In 1969, I spent six weeks in Israel as part of a Temple University summer abroad program. I had expected to stay in a dorm in West Jerusalem, the Israeli sector, but there was a glitch, so other Jewish students and I were put in an Arab hotel in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian sector. It had only been two years since Israel had won the Six Day War, and the mood was jubilant. Although East Jerusalem was under curfew, I didn’t hesitate to buy schwarma from street vendors, haggle with shopkeepers, and date a handsome Palestinian. Today, such interactions aren’t just taboo — they’re dangerous.
East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, now being screened at film festivals across the country, shows what happens when the walls between Jews, Christians, and Muslims come down, one brick at a time. The documentary film follows Israeli singer/songwriter David Broza in his effort to collaborate with Palestinian and American musicians during an eight-day recording session in the studio of legendary Palestinian band Sabreen in East Jerusalem. American performers include Grammy winners Wyclef Jean and singer/songwriter Steve Earle.
Against all odds
What’s the difference between East and West Jerusalem? Think heaven and hell. (More to the point, think Gladwyne and North Philly.) Israeli Jews do not go to East Jerusalem. Israeli Arabs do not enter West Jerusalem. “I have lived walking distance from East Jerusalem all my life,” an Israeli musician says in the film. “But I have never had a reason to go there until now.”
The risks were enormous. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement discourages many Western and Palestinian artists from performing in Israel. One Arab musician backed out at the last minute due to political pressure.
Films about recording sessions are nothing new. But East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem may be the first that wants to do more than sell CDs and build a fan base. It aspires to change hearts and minds. Not by lecturing, but simply by showing what happens when people overcome their fears. “You can only break down walls when you are engaged in eye-to-eye contact,” says Broza.
He recalled being in Ramallah at night and seeing a blaze of lights in the distance — Tel Aviv. Broza was astounded to learn that a city forbidden to residents of Ramallah was so close. It inspired his bittersweet love song, Ramallah-Tel Aviv, which he performs in the film with singer and actress Mira Awad, a Christian Arab Israeli. Awad admits that she has paid a price for her professional collaborations and performances in Israel. “I am not Israeli enough for one side and I am not Palestinian enough for the other,” she said.
In the film’s tensest scene, Broza accompanies Muhammad Mughrabi, a young Palestinian rap star, to his home in the Shuafat refugee camp. A squalid maze of concrete hovels without a single tree, Shuafat is too dangerous for even the police to enter.
“Ambulances won’t come here,” Mughrabi tells Broza. “If someone is sick, we have to drive them to a hospital ourselves.” This is where Broza engages members of G-Town, a Palestinian hip-hop group, in a lively musical dialogue. It is also here in the refugee camp, where no sane Israeli would venture, that Broza launches a music school.
The weakest element of the film is that we never get to know any of the other musicians beyond their studio performances. Broza narrates the entire documentary, and too many songs are used as opportunities for extreme close-ups of him. I would have liked to learn more about the other participants. The film seems to open up when Mughrabi describes his childhood impressions of Israelis — “They all wanted to kill me” — and when members of the Israeli youth choir speak candidly about the unlikelihood of their elders embracing peaceful coexistence.
While the film focuses on the joyful interactions of musicians inside the safe harbor of the Palestinian studio, it doesn’t shrink from the hostilities outside. It opens and closes with Broza and his Palestinian cinematographer observing Jerusalem Day celebrations in the Old City. Hordes of Israeli flag-waving, ultra-Orthodox students stake their claim to the part of the temple that is sacred to Muslims. Arab kids push back and clash with soldiers and police. Jewish teenagers shout, “Death to Arabs!”
Not changing reality
Broza came to Philadelphia for the film’s showing at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival. During the Q&A, Broza said, “I don’t think we are changing reality. What we are doing just adds a little optimism to person-to-person relationships. Peace and understanding are not going to happen only if the government dictates an educational program. You need a lot of small projects like this one. It’s a form of survival.”
I agree. While an administrative error placed me in East Jerusalem, it was my willingness to interact with Palestinians as humans that enabled me to bridge the seemingly impossible divide. Inviting someone of another faith, race, or ethnicity to share a meal won’t stop the ongoing conflict. But, as Broza says, it just may create an opening for understanding.
What, When, Where
East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. Henrique Cymerman and Erez Miller directed. Cinematography by Issa Freij, Erez Miller, and Ohad Milstein. November 17, 2015 at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival, the Gershman Y, 401 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. PJFF.org
Following screenings at film festivals around the country, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem will open to wide release.