The historiography of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fraught at the best of times: a decades-long slog between two different peoples, each with ties to a small strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Benny Morris, an Israeli historian and a rather controversial one, titled his history of the conflict Righteous Victims (1999). Despite some polarizing remarks, I think Morris made a very clever decision in never specifying who exactly the victims are.
Saree Makdisi, in Palestine Inside Out (2008), argues the conflict is fundamentally about land. This may be true, but the reason each side wants the land so much is because of a sense of victimhood. The Zionists who founded the modern state of Israel had been targeted by centuries of antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust. The Arabs of Palestine had been marginalized by the Zionists and by the British Mandate, culminating in what they call al-Nakba, or the Catastrophe; the expulsion of so many Arabs from the land that became the State of Israel.
You can see this in the dueling concepts of who is allowed to “return” to the land. The Israelis promote a “law of return” allowing anyone of Jewish heritage to gain Israeli citizenship. The Palestinians demand a “right of return” for the descendants of the refugees who were driven out by the barrels of Haganah, Irgun and Lehi guns.
In Kedma, Amos Gitai throws these dueling concepts of victimhood into stark relief, albeit one that focuses mostly on the Jewish aspect of the conflict. The film begins on a refugee ship of European Jews, bound for what they hope is their promised land. Can we blame them for wanting a home, a place where they are the majority, after Auschwitz and Treblinka?
When they land, they are immediately thrown into chaos. They are pursued by British soldiers, still following their orders even as the short and perplexing story of Mandatory Palestine comes to an inglorious end. In my reading about the end of the Mandate, I can’t help but imagine the British collectively throwing up their hands and saying that the whole issue is simply no longer their problem. After these hapless survivors escape, they are drafted into the war, sent to fight against Arabs who just want to remain in their homes.
One of the more poignant moments in the film occurs when these survivors run into Arabs fleeing westward from the battle in Jerusalem. The Arabs initially do not realize the ethnicity of the people they run into, and with great fear proclaim that the Jews have come to kill them all. When the identities are reveals, this descends into an angry shouting match about who deserves to live in the land. The anguish of an angry Arab saying he will fight the Jews forever is juxtaposed with a monologue about the suffering of the Jewish people. They are both righteous victims.
This is not the first movie about the 1948 Arab-Israeli War I’ve reviewed. I also discussed Exodus, Otto Preminger’s grandiose story of Jewish refugees trying to find a home in Palestine (see here). Where Preminger is romantic, Gitai is brutally realistic. He doesn’t try to turn anyone into a hero. Rather, he lets all the humanity come out in an honest, unflinching way. Preminger made an epic. Gitai shows that building a new country is far more complicated than lining up trucks in a row.