PARIS — It all started when Yolande Zauberman and her partner in life and work, Selim Nassib, began to work on a screenplay of Nassib’s novel, The Palestinian Lover, which tells the story of an alleged, passionate affair between Golda Meir and a rich Arab banker in then British-administered Palestine. As the unfathomable thought of this affair whirled around, Zauberman decided to go to Israel and ask Jews the most daring question of all: Would you have sex with an Arab? The couple reversed the question for Israeli Arabs. They avoided posing the question to the most extreme in either camp, though. In fact, Zauberman says she deliberately chose to test Israel’s liberal scene to see how progressive it really is. The camera takes viewers through Tel Aviv’s night scene — a bubble within Israel’s largest city, which is in and of itself referred to as “the bubble”— as the couple catches people off-guard with their explosive question. Al-Monitor sat down with Zauberman and Nassib in Paris. The film, which opened in France, will be shown in several European countries and in the United States later this year. Watch the trailer here. Read the full interview.
Al-Monitor: Why did you do this film?
Zauberman: We were writing a script on Golda Meir’s love affair with a Palestinian. The grandson of the Palestinian lover told the story. This was a secret of course, a shameful secret to have slept with the enemy for Palestinians. Whereas in Israel, I found out it was completely impossible to even fathom, even if everybody knew Golda Meir had many lovers. The impossibility to even imagine it was true; this asymmetry really caught my attention. Plus, I had been trying to do a film on Arab-Israelis for the past 15 years. I had sort of given up and then I came up with the idea of the documentary. I soon realized that it created a space for people to revisit everything they believed when they had to express what they really felt.
Al-Monitor: You chose to speak to Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, why?
Zauberman: I have always thought that enemies are couples and that in a way they are linked. Arab Israelis [who account for more than 20% of Israel’s population] are in an impossible situation. Look at the way they are perceived in Arab countries: as traitors and sell-outs. And in Israel, they don’t even exist or are forever suspicious. It is a schizophrenic situation. They are in a most difficult situation, it is true, but also in a fascinating one because they are the closest [to Israeli Jews]. The day there is peace, this community will play a major role because they know Israeli Jews quite well, which is not true the other way around. They go to the same universities, the same hospitals, they were afraid of the same bombs when buses were being attacked in the early 2000s. Israeli Arabs are becoming Sabras too [the term used for Jews born in Israel], they are becoming Israelis.
Al-Monitor: How did you choose the people you talked to?
Zauberman: Most of the people we talked to we didn’t know. We met them through friends, or in nightclubs, never on the street. This film is not a voxpop.
Al-Monitor: How could you tell who was Jewish and who was Arab?
Zauberman: We didn’t always know at first, especially when it comes to teenagers; they look and dress the same. We knew eventually because we talked to them before filming. Also we discovered that Israeli Arabs and Jews know who is who, not necessarily from the way they look physically, but from the way they dress, behave, the bars and the clubs they hang out in.
Al-Monitor: A young Israeli Jewish woman in your film says that when she slept with her Israeli Arab boyfriend she felt she was “making love to an entire people” though it was the most “anti-erotic” moment in her life. It seems there is no room for simple love or sex between Israeli Arabs and Jews. Or is there?
Zauberman: Well it is changing, I think, in the younger generation. It is true that it is not entirely neutral. But I will take the example of the Bride of Palestine [a transvestite, Palestinian drag queen] who just visited us in Paris with her new boyfriend, an Israeli Jew. I asked the Jewish boyfriend how his family was taking it and he told me that since his sister had a relationship with an Arab before — which enraged her family — his parents were now used to it.
Al-Monitor: Don’t you think the gay community is different in the sense that they have always been in the vanguard of change anyway?
Zauberman: Surely. They have broken so many boundaries already that they don’t care about religion or citizenship. But I want to insist that this film is not about sex, it is about the ability to give the “other” a face. The moment you ask this question, the “other” takes on a human shape, has a face. The question is then “is this other, his or her face desirable?”
Al-Monitor: The Israeli Jewish journalist Gideon Levy who is known for his pro-peace and pro-Palestinian stance says something quite terrible in your film — that unlike in other conflicts where rape is used a weapon, there is no case of Israeli soldiers raping Palestinian women because they have been dehumanized to such an extent that they cannot be objects of desire.
Zauberman: I don’t really agree with him. I don’t think that raping a woman has anything to do with humanizing her. I think in fact Palestinian Arab women are not raped because there is an incestuous relation between them and Israeli Jews, as if they were standing before their mother or sister.
