Promises (2001) is an Emmy award winning documentary film by co-directors B.Z. Goldberg and Justine Shapiro that focuses on seven children living in a sundry of situations for several years (1997-2000) in a sundry of situations in and around Jerusalem. The concept for Promises seems akin to a Holy Land version of famous British documentary Seven Up! (1964). Promises deliberately eschewed politics as much as possible trying to show how kids from different sides of the border grow up in the turbulent territory.
Promises was quite successful in depicting the variety of living situations in and around Jerusalem which informs their upbringing. Twin secular bourgeois Jewish boys living in West Jerusalem might be mistaken for being in the San Fernando valley, except they rely on buses and the street signage uses unusual script fonts. The two Palestinian children living in the Deheishe live in crowded, modest and battled scared circumstance which one might expect from a fifty year old refugee camp in the West Bank. The young Israeli settlers living at the Beth El settlement in the West Bank seem to grow up in a Zionist version of Fort Apache The Bronx. The ultra orthodox son of a rabbi living in the Old City and the Palestinian youth living in East Jerusalem grow up among the history of the Holy City as well as its long help mutual antipathies.
Reality television shows such as Survivor can be fascinating studies of humanity since prolonged exposure to the camera prompts participants to drop their external guise which reveals who they really are. The Promises film-makers spent prolonged periods befriending their subjects to win their trust. Once the kids quit playing to the camera, their guileless portraits
It was interesting to see that there was not uniformity of perspectives even among co-religionists. The secular twins were uncomfortable approaching the Wailing Wall at the Temple Mount since the Orthodox Judaism on display seemed unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Mouhamad, the Palestinian permanent resident of East Jerusalem voiced Arab triumphalism over Israel, yet he seemed to think that they could live as dhimmi. However, those being raised in Hamas dominated West Bank Palestinian refugee camps initially parroted the equivalent of drive the Jews into the sea.
Growing up around a contested city that is the center of three major monotheistic religions forces you to grow up fast. The West Bank twins interests revolved around volleyball, but even at a young age they contemplate which bus line is more prone to being blown up in terrorist attacks. The kids from Deheishe strive to play sports and do dance, but the are mentally scared by a young chum was gunned down by the IDF for throwing stones during an intifada. Moishe, the Zionist Israeli Settler, had to process the murder of a friend and his mother at the hands of a car bomb. Being acutely aware of your mortality as a minor is a sharp contrast to American suburban youth who might pine for Justin Bieber tickets or follow their favorite sports teams.
The film does present some lighter moments. The young girl who shares her jejune dream of how she will spend the Sabbath when she grows up while she struggles with unstacking plastic chairs is precious. The Palestinian Camp boy’s precocious grooming procedure when he was preparing for guests was unintentionally comical. And the ad libbed Palestinian/Orthodox burping contest in the Old City showed how kids can still be kids.
It seems that Promises evolved from being post Oslo Accord portraits of the children of war to being people to people diplomacy. When some of the kids expressed interest in Goldberg’s subjects on the other side of the tracks, the film focused on the meeting, the discovery of commonality, exchanging ideas and the aftermath. The Kumbaya focus does not don rose colored glasses and has honorable intentions , but the evolving point of view documentary style to me gives short shrift to the religious.
Steven Reich’s minimalist opera The Cave successfully created a multi-media opera which explored the roots of Judaism, Islam and Christianity by asking Israelis, Palestinians and Americans questions about the Patriarchs interwoven with passages from the Torah and the Koran. In Promises, pre-pubescent kids are asked theologically laced questions about their homeland which inspired some revealing yet puerile replies. Moishe, the Zionist kid, searches through his familial Torah scrolls for the Genesis passage where Yahweh eternally gave Abraham the land of Israel. Mohamad cites the Koranic claim that the Prophet Muhammad traveled to the furthest mosque “al Aqksa” in Jerusalem before taking the stairway to heaven, thus the land was promised to Muslims. Shlomo, the Orthodox rabbi’s son, tries to justify the land of Israel. While these scenes show faithfulness and explain their apartheid, the film fully concentrates on secular attempts bridge building.
