By Shalle' McDonald/JNS.org
What do many Muslims, Christians, Bedouin, and Druze living in Israel have in common? It’s not the obvious fact that they are members of minority populations, but that they are minorities who love and support the country they call “home”—despite preconceived notions about Israeli Arabs.
These Israeli minorities are given a voice in “My Home,” the latest documentary from filmmaker Igal Hecht and winner of Best Director upon its world premier at Boston’s Global Cinema Film Festival. The Hebrew-language, English-subtitled film explores what it calls the “silent Arab majority” in Israel—through the perspectives of four individual leaders, from the Muslim, Bedouin, Christian, and Druze communities.
“I decided to make ‘My Home’ because I wanted people to experience the complex Israeli reality,” Hecht tells JNS.org. “The main problem is that people in North America and around the world do not understand the complexity of Israel....The majority of the Israeli and non-Israeli media, and anti-Semitic organizations—especially those associated with BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement)—refrain from showing the regular lives and voices of everyday minorities in Israel. It’s simpler to lie and defame Israel while allowing only a space for extremist voices.”
The film opens with Middle Eastern music, while a statement read in English informs viewers about minorities in Israel. The words are presented in white letters against a black background, suggesting that the statement is black and white—or to put it another way, factual.
“Minorities make up 20 percent of Israel’s population,” says the statement. “Muslims, Christians, Bedouin, and Druze form the majority of the minority groups. Israel’s Jewish population refers to them collectively as Arab. Many in Israel and around the world believe this Arab minority to be hostile towards the state. But there are Arabs who see Israel as a country and idea worth defending.”
This statement colors the entire premise of the documentary, both preparing and educating the audience before any personality profiles are presented.
In the first profile, titled “God bless the occupation,” we meet Wafa Hussein, an Israeli Arab from Deir Hanna, who teaches Arabic and English to children in Safed. She is a Muslim who very much considers herself to be a Zionist. From rides in her car exploring an Arab village famous for a deadly riot at the start of second Palestinian intifada, to scenes at her home and classroom where she promotes coexistence, viewers get some insight into the complex feelings of a woman whose love for Israel makes it difficult for her to attain full acceptance in both the Jewish and Arab communities.
Next, viewers meet an Israeli Bedouin, Mohammad Ka’abiya from the village of Ka’abiya, who not only joined the Israel Defense Forces himself, but now prepares young boys from his village for army service. The training of the youths is more than physical—it includes a wide range of activities such as strengthening Bedouin identity, holding discussion groups about racism, and meeting a Holocaust survivor. Mohammad, like Wafa, has been called a traitor because of his activism, but he fundamentally believes that Israel is his home—a home that he will fight for just as his ancestors did. A common saying in Arabic, viewers learn, is “God bless the occupation”— suggesting that Israel is good for every Arab citizen, contrary to commonly negative connotations associated with Palestinian or Arab use of the word “occupation.”
The next part of the film, “Confrontation,” introduces some of the internal fighting going on between Jewish and Arab politicians. This includes short clips of hostile Israeli Knesset screaming matches about terrorism; interviews with Arab political leaders such as Ahmad Tibi, Ayman Odeh, and Haneen Zoabi of the Joint Arab List party, who explain why popular resistance is a necessity to combat the Israeli “occupation;” and the contrasting opinion of Father Gabriel Naddaf, a Greek Orthodox priest who promotes Arab-Christian integration into Israeli society, most notably through army service.
“I am not an Arab,” the following section, delves into the issue of identity—featuring Jonathan Elkhoury, a Lebanese Christian whose family, which had affiliated with the South Lebanese Army, immigrated to Israel and became citizens. Elkhoury is often considered an “Arab” even though he is from a country that isn’t considered to be an Arab nation. Through Elkhoury’s passionate conversation with an Arab friend, viewers see why being called “Arab,” but simultaneously being an outspoken supporter of Israel, is a tension-riddled situation.
The film’s fourth section presented the controversial March 2015 quote from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about how Arabs voters “are coming out in droves.” Netanyahu had been trying to get his supporters out to vote in Israel’s election, but the remark drew accusations of anti-Arab racism. Yet “My Home” includes the testimony of Member of Knesset Ayoob Kara—a Druze lawmaker in the prime minister’s Likud party and Israel’s deputy minister of regional cooperation—who explains that Israel is a democratic state that gives minorities not only the right to vote, but to be elected as members of the government.
The final part of the documentary, “We live in the Middle East,” includes various scenes from Jerusalem riots, stabbings, and car-rammings from the current six-month terror wave, in addition to tamer scenes from daily life in Jerusalem’s Old City. Viewers learn, in an unscripted conversation between Mohammad Ka’abiya and a Jewish woman, that although Ka’abiya staunchly supports Israel, he can still sometimes be looked upon as a potential threat because he is an Arab. Similarly, Wafa Hussein describes the pain she felt following a recent terror attack, when her Jewish colleagues reflexively blamed Arabs. Yet despite having to face the reality of discrimination from both sides, these members of Israeli minority populations are willing to keep working toward coexistence.
The film ends with picturesque scenery in Israel, while Wafa says, “If we’re not good neighbors, how will we enjoy all of this?”
Viewers are visually drawn into each scene by stunning aerial views of villages and cities in Israel, as well as steady shots of daily life on the ground. Interspersed throughout this scenery is news footage of the very incidents that the Arab interviewees are describing, which brings the audience closer to understanding the Israeli minority experience, due to the palpable emotions of the speakers. The documentary’s scenes capture the vibrancy of Israel through captivating music, befitting of a land full of diversity, history, and culture.
After “My Home” begins with the factual statement about Israeli minorities, it steadily backs up the statistical picture with life stories that contextualize the minority experience. Through only four personal accounts, the film leaves the viewer yearning for more. Perhaps the documentary will even inspire some real-word change.
“Minorities in Israel are fighting to achieve equal rights in the only democracy in the Middle East, and they are succeeding,” says Hecht. “The people we feature in the film are the true leaders of the Arab-Israeli community. If more people like them were given a platform…the path to coexistence would be attainable.”
Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.