Impressive lightning and thunder, but no rain yet.
It’s officially been 50 years since the Six-Day War, and I have occasion once again to think of Palestine.
I was asked recently about movies and Israeli actresses, specifically if I would see a movie with one in it. I thought immediately of Natalie Portman and quested for other names. The discussion migrated towards Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot. I didn’t see the terminus of the query’s line of intention until I’d arrived at it. Much of the analysis on the State of Israel and the state of Palestine–that I’ve come across, at least–has hewn closely to geopolitical implications. Personal narratives are rare roses in the desert. And present-day investigation of the state of affairs soars at thirty thousand feet in the air. From that height, it’s nearly impossible to see the Hebron I saw in 2013. Or the Bethlehem. Or the Nazareth. But most pieces are pitched at an unfortunately clinical register. Appropriate, I guess, for postmortems.
Wonder Woman is being heralded as a triumph of feminist filmmaking. Its material success is a boon for filmmaker Patty Jenkins, and while non-male directors still face a path made of brambles in the industry, the box office receipts thus far are vindication nonetheless of the talent of this director and this film’s star. Much has been and, I imagine, will be written on why Wonder Woman is the film we need–have needed for a long time, in fact–and why we will continue to need it and others like it–superhero movies fronted by women, where the woman need not simply be a man whose name is changed in the script or some hypersexualized encomium to fan service. It is, on its face, a feminist movie in much the way Mad Max: Fury Road is a feminist movie. Strong heroines who drive the plot and who direct rather than serve the story’s male characters. And friends, many of them male, have raved about just how good the movie is. Female friends confess to having wept at the fight scenes, feeling themselves validated.
Reporting on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War brings to mind the image of sportswriters returning to beaten-down, scandal-written athletes. That first cataclysm swallows them up, and they descend through the intestines into the bowels of hell, drift into nothingness, and each commemoration drags them back from the phantom zone so that we might chronicle the new grooves dug into the skin, the new depths of hollowness that weren’t there before. To see how Hell has worked on the body. And as annals on fallen athletes lead to greater insights on the human condition, writing about a country–a people, or, rather, two peoples–occasions celestial contemplation.
On July 17, 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces began a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, this after the July 7 death of seven Hamas militants in a Khan Younis tunnel explosion. A little over a week prior to the ground invasion, on July 8, Israel had launched its first airstrikes to inaugurate Operation Protective Edge. Ultimately, the United Nations Human Rights Council would tally the Palestinian civilian death toll at 1,462. This, of course, excludes the 17,000 homes Palestinian officials allege were destroyed during the seven-week operation. It was estimated that reconstruction of Gaza would cost up to $7.8 billion USD, or 3x Gaza’s 2011 GDP.
Facebook tells me that I posted a link to the Guardian live blog of the Gaza bombardment on July 9, 2014. “Follow the Guardian’s liveblog of the bombing of Gaza just like you were able to 2 years ago” is what I wrote for a caption.
Not only is the Wonder Woman movie headlined by a woman, it prominently features women of color as Amazon warriors. In so many meaningful ways, it is a paean to feminine empowerment. A whip-crack spiderwebbing cracks in the glass ceiling.
But, in that conflagrant summer of 2014, Gadot wrote in a Facebook post:
I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens. Especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children…We shall overcome!!! Shabbat Shalom! #weareright #freegazafromhamas #stopterror #coexistance #loveidf.
Accompanying the post is a seraphic photo of her and her daughter, Alma, their eyes covered with their hands, their heads wrapped in azure cloth. Praying.
Service in the IDF is compulsory, so national affinity, navigating that tightrope between patriotic and jingoistic, can only really be gauged by the serviceman or servicewoman who feels it. And to parse the differences between a pro-IDF posture and one that critically examines a country one loves and wants to see continue is to wind one’s way through the minefield flanking the Allenby Bridge with eggshells glued to the soles of one’s sandals.
It is odd and mournful synchronicity that lands this Wonder Woman movie in theaters in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the six days that remade the Middle East and planted the seeds for so much of what was to come. Including the seven-week flattening of that small self-governing territory on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, home to 1.85 million human beings, per a 2015 estimate.
I never saw Gaza, but I saw the West Bank. I saw Ramallah. I saw Jerusalem. I saw occupation and segregation enforced at rifle-point and economic destitution. And maybe if I hadn’t seen those things, I’d feel differently. Maybe I’d be able to feel unencumbered enough to joyfully participate in this achievement that is a successful superhero movie directed by and starring prominent women. I could do so with unalloyed pleasure.
In a 2002 letter published in the Harvard Crimson, Natalie Portman writes:
Israelis and Arabs are historically cousins. Until we accept the fact that we are constituents of the same family, we will blunder in believing that a loss for one “side”—or, as Chaudhry names it, a “color”—is not a loss for all human kind.
“Outrageous and untrue finger-pointing is a childish tactic that disregards the responsibility of all parties involved, including Europe, the Arab nations and the United States, along with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”
I recognize therein the complicated swamp of sentiments all stewing in the same cauldron. A love of country deep enough to allow for criticism, a recognition of shared humanity in populations popularly conceived to be warring, an insider’s outrage at attempts by others to mischaracterize as political machination the tragically felt reality of human lives. At the same time, I recognize the bristling that attends seeing one’s loved one attacked, and that brooks almost no dissent.
The letter is in response to an incendiary op-ed in the same publication written by a then-second-year Harvard Law student. I recognize enough of myself in the piece, including the righteous anger so zealous it occasionally flies wide of the mark, that I’m transported to an earlier time: when I first learned of the Palestinians and when my positions in that class prompted my teacher to nudge me away from thinking myself King Solomon. In gentler fashion than later, less patient interlocutors.
I’m being kinder to Portman than to Gadot, that much is certain. Gadot does not seem to have shied from, moderated, or amended her sentiments on Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian Territories while Portman’s own directorial debut draws the picture of a figure who loves her country but is nonetheless critical of it and, perhaps more importantly, frightened of its rightward march into jingoistic and dehumanizing baseness.
Patriotism is piety, but only one of the aforementioned Israeli actresses seems to have been able to acknowledge that sometimes that piety is simply a mask for tenebrous tribal instinct.
Feelings–complicated and tangled–are one thing. Actions are another. It is one thing to proclaim love for a country that routinely engages in flagrant and monstrous human rights abuses. It is another to investigate and interrogate the mythology that shrouds its founding.
It is one thing to profess to be a feminist. It is another to refuse to materially support a movie made for and by women.
So I return to the question I was asked at the outset. That question about movies and Israeli actresses. The truth is that I have no way of knowing whether or not I will eventually purchase a ticket to see Wonder Woman. And if I do, I have no way of knowing whether or not I’ll be able to blot out thoughts of the Palestinian administrative detainees I traveled to the West Bank to spend 10 weeks advocating for or the armed soldiers who manned the military trailers we were obliged to pass through when leaving Palestinian Hebron and passing into Israeli Hebron or the Wall surrounding the Aida Refugee Camp, festooned with posters containing the details of those who had died in the Second Intifada.
For now, I think I’ve had enough of explosions and gunfire.