Conflict in an ancient land

Each side's idea of `return' throws up roadblock to peace

TV Preview

August 28, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There has been no shortage of eloquent images and enterprise reporting when it comes to covering the horrible escalation of death and destruction in Israel and the West Bank. PBS' Frontline, for example, has been outstanding in going behind the scenes to show and tell what's happening beyond the headlines this past year.

But there is another level of public-affairs reporting at which television seldom excels: the realm of ideas. Arab and Jew: Return to the Promised Land, a PBS documentary by Baltimore filmmaker Rob Gardner and Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times Middle East correspondent David K. Shipler, airing on MPT tonight, is mostly about ideas.

These are the kind of ideas that can make viewers think long after the final credits roll - ideas thought through, distilled and powerfully presented. This is public-affairs television for viewers who want to understand more about the world in which they live, and are willing to hear what folks on both sides of a passionately felt issue believe.

Instead of talking about the personalities of Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat or just piling up one bloody image after another, Arab and Jew starts out with a fast post-World War II history of the region. Then, as the screen fills with images of Jewish refugees from Europe packed aboard rickety ships and Palestinian refugees walking down dusty roads with belongings on their backs, Shipler's narration lays out one of the most important ideas in the film.

"The ideology of return stands at the core of the conflict," Shipler says. "For Israelis, it has meant return of Jews to the Promised Land of the Bible. For Palestinians, it's the hunger to return to the villages that were emptied during the birth of modern Israel. The two peoples have two narratives, two truths fixed in their historical memories."

Arab and Jew examines the power of stories to shape not only historical memory, but the future as well. It's not some hatred in the genes - Arab for Jew, and Jew for Arab - that's causing this horrific bloodbath. It's two narratives, two sets of stories, that refuse to make space for each other.

Understand the stories and how they are passed from one generation to the next, and you will understand the seemingly unimaginable violence in Israel and the West Bank today. So far, all the summits and all the peace processes with all their powerful leaders haven't been able to overcome the power of these stories.

Shipler and Gardner go on to show viewers how the two competing cultures methodically pass their ideologies of return to succeeding generations.

One Palestinian man explains how his mother, on her deathbed, gave him a large, ancient-looking key. It is the key to the home that she fled in 1948 after Israel was born. The home no longer exists, but the key - and returning to the spot of his mother's demolished home - is the all-consuming passion of this man's life. He vows to pass the key and all its obligations to his children if he does not succeed in reclaiming the land.

Then, there is the Israeli mother of five, a settler in one of the territories where Palestinian homes once stood, who explains her claim to the land.

"For 2,000 years, we have been running away from one pogrom to another. Every place we went, we were attacked," she says. "We moved and kept wandering from one place to another until there was no place to go, and 6 million people were killed. I don't want my kids back in this kind of life, running away from pogrom to pogrom, not under any circumstance. This is the reason we established this state: to tell our kids this is our home. ... Home is something you don't abandon."

The ultimate power of the film comes from the ways in which it measures attitudes toward the two narratives across time. In 1988, Shipler and Gardner won a DuPont-Columbia Award for their PBS film, Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land. The concept behind Return to the Promised Land involved re-interviewing many of the Israelis and Palestinians from the 1988 film to see how their views have or have not changed.

Sad to say, most have only hardened in their positions and are clinging more tenaciously than ever to the belief that their narrative is the one and only true story of return. There seems little hope of any accommodation or reconciliation between the two.

As Danny Siedemann, an Israeli attorney puts it, "The operating principle is that things are ... getting worse, and one almost has to evoke mythological terminology: The gods have not had enough blood yet."

TV tonight

What: Arab and Jew: Return to the Promised Land

When: 10 tonight

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)

In brief: A documentary that dares to deal with ideas and the power of stories to shape our lives.

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