I have now seen both episodes of a superb documentary made by a young American Jew, Matthew Cassel, and broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Qatari TV channel that these days specializes in brilliant in-depth documentary investigations of troubling world problems.
Young Cassel grew up in a Jewish family with the customary beliefs in relation to the establishment of Israel. But, troubled by certain aspects of the official story, he travelled to the Middle East, became a resident of Beirut for four years, and befriended many people who, after the Jewish takeover of Palestine in 1948, left their country to escape the war, believing that they would be returning in a few days.
For this documentary account of his doubts about the official story Cassel interviewed young people living in Israel today including those from both sides of the argument. One story he was told is that they were brought up in their schools to believe that Palestine was a land without people, for a people without land, a convenient idea that I could not help comparing with the ignorant attitudes of Europeans who arrived in the New World more than 500 years ago equipped with the belief that they were entering an empty, unoccupied land, an idea they formalized into a legal concept called Terra Nullius, which they used as the underpinning for their claim to have become owners of the land by virtue of their (so-called) discovery.
Cassel put his questions about the rights of the original owners of Palestine, the Palestinian inhabitants, to young Israelis, both those born there and others more recently arrived, and got from many of them a casual shrug, and a “So what?”
In one unforgettable sequence in the first part of his investigation he follows a bus-load of Israelis taken to the West Bank by a dissident group established for that purpose. They are taken to a small city half an hour or an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. This small city was welded shut by the Israeli army years ago, and has stood there totally empty, ever since. One of the visitors stood in the middle of the deserted street and recalled how he had visited this place when it had been a busy, engaged and vibrant town. He looked around him and said he was staggered to see what had happened to it. He said that he had read of terrible tragedies that had overcome ethnic groups around the world, and added: “Now I find something every bit as bad has happened within a short drive of my own home. It is something I never knew about.”
In the second episode, Cassel recalls his close friendship with a Palestinian man who had been forced from his village in 1948, had lived in Lebanon since, always dreaming of visiting his home village, bringing up his children to know the sights and smells of this lost homeland that his family had been prevented from visiting for more than 60 years. On his first visit Cassel, while friendly to the man, had not told him he was Jewish “because I thought it might be awkward for you if it was known you were friendly with a Jew.” Now he determined to tell him the truth. To prepare the occasion he went to a sports shop and bought a gift: a fishing rod for his friend whom he knew to be a keen fisherman. Then he told him that he had omitted to mention before that he had a Jewish mother who was unhappy about his activities in support of the Palestinian cause. His friend replied immediately: “I do not care what you are. I care who you are. To me, you are a wholehearted supporter of the Palestinian cause. You are still my friend.”
In contrast, Cassel interviewed a recent arrival from the United States who had taken up residence in the village, claiming it as his ancestral right. A pleasant enough man, the arriving Jewish settler, when the question was put to him about the people whom he was replacing, said, “to me, I do not accept these arguments that they have been replaced and are longing to return. They left in 1948, and have no right to return to take over our land.”
Cassel invited his mother to express her feelings about the issue but she would not appear in the film, for fear of a negative reaction towards her from American Jews. But she wrote a letter explaining that in her youth the Holocaust was a more lively issue than it had since become to the generation of her son. To her it had carried the concept of shame. Her son commented: “I had not realized that aspect of shame,” but he added that to his mother Israel was right and must be supported whatever they did.
She added that they would simply have to agree to disagree, but that she still loved him as her son. And Matthew Cassel, reading the letter on camera, smiled and said, “I am her son again. That’s good.”
Still, he found her refusal to even discuss the issue indefensible. And in the last few minutes of the film that attitude was underlined by an attack mounted on water cannon by the Israeli army against protesting Palestinians, and by the explanation given by an official of how the Israelis were gradually, little by little, destroying Palestinian means of subsistence --- for example, a Jewish settlement of several dozen houses had been built on a hill overlooking a Palestinian farm whose water supply they had commandeered, by authority of the Israeli state.
This is a remarkable statement, this film --- calm, reasoned, impassioned and at the same time anguished, made by this young man, Matthew Cassel, who deserves the highest praise.
Contiguous with this investigation, AlJazeera has been showing a devastating inquiry called The Lost Cities of Palestine, an historical look at the state of Palestinian cities up until 1948, cities like any other with their industries, infrastructure, governments, culture --- theatres, movies and the like --- fully functioning cities that were deliberately undermined, step by step, in fact, ruined, by the actions of the Israeli authorities. Another superb contribution to understanding of the dilemma that has exercised this area for almost the last century.