This is a thorny issue. I have taken a side, as Elie Wiesel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu demand, but it is not for me here to tell you where you should stand. But I have been thinking a lot about how I came to stand where I do. A lot of it is experience and personal relationships, and two years of graduate school, but I’ve also learned a lot from films and books that are considerably more accessible.
I’ve used this page to put together some resources for how to learn more about the hundred-year situation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Throughline is one of my favorite podcasts for getting the long view on complicated issues. They took on Palestine recently, and offer some additional resources of their own. They’ve also dived into the Arab Spring recently, as well as amazing deep dives on the Sunni/Shia divide, the history of the United States in Iran and with the Kurds, more recent events in Iran, and lots of other things having nothing to do with the Middle East.
The New York Times podcast The Daily has recently taken on recent events with Hamas, the historic relationship between Netanyahu and Biden, conflict in Gaza, Israel and Iran, the inequality of COVID vaccination in Israel…. Now, historically, the Times has shown strong pro-Israel bias and not been a friend of the peace movement, but this year they’ve edged into some territory that really humanizes Palestinians in a way that feels unprecedented to me and some of my pro-Palestinian friends. I think it signifies an important shift in public discourse about Israel/Palestine that gives me hope.
Long and Short Videos
Let John Oliver break it down for you with a lot of fire and a sprinkling of humor.
Watch a Palestinian movie. The documentary Five Broken Cameras is one of my favorites, not just because I once interpreted for the Oscar-nominated director’s brother when he was on tour with some of the footage that didn’t make it into the documentary.
For a gay love story that will rip your heart out, The Bubble is one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen.
Here are ten more films to start with, and here’s a collection of short films about Palestine. A large collection has also been released on the Palestine Films website, with your choice of documentaries, feature films, and animated movies. Reel Palestine collected a list of accessible Palestinian films and curated talks between like-minded and engaged individuals that make up the global Palestinian film community.
There are many more movies and series by and about “both sides” of this very lopsided conflict on Netflix. My students recommend Fauda – I haven’t yet watched it.
For students/speakers of Arabic, here’s a collection of Al Jazeera documentaries about Palestine, and 16 more, and a few about Palestinian photographers — unfortunately they don’t have subtitles in English or Arabic. (And if you’ve been led to believe that Al Jazeera is biased, you’ll want to check out the documentary “Control Room.”)
Also, the Arabic-language series Palestinian Alienation, through the story of a rural Palestinian family in the 1930s, sheds light on the Palestinian cause through many important events, until the June setback in 1967, and how family members survive despite the dangers of war they faced. And here’s another series, “I am Jerusalem.”
Some other titles to look for
I haven’t seen most of these, but have collected them from a variety of social media sources.
- Gaza Surf Club, documentary: https://bit.ly/3wdjchb
- Memory Guardian, documentary: https://bit.ly/3hyLnmQ
- Resistance Pilot, documentary: https://bit.ly/3ymAOJE
- Documentaries The Shadow of Absence and As The Poet Said by director Nasri Hajj
- The Place, a powerful 2021 very-short film by Omar Rammal
- Gaza Fights For Freedom (2019) | Full Documentary | Directed by Abby Martin
- The Time That Remains (2009)
- During the 2nd Intifada, the filmmakers Dahna Abourahme, Annemarie Jacir and Suzy Salamy lived in the Deheisha Refugee Camp in Bethlehem from 2002-2004. The result is “Until When,” a poignant and intimate documentary following four Palestinian families struggling to survive.
- Oscar-nominated Paradise Now (2005) is a film that I definitely have seen, and it is not for the faint of heart; have tissues close.
- Directed and co-produced by Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri, Jenin Jenin (2002) includes testimony from Jenin residents after the Israeli army’s Defensive Wall operation.
- L’Olivier by Vansan Cinema France responds to a concern French public support for the Palestinian cause is diminishing in the wake of the 1972 Munich operation.
I’m going to go old-school long-form on you, because this is an issue of complexity and length, though I caution you against falling into the “tale as old as time” rhetorical trap, because Jews lived peacefully alongside pagans, Christians and Muslims in the Levant for most of that time.
Here’s a short list of Palestinian memoir and novels to start with, including classics by the likes of Mahmoud Darwish.
Orientalism, by Edward Said
This is the classic contextualizing work on the history of power imbalance between Western Europe and America, and the nations of the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Asia. This is a dense text about literature, and Said has written more specifically about the Palestinian situation (which was his birthplace and heritage) but this is a foundational work you should attempt, even if you just read the Introduction and first chapter, as I asked my nerd camp class on Islam to do — it really shaped how we approached the rest of our time together.
Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, by Karen Armstrong
To reduce the question of Israel to a conflict between religions is lazy and deceptive, but it’s hard to understand the present situation without at least some understanding of Islam and the role of Jerusalem in the faith, specifically the Al Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock. Former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong does a beautiful job of contextualizing the Prophet Muhammad and his faith in their time and place, capturing his sense of fairness and social justice, his genuine love of women, his delight in knowledge…. And this book is where I learned most of what I know about the thousand-year history of the abject vilification of Mohammad in European popular and intellectual circles.
Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life, by Queen Noor
Lisa Halaby came of age in Kennedy’s Camelot, daughter of the FAA Chief, steeped in the democratic dreams of that administration’s members and their children, dreaming of joining the Peace Corps. Instead, she falls in love with the King of Jordan, a key linchpin in many of the crucial events of the Arab countries in the twentieth century. Half memoir, half history of the Kingdom of Jordan and the region, I love how this book navigates between the king’s knowledge of the region and the queen’s JFK idealism.
The Source, by James Michener
It’s a hefty tome, the characters may be a little thin, but Michener is known for his extensive, deep research and long view of place and history, and The Source is perhaps the best Michener novel I’ve read (and I had quite a run of them in high school!). One of Michener’s greatest strengths, for me, is illuminating how layers of history build atop of each other, how one dynasty lays the ground for the next and the one after that, how geography shapes culture and culture shapes geography.
Exodus and The Haj, by Leon Uris
I put these on the list because they taught me a lot, though probably not in the ways Uris intended. I read the first in high school, the second during Peace Corps in Jordan, and they were strikingly different experiences. I knew nothing about the region when I read Exodus, and I really enjoyed it, uncritically, as a tale of triumph over adversity, the end of a story that began with Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars and “Night and Fog,” my introduction to the Holocaust in middle school. I picked up The Haj in the Peace Corps Volunteer library expecting something similar, and returned it with the overwhelming feeling that Uris had such disdain for his Arab characters, it was amazing he could finish writing the novel. I’m not sure I can recommend either book, but they are informative of a certain point of view.