Another film about dialogue and peacebuilding between a few Israelis and Palestinians, with a few helpful Americans involved? At first blush, ho-hum. If you have been interested in or active on the conflict for any length of time, you have likely seen a dozen of these. So do we need the newest installment, Hotel Everest?
Well, let’s check recent headlines:
- 16-year old Palestinian indicted for slapping Israeli soldiers
- Likud adopting a policy of West Bank annexation
- Defense Minister Lieberman advocating for boycott of certain Israeli Arab areas
- The U.S. threatening aid to UNRWA and unilaterally deciding what “reality” is in Jerusalem?
Um, I guess we might need that film after all. Even if just to remind ourselves that real peacemaking, real dialogue, and real change is possible.
Hotel Everest is the story of a dialogue and peacemaking effort organized through the Center for Emerging Futures, the initiative of an American Buddhist couple from Idaho. The couple, Whit and Paula Jones, take it upon themselves in 2008 to bring peacemakers and activists from both sides together in Beit Jala, at the Hotel Everest.
Although many people have participated in the program since it began, the film focuses principally on two men, Eden Fuchs and Ibrahim Issa, and highlights how they have become friends over the years, traveled to Idaho together on a speaking tour, and overcome the many crises in the region, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza in 2014, as the film was being made. Along the way, we also learn about a women’s collective that emerged from CEF to make dresses, and there is a particularly moving scene where the Palestinian women from the collective are able to visit the Mediterranean Sea for the first time.
As a film, Hotel Everest feels like it suffers at the hands of its subject: too much to tell, about too many people, over too many years, with too many overarching factual and historical details, and with too little time and space to do it in. The arc of the film is hard to follow, and there are any number of details included that didn’t seem to add to the experience. For example, the trip to Idaho takes up several minutes, but there is not much interesting anymore about an Israeli and Palestinian coming and speaking together to American audiences. When there is clearly so much to learn about the personal stories of those involved in these dialogues and how this program has evolved and overcome myriad challenges, seeing them on PBS Idaho or in a high school auditorium adds little.
Similarly, the film struggles with how to include facts and details about the conflict and Occupation. The opening frames explaining what the conflict is about actually fails to include any reference to 1967, so if you are not familiar with the conflict, you may think the Occupation stems from the 1948 War. Later, the filmmakers attempt a quick explanation of Areas A, B, and C, partly to show why some of the participants need permits to get inside Israel, and partly, it seems, so Ibrahim can joke about how confusing and meaningless it all is. But the explanation is quick and partial and leaves out enough details that, if you understand the situation, you feel frustrated; and if you don’t understand the conflict, you probably don’t need the explanation in the first place (at least not from this film).
I watched the film with my 10 year-old son, who does know a fair amount about the conflict, and he agreed that it was confusing and hard to follow at times what the film was about.
But luckily, my son also brought me back to the fact that film reminds us of how powerful the human stories of Israelis and Palestinians can be, and how revolutionary seemingly very simple acts and statements still feel. Especially, as I noted above, when you consider just this week’s headlines from the conflict itself.
So whether you know little about the conflict, or have studied it for decades, my view is that you can’t ever see enough of moments like this from the film:
- An Israeli acknowledging to himself that he just wanted to meet a Palestinian (and a reminder that this lack of contact and communication is the dominant, often legally and culturally imposed, norm)
- A Palestinian man deciding that patriotic acts come through peacemaking, not fighting
- Palestinians able to visit and swim in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, even if they are in their 50s and 60s (this was most compelling to my son)
- An American peacemaker on the verge of tears, both at how hard the simplest steps can be to take and at how rewarding they are once taken and leading to some small improvement
- A simple comment that, if centuries of seemingly never-ending conflict in Europe can eventually be (mostly) put to rest, it is possible in Israel and Palestine, too (also very meaningful for my son)
The most revolutionary moment for me, however, comes when the Israeli Eden Fuchs actually realizes, through the course of trying to help his Palestinian counterparts, how enmeshed in the Occupation he really is. After serving for many years in the army, it is only through his using his place to help that he realizes how in control Israel, the IDF, and even he himself as an average Israeli citizen, really are over the lives of Palestinians. Watching an Israeli man come to that realization in such plain language is incredibly powerful, and I only wish it had come earlier in the film, so that it could be reckoned with more fully.
The filmmakers choose not to make anything in the film of the symbol of Mt. Everest that comes from the name of the meeting place. Like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are many films documenting attempts to climb Everest, and they, too, often seem to miss key details or leave you wanting more. And like achieving peace among Israelis and Palestinians, even a few from each side, climbing Everest can be daunting, foreboding, lonely, cold, dangerous, and even fatal.
But it is also raw, real, captivating and ineffably human. And in a time when we spend so much effort and focus on the policy, the propaganda, the conflict, the weapons, and the generalized and seemingly inevitable tragedy, it is that ineffably human experience of one person sitting, talking, laughing, and crying with another person that we need to be reminded is still possible in Israel and Palestine.
May this film remind us all that such things are necessary and possible, and not nearly as hard as climbing Mt. Everest.