Although there was only a cursory presentation of Israeli education, in the form of bobbing boys memorizing the Torah that has become familiar in scenes from Moslem Madrassas, the Palestinian indoctrination of victimhood was quite clear. The cultural events at the Palestinian Refugee Camp are supposed to glorify perseverance over adversity in preserving their culture but devolve into blood thirsty lyrics praising martyrdom. The Palestinian classroom seen inculcating the primacy of Moslems in Jerusalem. But the teaching therapy of allowing students to draw their victimhood fosters the rage that encourages the Intifada.
The documentarians had several instances of inserting themselves into the picture. To illustrate the land that residents from the Deheishe Refuge Camp lost after the 1948 war, director Godlberg drove Faraj and his grandmother through Israeli checkpoints to visit the ruins of their abandoned village. At the time, the boy seemed more intent on finding the trashed door which fit his oversized key. Later, the key is a featured prop for demonstrations for Palestinian repatriation in Israel.
Another instance where the directors became less detached was when winning the trust with Faraj after he made acrimonious accusations against all Jewish boys. Goldberg points out that he was a Jewish Boy who was partially raised in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. Faroj excuses it by saying “That’s OK, you are American” while never letting go of the director’s hand.
Facilitating the meeting between the secular Jewish boys and the Palestinian Camp Kids was other instance where the Promise Film Project was not being strictly documentary film makers. But to their credit, they pointed out the perilousness and rarity of this outreach.
Promises was very successful in not getting stranded in the mental minefield of politics. But the lack of political context propagandized a heart tugging situation. Sanabal, a Palestinian girl in the refugee camp, was growing up without her father, as he was being indefinitely held in an Israeli prison without charges. This seems horrific unless one appreciates that he was a journalist for Hamas, a terrorist organization which is resolved in eradicating the Jewish state. Promises mentioned that he was Hamas-nik, but never fleshed out what that meant. The film gives an impression of Israeli’s might as being a militarily heavy handed occupier, without balancing that there can be no peaceful co-existence with ardent followers of Hamas.
The film was provocative, funny and endearing. What concerns me are attempts to use it in a social justice campaign. Holy Trinity, a parish in Georgetown, DC that has a two century Jesuit tradition, used The Promise to initiate dialogue and possibly other outreach. In introducing the film, the Social Justice coordinator admitted that histories could be disputed. But in his weltanschauung, Jews came back to the Holy Land after World War II but were only 33% of the population at the time of the UN mandate yet they received half the land. There were wars in 1948 and 1967 where Israel expanded its holdings and then there were several instances of the Intifada where Palestinians fought back.
That “admittedly disputed” short history of Israel is about as puerile as the kids’ theological justifications. What about the Zionist movement that prompted so many religiously inspired Jews from the 1880s through the 1920s to move back to the Holy Land (and buy property) to make the desert once again a land of milk and honey? The quick and dirty history forgets about the Balfour Declaration from the British that dedicates the Palestine Mandate to the Jewish People. As for the War of 1948, Israel declares its independence based on the UN mandate and is attacked the next day by its Arab neighbors. The 1967 War was another act of Arab aggression. And the intifada inspired a peace process where Yasser Arafat got 95% of what he asked for, but that was insufficient for the suffering Palestinians. But those inconvenient truths are glossed over.
It is not surprising that the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) has the same initials as Social Justice. One was left with the distinct feeling that the talk therapy and facilitated dialogue was an attempt to inspire do-gooders to foster dialogue for peace and sympathy for Obama Administration efforts to return to the 1967 “border” and the right of Palestinians to repatriate Israel. So the Palestinians can have three states for the price of one 1. Jordan 2. Palestine West Bank and Gaza 3. Israel proper. Vocalizing these dissenting facts is as worthless as talk therapy when the participants are not on the same page.
While I appreciate the Promises documentary for what it is-a labor of love that has honored the film festival circuit for the past decade and aspires to engender understanding and common humanity. But the glossing over inconvenient truths like the intrinsic animus against Israel by Hamas and the history of hostility promises to make good hearted politically correct activists into useful idiots in the international peace process. If nothing else, this showing of Promises reaffirmed my resolve to support the Restoring Courage in Jerusalem on August 24th where people can stand for our allies in Israel and the tolerant, multi-religious democracy which it represents.