Documentary Review: Seeds of Conflict

Photo credit: Seeds of Conflict.

1917? 1948? 1967? 2000?

What year marked a turning point in the century-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis? The 1917 passage of the Balfour Declaration by the UK House of Commons proclaiming the British government’s support for a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine? The Arab-Israeli War of 1948? Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, the Sinai, and the Golan Heights in 1967? Or the failure of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000? Every date foreshadows a further deterioration of the relationship between Arabs and Jews.

A new documentary sets the date at 1913. Seeds of Conflict, directed by filmmaker Ben Loeterman, examines the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims as Ottoman subjects and traces the worsening communal divisions to the arrival of European Zionists in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.

Among other material, the film features two prominent scholars of Ottoman Palestine, Institute for Palestine Studies Fellow historical sociologist Salim Tamari, and Journal of Palestine Studies editorial committee member and social historian Bishara Doumani.

What makes Seeds of Conflict captivating, however, is the vivid portrayals of the past in dramatized scenes with actors reading from the historic scripts, as it were, of history’s own actors. We witness a world where Jerusalem’s Old City is not divided into Muslim/Christian East and Jewish West Jerusalem, but, rather, one where Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Jews all share a common space, with coffeehouses a particularly popular gathering-spot for men.

This reality is slowly upended as European Zionist Jews disembark at Palestine’s ports. Unlike the native Jews of Palestine (Sephardim) who spoke Arabic, lived peacefully among Arabs, and were culturally integrated, the new arrivals (Ashkenazi Jews) spoke only Yiddish or Russian and separated themselves into Jewish-only communities. But beyond linguistic and cultural divergence, it was the Ashkenazis’ political ambitions that prefigured the conflict. European Zionists did not come to Palestine to live alongside the existing community, but to become the exclusive masters of the land. When early colonists purchased land from absentee landlords, for instance, they quickly expelled the Arab farmers who tilled the fields. Their purpose was Jewish labor on Jewish land, and although they were strictly speaking within their legal rights, the European Zionists ushered in a new order that was contrary to time-honored custom.

Palestinians were quick to ascertain the ultimate goal of the new arrivals: their own dispossession and the dominance of the European Zionists. As the documentary unfolds, we hear the words of people like Ruhi al-Khalidi, Jerusalem’s representative to the Ottoman General Assembly in Istanbul, who voices grave concern about continued Jewish immigration to Palestine. Although he warns the parliament about the potential loss of Palestine to Zionism, his protestations are dismissed by a distant Sublime Porte that is content with the taxes the Zionists pay.

One of the documentary’s most interesting figures is Albert Antebi, a Palestinian Jew. He is enamored with Zionism’s achievements, notably in propelling Jewish economic development. But he is suspicious of Zionism’s political aims and laments the fact that Europeans Jews, who are alien to customs of Arabs and Sephardi Jews, are sowing animosity between them. Why is it necessary, he asks, to provoke bitterness among our neighbors?

Khalil Sakakini, a Palestinian Christian, returns from New York bursting with ambitions and new ideas: to build schools, publish newspapers, and a Palestinian cultural renaissance. Often citing newspaper editorials, the documentary ably conveys Palestinian narrative from a contemporaneous vantage-point, showing us that it  was fully awake to the threat of Zionism, confident in its national identity, and passionate in its defense of the Palestinian people’s right to their homeland.

Other figures of the day include Arthur Ruppin, a Zionist visionary who arrives from Germany and sets about transforming  a set of disconnected Jewish landholdings into a continuous agglomeration of Jewish land that is easier to defend and arguably for a proto-type of the “colonies” that eventually established the State of Israel. But as roaming bands of hardened Russian Jews attack Arabs, even Ruppin voices concern about some of the colonists’ aggressiveness toward the native population, bringing us to the defining moment in Seeds of Conflict.

A gun fight breaks out between Zionist Cossacks and Arab camel herders over the theft of grapes. Both sides call in reinforcements. The scene of the skirmish is Rehovot, a Zionist settlement that earlier in the documentary is the scene of a land dispute. As the sun rises, an Arab and a Jew lie dead. We soon learn that Jewish and Arab leaders agree to meet and sort out their difference as by this point, the incident represents a worrying escalation in tension that portends even worse violence if the two communities do not come to an equitable understanding. But for reasons that are not made clear, Europe’s descent into war in 1914 distracts from reconciliation efforts and the film closes with the memory of an old land where Jews and Arabs once lived together as peaceful neighbors and were slowly divided by the forces of Zionist colonialism and Palestinian nationalism.

