It is one thing to know that peace-loving Palestinians exist, but quite another to join several hundreds [700, I have since learned] of Palestinians giving a standing ovation five minutes long to a film about non-violence. Last Wednesday night, I sat in an IMAX-sized theater in the West Bank Palestinian city of Ramallah for the grand opening of Budrus, a documentary about a village that successful relocated the security barrier off their lands through peaceful protest. I was overwhelmed, galvanized.
Budrus is a film that challenges everyone’s preconceptions — Jew, Arab, other — and aims to pry open space in reluctant hearts. Five years ago, the village of Budrus successfully averted the construction of the security barrier from cutting off a majority of their farming livelihood and through their cemetery. The film follows Ayed Morrar, Fatah activist turned community organizer, as he unites with local Hamas leadership, the town’s women led by his daughter, alongside Israeli activists. It heals doubts across multiple themes: the divide between Israelis and Palestinians, the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas, the place of women in Palestinian society, and the use of violence. A more inspiring combination couldn’t possibly be more remarkable to see, nor to witness its raccous support by the people of Ramallah.
Watching the film with hundreds of Palestinians made me anxious — did they even know what they were about to see? Did I? There is notable skepticism against non-violent means in Palestinian society, certainly well-justified. Indeed, my discomfort peaked anytime a Palestinian on screen was cudgeled by Israeli border police — the crowd would applaud his (or her) resilience.
But when teenage protesters briefly turn to rock-throwing on screen and scattered applause began percolating, it halted when Ayad and village elders denounced the use of violence. Violence, they said, only gives pretext for more brutal actions by the military and for branding them all as terrorists. After lights came up, I saw the loudest approval came from a gaggle of Arab teenagers. How important it was for them to see the success of non-violence after all other violent means failed. And how important it was for them to see the list of a dozen non-violent “popular resistance committees” growing since Budrus’ success five years ago, such as Bil’in, Nil’in and Sheikh Jarrah.
Also notable was the crowd’s eruption of applause to Ayad’s critical comment following Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s brief visit to their protests. Obviously a politician being a politician, Fayyad left early. Ayad tells the camera, paraphrased, “Politicians should be with their people on the ground, not hiding in an office.” The eruption of wild, enthusiastic applause then made me wonder about the obvious political elites in the room. A stinging public rebuke.
I watched the film still with my Jewish communal filter activated, measuring how well Jewish and Israeli crowds would receive this film. (The Jerusalem screening of it was today, which I missed due to Shabbes. It was wildly received in New York.) Undoubtedly, it will push them outside their comfort zone. But I expect them to find a Palestinians utterly unlike their common understandings. They would meet Ayad, his daughter Iltezam, the Hamas representative, and the villagers in a light that strains contemporary stereotypes.
But most of all, I joined the overwhelming standing ovation because I remembered why I do what I do. Budrus captures on film many moments where a Jew or an Arab admits newfound love of the other side. The central clip is when sixteen-year-old Iltezam discovers that all Israelis aren’t alike, that there are many Israelis who are good people. My heart soared hearing her and her father’s total surprise that their Israeli invitees — strangers to the territories and unproven friends — jumped to the front lines to protect them. The villagers in turn protect the Israelis from being targeted. Mutual inspiration is found in each other.
Those moments were so much more than passing plot notes. For me, they were high notes climaxing every subplot of hopelessness, doubt, weakness, lack of faith, and budding hope I ever felt about our work here. We peace activists are often accused of being the rosy-eyed dreamers, but in reality we are just the best at burying the doubt, swallowing the fear, and doggedly plowing ahead despite all reason to give up. To taste hope again, I was overwhelmed. I spent a good deal of the film sheepishly wiping tears from my eyes and controlling my composure.
That night in Ramallah, the standing ovation wasn’t just for a film. It was for us as Jewish and Palestinian peaceworkers together. When Ronit Avni and Irene Nasser of Just Vision took to the stage along side Ayed and Iltezam, the applause even swelled durther. I wondered what the Jewish community would think if they could attend. What would change by them just being in this room, seeing this?
Kol hakavod to the producers of the film, colleagues I deeply admire, for bring us this film. And for this hope.