How NOT to Explain the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

As a perk for signing up for at least one session of this year’s PPI Digital Israel Symposium, I watched “The Tinderbox by an English-Jewish filmmaker named Gillian Mosely.  She tried to show “both sides” of the conflict, but what she really did was to mostly present hardline Israeli views alongside understandable grievances from a number of Palestinians (some unidentified).  She spent a lot of time with an American-born settler activist, Yisrael Meidad (she calls him “Israel Medad”) and some with a dovish Israeli musician. 

Early on, she identified the Balfour Declaration as the “catalyst” for the conflict — blaming Zionists for doing this unfortunate thing of getting the British on their side.  She barely mentioned Herzl, and very little on the pogroms and other manifestations of antisemitic enmity that gave birth to political Zionism and explains why it became a popular grassroots movement, especially in Eastern Europe.  She quotes Ben-Gurion once or twice, Jabotinsky a bit more (without explaining why he’s called a “Revisionist Zionist”), and contrasts them with the cultural Zionist Ahad Ha’am. 

There’s no mention of the pro-Nazi Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, but she shows a number of newsreal scenes of Irgun bombings.  Arab attacks on Jews in the 1920s are mostly presented as “riots” with victims on both sides; she does mention the 1929 Hebron massacre, but as an antecedent of the Goldstein massacre in 1994 (depicted early in the film).  

There is no real discussion of the Oslo peace process, nothing of Rabin’s assassination, nothing of the wave of terrorist attacks that catapulted Netanyahu over Peres in 1996, nothing about the 2000 Camp David Summit nor of the Taba peace negotiations, nor the Geneva Initiative, nor the Annapolis peace process, nor John Kerry’s effort in 2014.  There’s nothing of substance about the Gaza withdrawal in 2005 — and almost nothing (except for some graphic footage) about the Second Intifada.  There is no real analysis, whether historical or more contemporary, of the stark differences within the Zionist movement, nothing of the Zionist peace camp, nor of Israelis (other than that one musician) who seek solidarity with Palestinians.  

All of us in the progressive Zionist or pro-Zionist peace camp can agree that Palestinians are suffering under Israeli occupation and that there’s plenty more that can legitimately be said about what’s unjust and often inhumane about this situation.  (I was very moved and enlightened by a pithy and penetrating video presentation by Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard on the nature of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, unveiled by J Street at its 2021 national conference.) 

Still, for a writer or filmmaker to claim to be telling “the story” by focusing upon this current reality without attempting a reasonable historical analysis depicting critical points at which one side or the other went wrong or prompted bad reactions from the other, is to be superficial at best and propagandistic at worst.  It’s as if an attempt to tell the story of World War II focused upon the leveling of German and Japanese cities by Allied bombers without mentioning multiple German and Japanese aggressions, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

I think the filmmaker is more of a well-meaning observer than a committed anti-Zionist, but she clearly made an anti-Zionist film.  If the only defenders of Zionism that she can come up with are the likes of Yisrael Meidad making a Biblical argument for living in the West Bank, or of a bitter young Israeli denying that Palestinians exist as a people, who can blame her or her viewers for coming to the conclusion (never fully stated, but clearly implied) that Zionism stinks?  She surely could have done better.