Creating people's geographies
The Independent | 21 October 2006
Yes, the film O Jerusalem – loosely based on the epic history of the birth of Israel by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins – has reached Europe (mercifully, not yet Britain) and it is everything we have come to expect of the Hollywoodisation of Europe. It is dramatic; it stars the French singer Patrick Bruel as an Israeli commander; there is a flamboyant David Ben-Gurion – all white hair defying gravity – and Saïd Taghmaoui and JJ Feild as that essential duo of all such movies, the honourable, moderate, kind-hearted Arab (Saïd Chahine) and Jew (Bobby Goldman) whose friendship outlives the war between them.
We are used to this pair, of course. Exodus, based on Leon Uris’s novel of the same 1948 events, contained a “good” Arab who befriends Paul Newman’s Jewish hero, just as Ben Hur introduced us to a “good” Arab who lends Charlton Heston’s Jehuda Ben Hur his horses to compete in the chariot race against the nastiest centurion in the history of the Roman Empire. Once we have established that there are “good” Arabs with hearts of gold, we are, of course, free to concentrate on the rotten kind. They murder a young woman in Exodus and they also kill a brave young woman during the battle for Latroun in O Jerusalem. (She is seen being partially stripped by her aggressor before being killed by a shell.)
It is also a sign of the times that for “security” reasons, O Jerusalem had to be made in Rhodes, just as the Beirut scenes in the infinitely better movie Munich had to be staged in Malta and the crusader epic Kingdom of Heaven made in Morocco, complete with Maghrebian-accented Arabs. Exodus was filmed on location in an earlier, much safer Israel.
But it’s not this routine bestialisation of Arabs and Muslims that concerns me. You only have to watch the Arab slave-trader film Ashanti, again filmed in Israel and starring Roger Moore and (of all people) Omar Sharif, to see Arabs portrayed, Nazi-style, as murderers, thieves and child molesters. Anti-Semitism against Arabs – who are, of course, also Semites – is par for the course in movies. And I have to admit that in O Jerusalem, the confusion and plotting of the Arab leadership – only King Abdullah of Jordan is an honourable man – is all too realistic, not least the arrogance of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini (he who shook hands with Hitler).
No, what I object to is the deliberate distortion of history, the twisting of the narrative of events to present Jews as the victims of the Israeli war of independence (6,000 dead) when in fact they were the victors, and the Arabs of Palestine – or at least that part of Palestine that became Israel in 1948 – as the cause of this war and the apparent victors (because the Jews of East Jerusalem were forced from their homes after the ceasefire) rather than the principal victims. Take, for example, the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, where the Stern gang murdered the Arab villagers of what is now the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Shaul, disembowelled women and threw grenades into rooms full of civilians. In O Jerusalem, the Stern gang is represented as a gang of wicked men, a kind of Jewish al-Qa’ida, hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream Israeli army of young, high-minded guerrilla fighters.
In the movie, you see the bodies of the dead Arabs – and a wounded woman later being treated by an Israeli – but at no point is it made clear that Deir Yassin was just one among many villages in which the inhabitants were butchered – this was particularly the case in Galilee – and the women raped by Jewish fighters. Israel’s “new” historians have already bravely disclosed these facts, along with the irrefutable evidence that they served Israel’s purpose of dispossessing 750,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homes in what was to become Israel. Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has courageously referred to this period as one of “ethnic cleansing”. But no such suggestion sullies the scene of slaughter at Deir Yassin in O Jerusalem.
Reality has to be separated from us. Thus a massacre that became part of a policy has been turned in the movie into an aberration by a few armed extremists. Indeed, after the film ends, a series of paragraphs on the screen bleakly record the dispossession of the Palestinians as a result of “Arab propaganda”. This itself is a myth. Yet again, Israeli historians have already disproved the lie that the Arab regimes told Palestinian Arabs over the radio that they should leave their homes “until the Jews have been thrown into the sea”. No such broadcasts were made. Most Palestinians fled because they were frightened of ending up like the people of Deir Yassin. The propaganda about radio broadcasts was Israeli, not Arab.
It’s as if a blanket, a curtain, a veil has been thrown over history – so that the shadow of real events is just visible, but their meaning so distorted as to be incomprehensible. “So this is why you wanted guns,” Bobby Goldman shouts at the Stern leader amid the dead of Deir Yassin. And he’s wrong. The guns enabled the Stern gang to murder the Arabs of Deir Yassin to produce the panic that sent three quarters of a million Palestinians on the road to permanent exile.
But isn’t this the world in which we live? Aren’t we all veiled from the truth? I’m not talking about the remarks of Jack “the Veil” Straw but of his political master, Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. For only a day after I watched O Jerusalem, I opened my newspaper to find that our Prime Minister was calling the Muslim women’s niqab “a mark of separation”.
Yet can there be any man more guilty of “separation”, of separating British people from their own democratically elected government, than Blair? Can anyone have been more meretricious – could anyone have told more lies to the British people – to obscure, dissemble, distort and cover up the historical facts than Blair?
The weapons of mass destruction, the 45-minute warning, the links between Saddam and al-Qa’ida, the whole wretched fiction of Iraq’s post-invasion “success” and Afghanistan’s post-Taliban “success” are attempts by Blair to make us wear the veil, a far more dangerous weapon than any Muslim female covering. We are supposed to look through the veil which Lord Blair placed in front of our eyes so that lies will become truth, so that what is true will become untrue. And thus we will be separated from the truth. Which is why Blair himself now represents that “mark of separation”. O tempora! O mores!