We are left with the idea of what might have been… if World War I hadn’t interrupted efforts at reconciliation, and extraneous events had not intervened, Arabs and Jews might have avoided a century of conflict, the film urges us to speculate.

But the merits of such speculation require further reflection. Although many Zionists were in favor of a unitary state comprising Arabs and Jews, Zionism as imagined by the leadership of the Yishuv (the pre-Israel Zionist Jewish community in Palestine) was simply irreconcilable with Palestinian rights to self-determination in the whole of their country. No matter how it may have been articulated or what Zionists may have done to appease the native Arab populations, the unmistakable goal of Zionism was one that Palestine’s Arabs could never willingly accept: the loss of their homeland to a Jewish state. Sitting Jews and Arabs around a table is only useful if there’s some sort of common ground. But if one side intends to remake Palestine in its own image, so to speak, reducing the Palestinians to an inferior subject population in their own country, then discussions serve only to further edify the Palestinians in the dispossession of their own heritage and future at the hands of Israel.

And as for an extraneous event intervening to spoil relations between Arabs and Jews: Zionism was the extraneous event. As the documentary demonstrates, it is Zionism’s emergence that upended the coexistence between Palestine’s Arabs and Jews, which had been relatively benign, if less than equal.

While 1913 may have heralded a different trajectory for Zionism, those who wish to argue that European Zionists would have changed course in deference to Palestinian protestations, have a tall order to fill:  Convinced of the righteousness of their cause, contemptuous and domineering toward the Palestinians, and soon-to-be backed by the blessing and weapons of the British Empire;, the newly-arrived colonists were very clear about their ultimate intentions. The Zionist record in letters, essays and memoirs from Labor’s David Ben-Gurion to Revisionist Zionism’s Ze’ev Jabotinsky says it all: Zionists were absolutely determined to transform Palestine into a Jewish state, they had no intention to consult the Palestinians, and while some recognized the legitimacy of their grievances and did not begrudge them their sense of injustice, they held them in “polite indifference,” to quote Jabotinsky’s famous essay “The Iron Wall”:

“There can be no voluntary agreement between ourselves and the Palestine Arabs. Not now, nor in the prospective future. I say this with such conviction, not because I want to hurt the moderate Zionists. I do not believe that they will be hurt. Except for those who were born blind, they realized long ago that it is utterly impossible to obtain the voluntary consent of the Palestine Arabs for converting “Palestine” from an Arab country into a country with a Jewish majority.”

Jabotinsky’s strategy was to overwhelm Palestinian opposition with force, the “iron wall” of his title essay, to secure the resignation of the natives to rule by a Jewish state. Ben-Gurion intended to dissemble until Jewish immigration constituted a significant enough force to make a Jewish state inevitable, a fait accompli. Reconciliation was impossible: either the Palestinians conceded their country or the Zionists took it by sheer force of numbers and the use of force.

Ultimately, rather than offering an opportunity for an alternative present, 1913 foreshadowed the 1948 War and the ongoing conflict. A critical viewing may be very informative for American audiences long accustomed to ill-founded clichés about centuries of hatred between Arabs and Jews and a false portrayal of symmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. The origins of the conflict, as the film shows, are clear. Any person lamenting the conflict’s tragic and rising toll, in terms of both the loss of life and the miseries experienced on every side (with the Palestinians having the added misery of being the powerless and disproportionately victimized side) can draw their own conclusion: If Zionism’s goal was always irreconcilable with Palestinian aspirations for self-determination, should might simply trump right? Or it is Zionism an injustice against an indigenous people that will continue to fuel conflict until the original sin is reformed to emphasize not a Jewish state over a non-Jewish population, but a Jewish people in Palestine alongside Palestinian Muslims and Christians?

Seeds of Conflict is a welcome addition to an already large body of documentary film about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it stands out for its detailed focus on the impact of early Zionist settlement on Palestinian Arabs and Jews. It is highly recommended both for the general and specialized audiences. It is visually stunning with its mix of early 20th century photography and film and its skilled directing of reenacted scenes. The narrative is lucid and constantly propels the spectator forward as if we were witnesses to the events and could sense the rapid march of historical forces beyond our control. Its juxtaposition of Palestinian, Arab and Jewish, and Zionist voices conveys a sad truth to this day: whatever their merits, both sides are talking past one another rather than to each other. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not simply a conflict about land ownership but a radical divergence in vision for the land: a nation of equals among Jews and non-Jews or the Zionist vision of exclusive Jewish right to the land with non-Jews enjoying only some rights on the land.

Seeds of Conflict makes that conundrum abundantly clear and in proffering a glimpse of the past, it holds up the vision of a future resolution for all those who aspire to a peace based on justice.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.