Palestine documentary stirs controversy in Germany

People demonstrate. Israeli soldiers give chase. Sometimes they use lethal force. On the sidelines, Israeli settlers stand by, grinning under the protection of the soldiers.

It is just another day in Nabi Saleh, a small village in the central occupied West Bank, as captured in Even Though My Land is Burning, a new documentary by Israeli filmmaker Dror Dayan, who now lives in Berlin.

The film portrays the lives of Palestinian villagers under occupation and how some anti-Zionist Israeli Jews support their cause and their resistance. It shows how the organized resistance works in Nabi Saleh.

The choice of Nabi Saleh as the film’s focal point was deliberate. The village has been a center of unarmed resistance to Israel’s occupation for years now, but while it is just one small part of a bigger, more complicated picture, it is an important one, according to Dayan.

“Nabi Saleh is one model or case study out of many,” the filmmaker told The Electronic Intifada. “It shows what happens when people choose a certain kind of resistance and open their struggle to certain kinds of allies. But we mustn’t forget that the issue of Palestine is much broader than that. We all know that the situation in Gaza is not comparable to that of the West Bank. The same goes for some refugee camps outside the country.”

Dayan’s film doesn’t shy away from the bloody reality in Nabi Saleh. One of the young local residents featured disappears from one minute to the next. Only later does the audience learn that he was killed by the Israeli military.

Uncomfortable truths

Nor does the film shy away from uncomfortable truths. The involvement of children in village resistance proved challenging to western audiences. At screenings in Germany, where Dayan now lives, this was one recurring question: are children not instrumentalized by their community by joining in the resistance?

One young woman, during a question and answer session after a screening in Tübingen in southern Germany, put it this way: “It’s a bit weird to see all these children. Do they really want to do this?”

Dayan doesn’t flinch. “From the very first second of their lives, these children grew up under occupation. It’s natural for them to resist,” he told The Electronic Intifada.

His answer is reflected in the film. One man featured in Even Though My Land is Burning simply asserts, “Tomorrow’s resistance will be led by them.”

And among the Germans watching, Palestinians of a certain generation were puzzled by the questions focusing on children. “We live in different worlds,” 54-year-old Mahmoud, who has lived in Germany for more than 20 years, told me later. For him and many others, the resistance of Palestinian children is not just normal, it is necessary.

In the film, most of the protesters are from Nabi Saleh, but a few anti-Zionist Israeli Jews join the crowd. Dayan focuses on one of them, Ben Ronen, a young Israeli who has dedicated his activism to the Palestinian resistance. As a white, Jewish Israeli, he is well aware of his privileged role in the conflict. However, it also becomes very clear that Israeli society itself does not have much space for people like Ronen. As long as such people support the Palestinian struggle, they are always considered outsiders or traitors.

To leave or stay

It was important to Dayan, who is strongly anti-Zionist, to show that being against Zionism is not a matter of religion or ethnicity. He believes, he said, that every Israeli Jew has the option to decide to abandon Zionism.

“Ignorance is a choice,” Dayan said.

Dayan said anti-Zionist Israeli Jews, like those in his documentary, are often considered either traitors or simply insane in wider Israeli society. And with the success of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, they are even seen as a self-hating fifth column.

He himself now lives in Berlin, having left Israel 11 years ago. He had been called up for military service, like most Israelis, but as an only child, he was not obligated to combat service, and he didn’t. Later, he also rejected reserve duty in the West Bank. Today, the 35-year-old Dayan says he would not join the military.

But despite that, he said, he doesn’t see his move to Germany as political. On the contrary.

“I don’t see my move to Germany as a political act – the political act would have been to stay and resist. I know that now.”

Portrait of young man wearing checkered traditional Palestinian scarf

Dror Dayan (Image courtesy of Dror Dayan)

He concedes he did not want to spend the rest of his life in a “militaristic” and “racist” society, but Germany was a practical choice. His grandfather was a German Jew who was forced to escape from Berlin when the Nazis came to power. On that background, Dayan was able to obtain German citizenship, an irony, he points out, considering Germany’s position on the Palestinian right of return.

“Germany is a big supporter of denying Palestinians their right of return. But I got my documents very quickly,” he said.

And his motivation to make the movie – which was also his final project for his master’s degree studies at the Babelsberg Konrad Wolf Film University in Potsdam – was in part informed by the political reality he found in Germany. For instance, he said, the Palestinian struggle and anti-Zionism are still seen negatively in Germany, even in left-leaning circles.

Criticism from the left

Before the first screening of Even Though My Land is Burning in Berlin in March, Dayan was criticized in several quarters, including personal smears from individuals mostly associated with the so-called Antideutsche (literally, anti-German), an extreme pro-Zionist neoconservative movement within the German left.

One such commentator even suggested since Dayan was an Israeli Jew, the film’s “anti-Semitism gets the kosher stamp,” suggesting also that making what he cast as an anti-Semitic film was the price Dayan had to pay for assimilation.

A demonstration was also organized and the Berlin cinema where the screening was taking place received several threats in the weeks before, warning that the cinema’s reputation would be destroyed and the playhouse would be branded anti-Semitic.

But the screening went ahead regardless, and Dayan said he believes he is luckier than others. Pro-Palestinian activists who are not Jewish face much harsher defamation, he said: there is still a certain line German Zionists will not cross when it comes to Jewish activists.

“It’s ridiculous. These people call themselves left while using slogans like ‘anti-fascism means solidarity with Israel,’” said Dayan. “The discourse in Germany, especially inside the left, is a big problem. For many of these so-called leftists, the bashing of pro-Palestinian activists is the only way to keep their political careers afloat.”

In his film, Dayan also devoted space to the one-state solution. It was important for him to bring up the issue, not in the sense of speaking on behalf of Palestinians or advocating this as the only solution, but to show audiences that a one-state solution is a vision shared by many and offers real prospects for justice.

“For many Germans, the one-state solution is still unthinkable,” Dayan said. “It contradicts the colonial idea of the Jewish state.”

And for all the difficulties he has encountered, Dayan also believes that the Palestine solidarity movement in Germany is heading in the right direction.

“The existence of Zionist colonialism in Palestine is a way for Germany to put its history behind it. That’s something that people here will not give up easily. But I think we are making progress.”

Emran Feroz is an Afghan-Austrian journalist currently based in Germany.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article stated that Dror Dayan was not obligated to serve in the Israeli military. It has been corrected to state that he was not obligated to combat service in the military.