fighter for the Jewish state.

In sum, this film—largely Jewish-made, was largely one of criticism of Israel and its actions, particularly during the Intifada. While it raises various questions, it provides little evidence for them…and certainly shies away from answers.

Just a few days after the Miral showing, a program was held (in the auditorium of the U.N. Library, under the auspices of the United Nations Correspondents’ Association), for  the publication of a “new” edition of the notorious “Goldstone Report”, commissioned by the U.N. to investigate the Gaza War (“Operation Cast Lead”, December 2008—January 2009).

The Commission had been created by the U.N.’s equally notorious “Human Rights Council”, based in Geneva. Considering its history, the government of Israel had decided not to cooperate with the Commission, chaired by the South African Jewish jurist Richard J. Goldstone. Goldstone, who had been a jurist for some years, was involved in post-apartheid “reconciliation efforts in his native South Afica. He later served as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The report as issued found both Israel and Hamas guilty of various war crimes (Goldstone has recently recanted many of its conclusions in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post.).  In an e-mail to this correspondent, he declined to answer any of my questions, “either on or off the record”.

The book presented was a “new edition” of the Report. It omitted just a few chapters (The exact subject of which I’ve been able to easily establish), and added essays by various author/commentators. It was edited by Adam Horowitz. Lizzy Ratner and Philip Weiss. All three editors are identified as journalists, living in the New York area. Weiss is the editor of a blog, mondoweiss. net, of which Horowitz is the co-editor. Ratner is the daughter of Bruce Ratner, former owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team and developer of the Atlantic Avenue railyards project in downtown Brooklyn.

The book presents—in addition to the text of the Goldstone Report proper—some eleven essays by various authors, mostly Jewish or Arab-American. The include: Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms magazine and Past President of Americans for Peace Now (The Unholy Assault on Richard Goldstone); Rashid Khalidi, Chair of the Middle East Studies Program at Columbia and author of The Iron Cage (Palestinian Dispossession and the U.S. Public Sphere) and Rabbi Henry Siegman (former national direct

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