I believe the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is falsely interpreted. People think it’s God breathing life into Adam. I don’t think so. It’s God teaching Adam the value of finger-pointing. He’s explaining that you won’t be able to get anywhere in this life without blaming others for things you’re responsible for. Which brings us to Israel.
I was last in the country more than 20 years ago, for my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Everything was O.K. It was the last days of the Clinton administration. And every night we would go to East Jerusalem to a Palestinian restaurant. It was lovely. I can’t quite believe that in the intervening two decades things have gone from sort of O.K. to bad, to worse, to worse even still.
Everything was peaceful, and then Ariel Sharon marched up to the Temple Mount. Here is the report from The Guardian:
“Dozens of people were injured in rioting on the West Bank and in Jerusalem yesterday as the hawkish Likud party leader, Ariel Sharon, staged a provocative visit to a Muslim shrine at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surrounded by hundreds of Israeli riot police, Mr. Sharon and a handful of Likud politicians marched up to the Haram al-Sharif, the site of the gold Dome of the Rock that is the third holiest shrine in Islam. He came down 45 minutes later, leaving a trail of fury. Young Palestinians heaved chairs, stones, rubbish bins, and whatever missiles came to hand at the Israeli forces. Riot police retaliated with tear gas and rubber bullets, shooting one protester in the face.”
Some people want peace. Others want war.
A kerfuffle about two Israeli documentaries has been making headlines recently. Israeli minister of culture Miki Zohar is demanding that filmmakers sign a declaration that they won’t use public money to create content that “harms the state of Israel or IDF soldiers,” threatening to claw back government funds used to finance the films. The prohibition is vague at best: everything and anything might be considered harmful to Israel by someone. Viewed in the broader context of Israeli politics—the attacks on public broadcasting, the threat to an independent judiciary—the picture is grim indeed.
Recently I was contacted by a friend, Avner Shahaf, who shot H2: Occupation Lab, one of the films causing the uproar. (The other is called Two Kids a Day. Its title refers to the average number of Palestinian minors arrested by Israeli police each day.) H2: Occupation Lab is about the Israeli occupation of Hebron in the West Bank. I suggested it might be worth getting on the phone and having a discussion with the co-directors, Noam Sheizaf and Idit Avrahami, about the situation in Israel and the making of the film.
Errol Morris: So, how did this all start?
Noam Sheizaf: We failed to end the occupation. And then it got to us.
Avner Shahaf: We thought that we are a democracy, and now we understand that it’s not really a democracy as long as we occupy the lands of other people.
Idit Avrahami: When we are occupying another people for over 50 years, the roots get in. We were in the army at age of 18, and our kids are going into the army now. So, it continues. Twenty years ago, there was some kind of hope with the peace agreement—
Morris: The Camp David summit. There was no final accord, but there was hope.
Avrahami: And then [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin got shot by a right-winger [in 1995]. Ever since then, it’s [current prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s days. Netanyahu himself is a corrupted person. And the occupation is there all the time.
Sheizaf: The conflict and the occupation are directly linked to the success of Netanyahu. This government, which is a very radical, right-wing government, was formed mainly because it campaigned against the former government, which for the first time had the Palestinian party as part of the coalition. Netanyahu really hated that.
It’s basically a Jewish majority here that wants to keep its privileges, doesn’t want to take out the settlements, doesn’t want to give citizenship [to Palestinians]. No one-state solution, no two-state solution. It’s Jewish supremacy. And I think until a major crisis hits here, people are going to vote for it because they don’t have a reason not to.
The left’s argument is let’s end occupation, take out the settlements. But that’s very complicated, and there’s nothing to be gained from it. So people vote for the system and get radicalized.
And now we reach, like Avner said, this point where things start to break. The system begins to eat itself. That’s how I think. First it ate the Palestinians. Now it will eat the filmmakers, the cultural world, the judges.
Morris: It’s a bleak point of view.
Sheizaf: Well, I’m nearing 50, and Idit is 45. I never voted for a party that made it to the government. We have an experience here of 20 years under right-wing governments. And every government was worse than the preceding one. We used to think that the previous ones were bad, but every time there’s a knock from the floor, you get into another cellar and you hear more knocks from below.
We focused on Hebron in the film. But we wanted to tell a story about Israel as a whole. We think it’s a gradual system that intensifies and intensifies.
The prohibition is vague at best: everything and anything might be considered harmful to Israel by someone.
Morris: Well, I’m fond of saying that you should give in to despair and you’ll never be disappointed.
Sheizaf: People who were indifferent or thought they can be nonpolitical have mobilized now. That’s the good thing. Every Saturday we go for a huge protest in Tel Aviv. So we’ll see what happens with it.
Shahaf: We’re very polite in the way that we protest. I think it’s good for us to feel that we are doing something, but it’s not enough. It’s a start.