Nassib: I think it is because they [Arabs] are not meant to be on this land. You cannot rape or make love to a ghost. Zionist history was founded on the myth of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” If there is someone, it becomes a terrible contradiction. The impossibility for most therefore of saying “yes, I slept with an Arab” also comes from that. In the film, there is an Arab girl who says, “it is forbidden” and for the Jewish side, it is akin to the end of the world because they are in Israel to build a Jewish state and to have Jewish children.
Al-Monitor: You chose to interview really atypical characters, very liberal for the most part. Why?
Zauberman: True. We talked to the fringe of the fringe. Because I wanted to know how open-minded people who seem open-minded really are. I am not interested to show how close-minded people are! My approach is not a demonstration but research; there is no scientific value to this work. But I think I am showing something that hasn’t been shown before: is there any possible desire, is there any possibility to see the other’s face? And we realize that even among the most open-minded people, it is not as simple. But then they start thinking and realize that what seemed impossible might in fact be possible.
Al-Monitor: An Israeli Arab girl admits to falling madly in love with an Israeli Jew but says she never allowed herself to be in a relationship. Later in the film, it slips out that she in fact had something with him.
Zauberman: Absolutely. She ends up saying it.
Nassib: We never asked them the question before the camera was on. So the first time they heard the question is when they appeared on camera. So they were forced to think and rethink about what they said. And you can see when they are, it is really moving. They know what they think about Arabs or Jews as a group, in general, but in the realm of intimacy, when it comes to them individually they don’t immediately.
Zauberman: When this Israeli Arab girl says “I hate them” talking about Jews, later in the film she says Arabs should learn more about Israel and that it is a great civilization.
Al-Monitor: Do you think you actually contributed to having people rethink their biases?
Zauberman: Yes, possibly. We have one scene in the film where Israeli Jews and Arabs are sitting together. They knew one another from before but they really insisted on having coffee together and brought along other friends, enlarging the circle. We were invited, and filmed.
Al-Monitor: You have children of mixed couples in your film. Tell me more about them?
Zauberman: In one family, the Jewish and Arab grandparents married during the British mandate [1923-1948] and one generation after the next, their offspring said “well, there will be peace when our children grow up.” It is difficult for the children.
Al-Monitor: You dedicated this film to the memory of Juliano Mer-Khamis, the son of an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian Christian man, and an acclaimed actor and director who was assassinated in 2011 on the West Bank. How hopeful is your message?
Zauberman: His position was difficult, he was a warrior. Of course [his death] is sad, but what a legacy he left behind! What he created can be revisited, he created bridges. I could have also dedicated this film to the kids we interviewed, they were beautiful, simple. What I find most moving in the film is their honesty. Not one of them tried to come across as “cooler” than they really are.
Al-Monitor: Still Mer-Khamis’ tragedy shows that the road to tolerance is very long, and that children of Arab and Jewish descent can be killed over just that.
Nassib: That’s what he said himself, that it is dangerous to be a free spirit, a loose cannon. That he had to reinvent himself every single day. His message was not naïve though.
Al-Monitor: But there is a long way to go to achieve peace and co-existence, wouldn’t you say?
Zauberman: Yes, I think times are difficult, but I also believe that many people aspire to a different life and not only in the Middle East. I place all my hopes in young generations whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, that are rebelling, without even wanting power. In Israel, I feel that the new generation wants change. At the same time, people have comfortable lives, and don’t have enough stamina and enough to lose to rebel.
Nassib: I think the new generation in Israel is split between those who aspire to better lives and those who want power — and I mean religious people here. Some religious Orthodox Jews now serve in the Army, they live as settlers in the Palestinian territories; they want to perpetuate the occupation. And in the Arab world, we saw during the Arab spring, that young people filled the streets without wanting power, and those who won have embraced religion as an ideology.
Al-Monitor: To end on a more positive note, are you still in touch with some of the people you interviewed? And… have they all revised their judgment and ended up marrying one another?!
Zauberman: Not yet! Some saw the film, and loved it. All of them are scared that the film will be shown in Israel though. We will organize private showings for now. And it will be distributed in the United States and in Europe, besides France.
Al-Monitor: How about Palestine?
Zauberman: I would love for it to be shown there. We showed the first nine minutes to friends in Ramallah and they loved it.
Nassib: We would rather the film was shown in theaters but I am sure people will manage to see it.
Sophie Claudet is Europe and Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor, based in Paris. She previously was Senior International Correspondent with France 24, and also worked for Agence France-Presse English service in the Palestinian Territories/Israel and Egypt. She tweets @SophieinParis