A People Without A Land (2014)
Dir. Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
A shorter version of this review was originally solicited by a better website but what I wrote was shit. Luckily my own website here has no standards at all and an audience of around four unlucky browsers who just saw Star Wars for the first time and couldn’t remember C-3PO’s name to accurately google the droid and thus are subjected to the following ramblings. What follows is based on the original review but takes some aspects of the film as points of departure to discuss topics in but not unique to A People Without Land.
Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s latest film, A People Without A Land, provides another entry into cases made for Palestinian liberation as a one-state solution. Ungar-Sargon describes himself as a “Jewish Rebel” on his website. Indeed in previous documentaries Ungar-Sargon has examined male circumcision and Jewish fetishization of the Shoah from, if you’ll forgive the bad pun, ultra-unorthodox angles. In A People Without A Land he compiles interviews with progressive Palestinian activists, Israeli liberal Zionists, radical right- and left-wing Israelis, stock footage, music and journalistic footage to present his case.
The film largely follows hegemonic liberal discourse from early Zionism through the Oslo years towards a two-state solution in the first third, starts the story over with a historical track towards a one state solution in the second third, then prosthyletizes liberal nationalism for the remainder. The film starts with with Zionism’s generative context in 19th century Central and Eastern Europe and initially follows Zionist settlement in Palestine through the Nakba (1947-49 war in Palestine), Naksa (Six Day War) and into the Oslo Process years through the second intifada and Operation Cast Lead. It narrates Zionist settlement, the mass expulsion of Palestinians from 1947-49, the conquest of the remainder of Palestine in 1967 and Israeli settlement and oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip through the present. A People Without A Land concludes making a case for a one-state solution in Palestine. Through all this the film shoots through a critical, to one degree or another, lens.
A significant strength when compared to most Palestine documentaries is the narrative space allotted to refugees and the Right of Return, a topic frequently ignored or given only lip service despite most Palestinians being refugees. As important is how Ungar-Sargon engages refugeedom no matter where the refugees are located, including those who are citizens of Israel, a refugee population close to discursively erased in all liberal and most non-Palestinian radical discourse. A People Without A Land even briefly explores Right of Return’s more practical aspects in a late sequence where it documents activists and architects from Miska Committee, Decolonizing Architecture and Zochrot discussing the reestablishment of Miska, a Palestinian village depopulated during the 1947-49 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In fact this is basic to the film in that it is bookended with scenes from Lifta, another depopulated Palestinian village. Other strengths include a skeptical eye towards the Peace Process and Palestinian Authority (the latter topic part partially subverted by having Saeb Erekat as a protagonist).
Yet the film leaves much to be desired narratively, historically and conceptually. The filmmaking is unremarkable but for Ungar-Sargon’s poor decision to include over thirty subjects in a film just seventy-eight minutes long. This works out to a new character every two and a half minutes or so. These characters range from far Right-wing Israelis to left-wing Palestinian advocates for decolonization. Ungar-Sargon offers nothing to bridge either the widely divergent political viewpoints nor the far too numerous subjects making the film frequently incoherent. It’s like someone’s “Israel-Palestine” youtube playlist.
For example, in one segment West Bank settler Ari Abramson says, “Most Palestinians do not recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Ungar-Sargon then refutes with Bethlehem resident Samer Kokaly — who supports one state — saying that Israel has a kind of right to exist. The film unambiguously supports a one-state solution so what’s the point of this segment? Leaving aside that there is no such thing as a “right” to settler rule in Palestine, it is out of place in a film explicitly rejecting Israel’s premise. There is a possible logic behind this scene to which I’ll return below.
In it’s final third the film variously advocates for and against a one-state solution. That Ungar-Sargon’s film advocates for a one-state solution is only clear because he very explicitly says so at the very end. Key interviewees Gershom Gorenberg and Gershon Baskin state their objection to one state in terms, too much hatred and all that familiar tripe, not so different from that offered by Right-wing Israeli geographer Arnon Soffer (Why is he interviewed at all? And why would the filmmakers celebrate his attendance at a screening?!) or, for that matter, George Wallace in his day. Both Gorenberg and Baskin are earlier posited as critics of Israeli repression of Palestinians so their advocacy for settler rule is still posited as some type of solidarity, not the crude racism it is.
Just got word that Arnon Soffer will be in attendance at our Israeli premiere! http://t.co/Fu03xsraYz
— APWAL (@withoutaland) November 16, 2014
A People Without a Land also includes historical misconceptions. At the very beginning Zionism is introduced as a Romantic Nationalism akin to others in Central and Eastern Europe from whence it came. This is true enough. But Ungar-Sargon narrates this as being fundamental to Israeli dispossession of Palestinians. One subject notes that, due to the European Romantic nationalist movements amongst which Zionism was conceived, Zionism is “not gonna jump to Thomas Jefferson and become a civic form of nationalism” akin to French and British nationalism. This framework is both wrong, and wrong again. Israel has proven decidedly Jeffersonian — as in how Jefferson conceived and enacted his aggressively anti-Native policies — in its relations to the indigenous Palestinian population. Settler-Indigenous relations are formed primarily in the actual spaces of colonization, not in praxes in the settlers’ place of origin. This framework also ignores the role of Western European colonialism played in expanding rights for citizens of the metropole, specifically the mass extraction of wealth from the colonies and the discursive formation and racialization of colonized Others juxtaposed with the colonizing Us. Alternately put, to the limited degree that Western European nationalist movements were ‘civic’ — movements advocating a state belonging to those who lived there instead of a specific group — they in no way meant states belonging to all those ruled by the state. It is just a brief segment but is a common misconception based in a colonial historiography. More importantly, it introduces Zionism by disconnecting it from from Zionism’s actual formative processes of colonization.