Morris: I’m a little surprised. I thought somehow, maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, that Netanyahu was finished. Originally, I suggested it was like Whac-a-Mole, but I was corrected by my editor. It’s more like an inflatable boxing clown.
Sheizaf: He’s like Trump. Netanyahu’s willing to go to places that his opponents are not. And he’s a gambler. For five elections in a row, he didn’t win [a clear majority]. But in the end, he won. He just had to win one, and now he has this absolute majority, and he’s going to reshape the entire system. It’s very depressing.
Morris: What effect did Trump and Jared Kushner have on Israeli politics? The moving of the embassy to Jerusalem, et cetera.
Sheizaf: Oh, they did more than that. They gave the right the feeling that they can be much bolder. The right here and everywhere was timid. Trump showed the radicals, the populists around the world, that you can break all the norms. The unimaginable was becoming imaginable. That’s the legacy of Trump.
Morris: And specifically the things that he did in Israel, do you think they exacerbated the situation?
Sheizaf: Oh, certainly, certainly. He crowned Netanyahu as his foreign-policy king. He gave him peace agreements. Netanyahu never had peace agreements before. He gave him these deals with the Emirates and everything. And he moved the embassy. And the right are waiting for him to return. Or for Nikki Haley or anyone [from the Republican Party] in two years. They’re stating it obviously. They say, “We’ll do the big things when they return.”
Morris: I liked your film. I wonder in general about political films and what good they can do.
AVRAHAMI: We think political movies do change things. I want to believe that we should still make political movies.
Morris: You have to because you don’t know. You can be really, truly pessimistic about everything and you can at least document things, which you have done. That is an important thing to do, in and of itself, to document what’s going on in Hebron. I think it’s an important film just for that reason.
Sheizaf: People in Tel Aviv don’t know what’s going on in Hebron, and it’s an hour’s drive. We used to go back to Tel Aviv after shooting in Hebron. Our friends would say, “Come have a beer with us,” and it was so weird. Just the level of emotion that you carry from when you were there.
Morris: I’m curious, what specifically did Kushner and Trump do to further de-stabilize this whole situation?
Sheizaf: They gave the right the ability to talk about annexation.
Morris: Annexation would mean what, exactly?
Sheizaf: As you see in the film, this is a military occupation. The military is the ultimate authority in the West Bank, the occupied territories. Technically, they’re not part of Israel. But [the government] wants to annex the territories, to annex the settlements, and to turn it all into Israel proper, to make it irreversible. Trump and Kushner offered the deal of the century. They said that Israel would be able to annex the settlements. Netanyahu’s apartheid system would be legalized.
Idit and I did our political growing up in the 80s and 90s. We used to think the world would not stand for Israel doing certain things. The world would never recognize the annexation of Jerusalem. The world would never recognize depriving Palestinians [of their] rights for good. The world would never recognize apartheid.
Trump came and showed the right that it’s not true. He legitimized these things. And Biden never reversed anything that Trump did.
Shahaf: I believe that it’s not a Trump and Kushner issue. I think it’s much more complicated. You are talking here with three people that served in the army. We are all left-wing, but we served in the army. We could have said, “We won’t serve, and we’ll pay the price for it,” but we decided to go, and we rationalized it for ourselves. It was easy for us to do it. So I also blame the leftists here in Israel. It was really easy for us and comfortable to believe that everything is O.K. Now it’s just blown up in our face.
Morris: When did you realize that things were going off the rails? You knew it all along, no? That these policies were doomed?
Shahaf: I believe the game has changed. Netanyahu decided to break the rules. He is trying to destroy everything here just to get rid of his [corruption] trial.
Avrahami: And the right has only gotten bigger and bigger. Like in our movie, Itamar Ben-Gvir, he grew up in Hebron. He’s a resident there. Now he’s the minister of police. There are two from Hebron in the government. In the last 20 years—and, obviously in the last few years, much more dramatically—those who were outcast once are now taking charge of the country. In only four or five weeks since this government took power, they are destroying everything.
Sheizaf: The reform of the judicial system. They’re going to take over the Supreme Court.
Avrahami: And for us, as documentarians, they’re trying to shut down the public-television station.
Sheizaf: Our PBS.
“The right here and everywhere was timid. Trump showed the radicals, the populists around the world, that you can break all the norms. The unimaginable was becoming imaginable.”
Avrahami: And they’re trying to change the rules about funding of movies like ours that are more critical. Our movie is being told not by Palestinians saying, “Look at us. The Palestinians are so poor,” but by the officers who were in control of the place. And still, they want to shut us down. These are crazy times.
On the other hand, people are using the word “occupation” in the last few months, which they didn’t before. There is something happening. I don’t know, maybe I’m the only one who’s optimistic here in this conversation.
Sheizaf: It’s not exactly optimism. I think we all share a feeling that this is a big political moment in Israel. It’s a crisis, and a crisis has many, many risks but also some opportunities, maybe. I think that’s what we’re trying to say.
