How American high school students taught me about the occupation

Filmmaker Lia Tarachansky has been showing her latest movie, ‘On the Side of the Road” — a documentary on how Israelis view the Nakba — around the world for nearly a year. What happened after she screened her film for a class of American high school students took her by surprise.

By Lia Tarachansky

Lia Tarachansky.
Filmmaker Lia Tarachansky.

The film’s credits come on, so I take a deep breath, turn on the lights and walk slowly to the center of the room. I want to stretch out the minutes to give them more time to digest. After a few long moments of standing there in silence, I turn around to look at the teacher. He ignores my stare, signaling that I am on my own on this one.

It has been more than a decade since I last stood before a high school class. Those 10 years fold neatly into a single breath as I stare at my feet and search my pockets with sweaty, nervous palms. I reassure myself with the thought that they probably won’t remember any of this when they grow up. Since my film tour began, I have presented it to dozens of audiences, but never have I been so nervous to hear what they think.

“So… do you have any questions?” I desperately throw the bait at room, but they don’t go for it. Instead, they awkwardly stare at each other, at me and at the teacher. I pick one of the students out and ask her a direct question. Her demeanor is shy but she turns out to be the outspoken, articulate type.

“What did you think of the movie?” I ask.

She points out some things she liked and says she learned a lot. I cling to something she said and quickly find myself lecturing about Israel/Palestine politics. My mind starts frantically searching for an exit as their eyes begin to glaze over. Thankfully, she saves me.

“But to be honest, Ms. Lia, I just don’t get it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just don’t understand why the people of Israel don’t just stand up and say something.”

“That’s an excellent question.”

“But most of them are like that,” another student joins in.

“I don’t know,” she answers him, “if people around me were acting like this, I would stand up and say something.”

“But you saw the guy at the end. He said if the cops weren’t there, he’d shoot all the leftists. And none of the people standing around even flinched, so most of the Israelis support the occupation.”

“I don’t care. My mama taught me to stand up for what I believe.”

“Okay,” I jump in, “go ahead.”

“What?” she looks at me with a shy smile.

“Go ahead.”

“Go ahead, what?”

“You are no longer Americans but Israelis. As you saw in the film, those who speak out against discrimination in the name of the Jewish State are few and far between. Since your mama taught you to speak out, you can represent them, and the rest of you,” I turn to the students, “support the system.”

They burst out laughing, but the teacher gets them to settle down.

“I can’t do it,” one student says, “I can’t.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“‘Cuz, I ain’t Jewish.”

With the exception of one white boy and one girl in a Hijab, all the students in the class are black. Most are from what the teacher later tells me are “families living in poverty.”

“Let’s just say that if we didn’t have a school bus, most of these kids wouldn’t be here because their parents are so broke or unemployed they can’t afford a car or sometimes even bus fare,” he tells me.

I turn back to the outspoken student, “So what would be the first thing you would do?”

She takes a minute to think about it and says, “I’d find someone like-minded and ask them to join me.”

“But except for you, they all believe discrimination against Palestinians and taking their land is legitimate because Israel is a Jewish state, the only Jewish state, and the Palestinians aren’t Jewish so they can either accept the situation or go somewhere else.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Why not?” I inquire.

“Because even in the time of Jim Crow there were people who were racists but changed their minds.”

“Okay,” I concede while looking around the room, from student to student, trying to create a space for them to respond. But they just sit there, staring silently.

“C’mon,” she pleads with them, “You can’t believe in racism! Y’all are like me! C’mon, Tyrell, you know what I’m talking about!”

“What do you think, Tyrell? Do you want to lose all your friends, maybe end up in jail for these kinds of beliefs and stand alone with Alicia in the corner?” I ask.

He thinks about it for a split-second and stands up. “Yeah, I’ll join you.”

The two of them turn to the remaining students and try to convince them to do the same.

“Racism is bad! Let’s live together!”

“You’re not racists! Palestinians have human rights, c’mon! Join us!”

“Okay,” I ask the rest of them, “How do you all feel about that?” Most agree. Racism is bad and we should all live together.

“But you’re not in the America of 2015. You’re living in Israel or the America if Jim Crow.” Finally, one student gets it.

“Then I don’t want to listen to them,” she says, and plugs her ears.

“Okay,” I responded, “I’ll make you the Minister of Homeland Security Minister of Culture, or actually, the Minister of Education. What do you do?”

“I dunno… silence them. Make them shut up.”

“Done. Alicia, Tyrell, from now on you can’t use your voices. What do you do?” The class bursts into laughter as they start comically signing with their hands “racism – bad”, “equality – good.”

“Ugh, I don’t want to see them,” another student says, and raises her binder to block their energetic display. All the students raise their binders.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if we just build a wall around them?”

Everyone agrees, so we build a wall.

Then Alicia picks up her phone and starts Tweeting and texting. All the cell phones in the class beep and vibrate.

“Now what?”

“I’d take away their everything. Their phones and their stuff — whatever they have — to punish them,” says the minister.

“Like their water and land?” I ask.

“Yeah, Okay. I’d take their water and land. And their phones.”

“Done. Okay, dissidents, you’ve got no voice, no Twitter, you’re behind a wall, and to punish you for not shutting up, the minister has taken away your land and water, thus your source of income as well as your independence have been taken away. Now, what do you do?”

The Separation Wall and the Sh'uafat Refugee Camp are seen following a snow storm, on February 20, 2015. Yotam Ronen /
The Separation Wall and the Sh’uafat Refugee Camp are seen following a snow storm, February 20, 2015. (Yotam Ronen /

Alicia points her finger and makes her hand into a gun. “I’d shoot them.”

“Take away her gun!” someone shouts.

“Good idea. Let’s take away her gun, and her access to guns,” I respond.

“And put them in jail!”

“Tyrell, we’re going to put you in jail over there, on the other side of the room.” The group begins to cheer.

“That’s crazy,” protests Tyrell, “I’ve got rights, you can’t do this! I’m a person, I’m a human being! Fuck you! You can’t do this!”

“Hey!” the minister interrupts him.

“That’s right, the Minister took away your voice,” I remind him.

“Then I’ll go on a hunger strike!” Tyrell yells.

The class boos him but he refuses to keep quiet. He continues to scream from his jail cell: “You don’t believe this crap! What are you doing? You’re not racists, common, y’all ain’t even white! Remember Ferguson! Stand up! Stand up! Black lives matter! C’mon!”

“Can we kill him?” a student asks through his screams. I shrug.

“You can’t kill him!” yells Alicia.

“If you try to help him, the minister might take away more of your land,” I remind them.

“Do it!”

“Okay, Alicia, the minister says ‘do it,’ so now you have to stand on one leg. What do you do? You’ve almost got nothing left to lose and you’re behind a wall.”

“Then I spit at your wall! I ain’t goin’ down without a fight!” She picks up a chair, one of the other students picks up another, and I find myself yelling “Okay, okay, the game is over!” as the teacher and I run and take the chairs out of their hands.

The students return to their places, their hearts and veins pumping with adrenaline. I return to the front of the class.

“That, essentially, is where we are today.”

Lia Tarachansky is an Israeli-Canadian filmmaker and journalist. Her work has appeared on The Real News Network, Al Jazeera, USA Today, and The Huffington Post.

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