Israel’s Government Is Trying to Turn the Film Industry into a Propaganda Arm
The West Bank city of Hebron, less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, is a unique place: the only Palestinian town in which Jewish settlers live among the local residents, and not in separate communities.
This is why, after the Israeli military pulled out of other West Bank cities in the mid-1990s as part of the Oslo peace accords, it kept control over Hebron’s ancient center, which includes the holy site of the Cave of the Patriarchs, revered as the place Abraham himself was buried. Known as H2, it is an urban area under one of the longest direct military occupations in the world, a fact which is immediately visible to any visitor: The shops are closed, Palestinian movement is heavily restricted, and concrete walls, wire, security cameras, roadblocks and checkpoints are everywhere.
Having served in Hebron as a young infantry officer in the 1990s, I feel a special connection to this city. I returned to it in later years as a journalist, and more recently I worked, along with the veteran Israeli documentarist Idit Avrahami, on a film chronicling its recent history, using the voices of Israeli generals who have governed the city to tell the story of Israel’s military control over the West Bank. Titled “H2: The Occupation Lab,” our film premiered in Tel Aviv last May and was broadcast on the Israeli documentary channel. In recent weeks, however, our documentary has come under attack; screenings have been canceled and an online smear campaign against us began. Since the new government under Benjamin Netanyahu took power in December, things have become worse.
The new culture minister, Miki Zohar, has accused our film and another new documentary, “Two Kids a Day,” which focuses on the arrests of Palestinian minors by the military, of smearing Israel and hurting the military’s reputation. Before, reportedly, even watching the films, he announced that his office is examining possible actions against them, including forcing their creators to pay back any government funding, a demand which amounts to a heavy fine on the production companies, since the money in question has already been spent.
Mr. Zohar also hopes to prevent any similar future projects by requiring filmmakers seeking government grants to pledge that their works won’t harm the country’s reputation. Given the right wing’s new hold on Parliament, Mr. Zohar’s proposals could soon be a reality — and the dependence of the Israeli film industry on taxpayer support could very well force many filmmakers to sign such loyalty oaths, or risk not being able to complete their projects.
As a whole, Israeli society doesn’t like to debate the occupation, and domestic news reports about it have become rarer in recent years. More often than not, these accounts are told through the perspective of the “security issue,” and refrain from dealing with human rights or the absence of political rights for Palestinians.
Still, the thriving Israeli documentary scene has remained a major venue for exposing the public to the reality in the occupied territory, and for the price both societies pay for it. Not only do filmmakers continue to document what’s happening in the West Bank, they sometimes succeed where other methods of public engagement fail. Films create a world of their own, so they have the power to avoid dominant narratives and ideologies; they connect on an emotional level and not just an intellectual one; they tell a story, and they often offer an opportunity to adapt a new perspective.
And so, acclaimed documentaries produced over the last 15 years, like “The Law in These Parts,” the Emmy-winning “Advocate,” and the Oscar nominees “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras” brought to light harsh practices used by Israel in the West Bank and set off fierce public debates. Other works, like “Blue Box” and “Tantura,” went even further, critically examining the formal narrative of the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Unsurprisingly, these documentaries generate discomfort, and backlash. Now the Israeli right, which long sought to delegitimize or even criminalize criticism of the occupation, is seeing an opportunity to kill off such films.
A few weeks ago, screenings of our film scheduled for a public hall in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, north of Tel Aviv, were abruptly canceled by the city council on the peculiar pretext that public spaces can’t host politically controversial events.
City council members in Jerusalem threatened to cut the budget of the Jerusalem Cinemateque if our documentary was shown (the film center screened it anyway). Protesters demonstrated at cinematheques in the Tel Aviv suburbs of Herzliya and Holon that showed “Two Kids a Day”; the private phone number of Holon’s mayor was posted in WhatsApp groups by a right-wing activist. Memes and messages circulating in right-wing groups accused my co-director and me of antisemitism and of being B.D.S. activists.
As stressful as personal attacks can be, the more troubling developments are far greater than our own lives. Israel’s culture and creative industry rely on government assistance in its productions. Several funds, along with the national lottery, give grants to filmmakers. By politicizing the allocation of funds, threatening to bar leftist filmmakers from receiving grants and placing projects under political supervision, it seems the new government seeks to turn the film industry into a propaganda arm for the state, the occupation and the government.
And the problem goes well beyond film budgets. The new minister for communications, Shlomo Karhi, is seeking to shut down Kan, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation, one of the largest investors in original content in Israel. According to common estimates in the industry, the government’s intention is to divert at least some of Kan’s budget to commercial networks, and especially to one small hard-right news channel that is widely regarded as a mouthpiece for Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters.
Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition has also introduced proposals that would make critical journalism and documentary work close to impossible. One bill would forbid the airing of recordings done without the consent of the participants, while another would forbid recording soldiers in action, or even the online sharing of such videos. The taking over of the culture and media industry by the government would go hand in hand with efforts to limit the power of the courts.
It is not a huge leap to say these are the first steps in the populist playbook, the likes of which the world has seen in Turkey and Hungary. Nothing guarantees that Israel would not follow the same path.
At the heart of our film lies the idea that what happens now in Hebron can and will take place elsewhere — first in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and then within Israel proper. That’s why we named it “The Occupation Lab.” Indeed, the reception to this film and the recent efforts to suppress it have added weight to this idea.
But the story here is bigger than the fate of a film, or even the entire industry. One cannot maintain a democracy for its citizens along with military dictatorship for its non-citizens, without consequences. Israel managed to avoid them for a long time, but now its moment of truth has come.
Noam Sheizaf is a documentary filmmaker and journalist.
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