What kind of state?
The actual case made for one-state is also not obviously preferable. But for Omar Barghouti briefly mentioning that any state should be generally non-oppressive, A People Without Land offers the state itself as a solution. Yet states, in Weber’s conception the monopolists of legitimate violence, have been a leading cause of death, misery and oppression since their inception. Surely two egalitarian states recognizing Right of Return, social and economic democracy, gender liberation and so on would be preferable to one shitty state if for some reason the options were so limited. As one segment mentions briefly, there is just one state now and it is a nightmare. To argue for one state itself as the solution is to offer a bizarre quantitative theory of the state. The end of settler rule (aka: Apartheid or, as we say in Hebrew, Hafrada) in South Africa meant certain concrete political and civic gains. But in some ways, many indigenous South Africans are little better off because the terms of ending settler rule divorced civic and economic policy.
In A People Without Land Rabbi Asher Lopatin pitches one such one-state dystopia when he argues that Israelis and Palestinians should be able to buy houses anywhere inside Palestine. At first glance this sounds egalitarian. But Israeli per capita income is twenty times the of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, a disparity that grows significantly once adjusting Israeli GDP per capita between Jews and Arabs and yet again when including Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Most Palestinians could not buy houses at the prices most Israelis could. Thus a theoretically non-discriminatory real estate market turns out to be a recipe for further Palestinian dispossession under the banner of a one-state liberal democracy. So one-state, fine. But what kind of state? A People Without Land doesn’t hint at anything decent despite many interviewees (Ghada Karmi, Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti, Jeff Halper, Ariella Azoulay, Eitan Bronstein, etc.) making more concrete and liberatory pitches elsewhere.
The one-state pitch is also based on the two-state solution being declared dead for reasons of impracticality. Thus settler rule in Palestine is merely impractical, not unethical. That the solution should be through states at all is far from obvious but with few counterhegemonic discussions of the No State Solution towards Palestinian sovereignty at the present it’s a forgivable omission.
A One-State Solution for American Jews
A fundamental problem with A People Without Land comes from the overall impression it makes. With so many Ashkenazi narrators and the Yiddish soundtrack it feels like a film made for a liberal American Jewish audience. This is the only way the segment with Abramson and Kokaly mentioned above makes sense. It’s kind of like saying, “See American Jews? Palestinians do recognize Israel’s right to exist.” This also explains why Ungar-Sargon includes Liberal Zionists like Baskin and Gorenberg who support settler rule. Their critiques of Israeli policy are not uniquely insightful. Any of the Palestinians interviewed could have offered the same. They serve no purpose but to inject more Jewish voices to narrate Palestine to American Jews. Liberal American Ashkenazi Jews, like any other subgroup of white Americans, tend to be racist. Using Liberal Zionist narrators and recognizing Israel’s mythical right to exist appeals to this sensibility. This is not fighting fire with fire. Fighting oppressive politics with oppressive politics is just oppressive politics. This angle affirms the idea that American Jews should have some special place in Palestinian liberation or things Israel-Palestine simply because they feel a connection. American Jewish participation in the American settler colony is far more relevant and important than any opinions Americans Jews have about Palestine and the Israeli settler colony. This is not to say American Jews shouldn’t learn and act against U.S. support for Israel in the context of the U.S. Settler Empire, merely that A Land Without People only makes sense inside the White Supremacist context privileging the place of American Jews in discourse on Palestine.
Many more Palestinians narrate the latter half of the film, the part narrating liberation, which is a welcome turn. Yet Ungar-Sargon still frequently injects narrative Israeli — almost exclusively male Ashkenazim — control. In the segment examining reconstituting Miska, an unnamed Palestinian participant critiques such control. She notes, “Try not to put [Israelis and Palestinians] in symmetry. Why me as a Palestinian from Miska has to have the agreement of the Israelis surrounding me?” Indeed, why should the terms of Palestinian liberation be subject to Israeli veto? Yet Ungar-Sargon follows with an Israeli response about exactly why Israelis should have just that veto.
Borderline worth watching
Bookending the film with ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages and the lengthy treatment of Palestinian refugees and the Right of Return should not warrant mention because it is simply a proper way to do things. But Palestinian refugees are so aggressively marginalized that Ungar-Sargon’s film is uncommon in this regard. His skeptical view of the Peace Process and Palestinian Authority are also solid turns for audiences unfamiliar with the radical Palestinian tradition.
Yet the film is hard to recommend. Were it just my political quibbles it would be one thing, but the narrative lacks all coherence and no single idea, not even its central topic of a one-state solution, is meaningfully elucidated. This stands in sharp contrast with the lengthy explorations of Ungar-Sargon’s earlier Generation Gap. A tighter focus with fewer narrators would make A People Without Land a valuable educational tool and much better film even if political problems remained. Instead the film feels like Ungar-Sargon filmed a lot of great footage and tried to fit a bit of it all into a single narrative instead of some of it into a coherent one.