Film review: Arab citizen of Israel, member of the enemy

What is a Muslim woman’s place in a country where Jewish suffering is the dominant cultural theme? A new Israeli film tells the story of Hadeel, a 27-year-old Arab woman who teaches at a Jewish school in central Israel, and explores the difficulty of never fully belonging.

By Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber

Dove’s Cry, Ganit Ilouz’s new documentary (playing at New York City’s “The Other Israel” film festival, November 16-18), tells the story of a charismatic Arabic teacher in a Jewish elementary school in Israel. Edited by Sara Salomon, the film speaks to both the possibilities as well as the limitations of implementing an intercultural Arabic learning program in a Jewish school. Dove’s Cry follows the journey of 27-year-old Hadeel over the span of an entire school year, the film focuses on her successes and struggles with her Jewish students and colleagues, as well as her immediate family. The film is a sobering testament to the rigid boundaries within Israeli society, and the complicated dynamics of acceptance and exclusion.

Hadeel is a single Muslim woman and citizen of Israel. She lives in Wadi Ara in northern Israel, and makes her way every day to the town of Hod Hasharon, near Tel Aviv, to teach her sixth grade students both spoken Arabic and about Arab culture. This vision is part of a welcomed attempt to incorporate the Arabic language into the educational system in a more holistic way (and early on in the children’s lives). But while Hadeel is fully accepted by her fellow teachers, and mostly beloved by her students, navigating between her Muslim identity and what is regarded in public as the culture of the enemy, is often challenging.

On a personal level, Hadeel is loved by everyone. She is charming, smart, funny and attractive. Viewers can’t help but fall in love with her. The interpersonal relationships unfolding on the screen are often heartwarming and encouraging. Even the most cynical among us can feel hope and optimism at the sight of Hadeel chatting with a fellow teacher about the horrors of dating, getting her nails done in red polish by another teacher, and a birthday dance performance by adoring students. To the viewer outside Israel, it seems like a potentially happy co-existence between Muslims and Jews, despite the complicated political situation. But no more than 20 minutes into the film, as viewers witness the first of many selective memorial ceremonies – reality bites hard.

Exhibit number one: Holocaust Remembrance Day. As an Arab citizen, Hadeel feels excluded from the memorial ceremony. The many texts read at the ceremony recite the narrative of Jews as victims, leaving no room for recognizing any other victims in history, let alone those who were victimized by Zionism. The national anthem is heard clearly emphasizing the uniqueness of the Jewish state, excluding Israel’s non-Jewish citizens. The camera captures Hadeel standing, yet still appearing very much alone. The other memorial services are no different. When she tries to voice her feelings she is promptly schooled by the principal:

Hadeel: “It was hard for me. Hatikva is a Jewish song only. We do not have a joint song, but we are citizens of this country too.”

Principal: “It really hurt me that you didn’t identify with my pain. You can’t compare the Holocaust with any other pain.”

Hadeel: I didn’t mean to hurt you when I stood up and everyone sang the national anthem. Everyone is looking at me. It is very unpleasant – I feel that I don’t belong to the place where I was born.”

While the idea of intercultural education sounds good on paper, in a country so consumed by Zionist narratives (and where Jewish suffering is a dominant cultural theme), the path for accepting other perspectives couldn’t be any farther away. Hadeel has no problem tackling tough questions about stereotypes and prejudice against Muslims in the classroom. Even when she is clearly hurt after being called a “stinking Arab” by one student, she is still able to handle it with grace. Hadeel is naturally optimistic, although at one point in the movie she lets her guard down, saying “I don’t know if I can do this much longer, I am exhausted.” After one of many bomb shelter drills, one of the teachers asks her: “Do you also go to the shelter in your village?” “Yes,” she replies, “we are Israeli citizens too.”

While the film captures many universal and personal difficulties, such as remaining single in the face of a push from her traditional culture to marry, and the need to feel attractive and accepted despite wearing a hijab, Hadeel’s main struggle is devoted to maintaing her cultural and political identity.

The last scene of the film demonstrates the power of the political reality in Israel, one that often seems stranger than fiction. As Hadeel prepares for her end-of-school year class party, the celebration is interrupted by the piercing sound of a siren, indicating yet another shelter drill (students exit the classroom and make their way to a bomb shelter). As the students file out, Hadeel is left alone – her exclusion starkly illustrated by the long shot of her sitting in the back of the classroom. She then slowly picks up her bag and exit the class. There, but never fully belonging.

Shoshana Madmoni-Gerber is a professor of Media and Journalism at Suffolk University in Boston.