What Idit said about Ben-Gvir is very important. The person who’s our national homeland-security minister comes from this tiny community of settlers that we see in the film. That’s the kind of worldview that he brings to the government.
Morris: So how would you describe that worldview?
Sheizaf: He comes from Meir Kahane’s movement. [Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League, an ultra-right-wing Zionist organization. He advocated for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and Palestine, and for Israeli theocracy. He was assassinated in 1990, but his movement, sometimes called Kahanism, is alive and well.] It’s a movement that was outlawed in the U.S. and Israel. He belongs to one of its offspring. They have a different name. “Jewish Power,” they call themselves. But that’s basically the Jewish Defense League. Do you remember J.D.L.?
Morris: Of course I remember J.D.L.
Sheizaf: These are J.D.L. people. He’s in government now. He’s the homeland-security minister. That’s what’s scary for us. Two years ago, we thought that Netanyahu would never make a coalition with [Ben-Gvir]. Now he’s a top government minister.
Avrahami: And he’s a clown, by the way. He’s a ridiculous person and a stupid person.
Sheizaf: I give him more credit than you.
Shahaf: He’s not stupid if he’s there.
Sheizaf: He’s very dangerous.
Avrahami: He’s dangerous, but he’s still a clown.
Morris: And further violence will erupt, no doubt.
Avrahami: I’m sure of it.
Sheizaf: Violence is always in the cards because the occupation cannot last without consequences. The occupation is violence. If you’re Palestinian, you’re under violence all the time.
Avrahami: I think now what’s happening is that they are taking the Hebron method and they’re planning on using it in other places in the country. This is the idea. What’s happening in Hebron doesn’t stay in Hebron. What we said in the movie is actually happening. It’s scary.
Sheizaf: The weirdest part, though, is that it happened to the film itself.
Sheizaf: Our film is about the process by which civil liberties are being sucked out of this place. It’s about more and more violent physical control of people—technological control, face recognition, walls, everything closed, the army breaking into houses.
Then the film comes out. And people are canceling screenings.
Morris: Who is canceling screenings?
Sheizaf: There are all these right-wing organizations staging protests and writing letters and threatening people who would screen us.
Avrahami: And it’s working.
Sheizaf: It’s working, that’s what I’m saying. The story is not the right-wing organizations; the story is the decision-makers that are now listening to them. We had a couple screenings canceled. When the Jerusalem Cinematheque screened our film, a council member in Jerusalem told them that they’ll cut their budget if they screen our film.
Morris: Is the film that much of a threat to these people?
Sheizaf: No, I think they’re using us to build support in their own public.
Avrahami: They didn’t even see the film, or they saw some parts of it. They were saying some fake news about the film. There was a petition where they were saying this movie is showing our soldiers doing experiments on Palestinians.
Sheizaf: Culture war is a substitute for policy. They’re waging war against us in order not to fulfill their promises, their promise that everything will be great. Like Trump’s. And they can’t deliver on that. So instead, they throw fights with leftists or liberals as red meat to their audience.
Avrahami: They had protests against us.
Sheizaf: We had to cross one on the way to a Q&A. In a Tel Aviv suburb!
Avrahami: Yeah, it was like five guys with a flag.
Sheizaf: It’s not the end of the world. We can still screen it, but it is a very risky moment for society and for filmmaking.
Morris: What actions is the government taking to try to withhold funding and distribution for these movies?
Avrahami: In Israel, all the funding is governmental. So if they close the funds, there won’t be a film industry anymore. We couldn’t make political movies here anymore. Additionally, they’re trying to close the public-broadcasting channel. These two things are a real threat.
Sheizaf: Technically what’s happening is that all filmmaking in Israel is dependent on taxpayer money. Because it’s a tiny market with an exotic language. The support is given through professional-film funds. What they want to do is add articles to the contracts that filmmakers sign with those film funds saying that if you receive money, you will not smear Israeli soldiers. The minister of culture said it in an interview today, that he wants to add this demand to public funding. This is not a theory.
Our own producer, Hilla Medalia, has been engaged in critical political documentaries for years. The goal of the government is to make it risky for her, and for others, to continue.
People—filmmakers here and around the world—are trying to organize all sorts of calls, petitions, or something that will say that this is unacceptable, that the industry will not tolerate the politicization of the films in Israel, that it will hurt Israeli culture, it will hurt Israeli cinema’s standing.
Morris: Is your film seen as actually defaming the army?
Sheizaf: Zohar said that he saw the two films, which were in the debates, ours and [Two Kids a Day]. He saw some of it. They had a political inquiry in the office. After three weeks of saying that our film is illegitimate, now he says ours is legitimate and the other one is illegitimate. We object to the whole notion that the government minister will sit in his office and examine—
Morris: And decide this issue.
Sheizaf: Yeah. We don’t want this compliment to us from the Bolsheviks. But this thing, the politicization of the funds is in the pipeline. It’s not a theory in Israel. It’s something that the right really wants to do.
Errol Morris, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL