On a recent trip to Germany, Jewish Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni finds himself defending the Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli apartheid and occupation. Before pledging unconditional loyalty to Israel, he says, people should ask themselves what values they are helping promote.
By Udi Aloni
My daughter Yuli and I set out on a journey in Berlin this summer to spend quality time together, to see art, and learn from each other. Yuli lives in Israel, where my mother, Shulamit Aloni, was the minister of education and culture in the second Yitzhak Rabin government. She was with Rabin at the rally where he was murdered following a wild smear campaign of right-wing forces in Israel. It is those same forces that, today, some Germans have called to unconditionally support.
I had been planning to go to the Ruhrtriennale festival in Bochum to screen my film, “Junction 48” (winner of the Berlinale Panorama Audience Award 2017), when my friend and comrade in the struggle from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Iris Hefetz Amsalem, called to inform me about a controversial event being planned in Berlin. It was a symposium against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, and no Palestinian representative was invited to speak there.
It was clear to me that I had to attend the event and confront those who have turned the BDS concept upside down. As an outsider who is unsure of the advantages and disadvantages of the BDS movement in Germany, my goal was not so much to protect the movement, but rather to stop the cynical depiction of civil rights activists as anti-Semitic. The manipulative use of the term anti-Semitism is an act that promotes anti-Semitism by obscuring its literal and historical meanings. This inaccurate usage must be fought with the same degree of decisiveness with which we fight anti-Semitism itself.
I thought that as an Israeli Jew I could go to the symposium and simply explain that, not only is the BDS movement clearly not anti-Semitic, its basic tenet is equality between Jews and Palestinians. BDS is a Palestinian call for solidarity from international civil society, whose money has been used to acquire lethal weapons to oppress the Palestinian people. It is a call for solidarity coming from a people who have lived without basic rights for 70 years. It is a call to create a space for non-violent struggle for justice and equality.
One might not agree with the call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, but we must at least allow it to be heard. It seems that the more Israel distances itself from universal morality and values – and now, when apartheid measures are officially valid not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also within the borders of ’48 (Israel), according to the Jewish Nation-State Law – the “good Germans” believe that they have to urgently defend it, and deny the facts.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has already written about the close and symbiotic relationship between anti-Semitic movements and the State of Israel (for example, the welcoming of American right-wing evangelists and the Hungarian Prime Minister as distinguished guests of Bibi Netanyahu).
In a time of weakness and confusion, in which the right wing appropriates our human rights discourse, political correctness and identity politics are crucial to refresh the stagnant left. How is it that crucial strategies become perversely transformed, only to be thrown back in our face as racist ideologies while the white-supremacist crowd applauds? And how can I stand up to these brutal attacks and not fall into them? How can I face my daughter and feel that I am passing on to her the values of humanistic Judaism that my mother and grandparents taught me?
At the symposium in Bochum, Musician Elliott Sharp read a text on empathy and the BDS movement in a moving and deep voice. When he said that the looks of the Warsaw ghetto and of the Gaza Strip are visually similar, and when the audience did not jeer him as they had jeered me, I thought to myself: how can I find the language of radical grace that I have been seeking? I wondered whether my radical emotional fervor was helping me communicate my message, or whether it was obstructing my ability to listen to others. I asked my daughter Yuli what she thought. She said that both emotional appeal and intellectual dialogue are important for the struggle.
The Jew is not singular, and not an object. We are subjects with many different and contradictory voices. And what kind of Judaism do we want to preserve? The Judaism of Judith Butler, Tony Kushner, Daniel Barenboim, Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Gershom Scholem, Buber, Benjamin, Luxemburg, and Arendt? Or the Judaism of Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Lieberman? This is the question that needs to be asked before one wraps themselves in an imaginary Judaism, like a prayer shawl, and pledges unconditional loyalty to the State of Israel.
On the last day of our journey, Yuli and I went to the “Hello World” exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum. At the end of the exhibition, there was an installation by the artist Bruce Nauman called “Room with my Soul Left Out, Room that Doesn’t Care.” We stood there pondering and asking, Quo Vadis Domini? Where will the internal political and artistic path lead us, while the fire continues to rage and burn our fragile world?
At night, Yuli and I had dinner with Israeli writer Nir Baram and other friends. With the encouragement of some wine, we yelled and argued about the question of what better promotes a solution to Israeli apartheid and occupation: a more moderate, diplomatic approach, or a more radical one? And then Timothy, another friend, said, “just remember to tell them that it is not about you nor the Germans. At the end of the struggle is a young Palestinian woman with no rights, who deserves to live in equality and security and to get to the hospital to treat cancer, even if her father’s politics are different from ours.”
But at the end of the struggle, there is also my daughter, and I want to help her create a world in which she and Mariam, her Palestinian friend, will be able to make their art together and feel that their friendship is obvious, not rare or eccentric, as it is perceived today.
Udi Aloni is a filmmaker, artist, and writer whose works frequently explore the interrelationships between art, theory, and activism. His most recent film, “Junction 48” (2016), won the Audience Award at the Berlinale, and Best International Film at the Tribeca Film Festival, among many others. Aloni’s book, “What Does a Jew Want: On Binationalism and Other Spectres” (Columbia University Press), is a theological-political compilation that contains interventions by Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek. Previously, Aloni was the head of the cinema department at the Freedom Theater of Jenin Refugee Camp. Aloni is on the Advisory Board of Jewish Voice for Peace – America. Currently, Aloni lives between Tel Aviv, Berlin, and New York. A version of this article was first published in German in the Berliner Zeitung. Read it here.