Promises (2001)

Promises (2001)
Produced, Written by BZ Goldberg, Justine Shapiro
Directed by BZ Goldberg, Justine Shapiro, Carlos Bolado
Edited by Carlos Bolado
English, Arabic, Hebrew with English Subtitles
106 minutes

The 2001 documentary Promises examines the Arab-Israeli conflict through the eyes of seven children living in the Jerusalem vicinity, from both sides of the conflict. BZ Goldberg, the film’s co-producer/director and narrator, says that after covering the first Palestinian intifada for network television, he decided to “take international audiences beyond the news headlines, into the hearts and minds of these children.”

Made in collaboration with Justine Shapiro, who co-directed/produced the film, and her then-husband, Carlos Bolado, who edited it, the documentary was filmed over a period of three years beginning in 1997. The film is out-of-date. In the 15+ years that have elapsed since its making, the conflict has evolved, with a second, more deadly campaign of Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli civilians, an attempt to bypass direct negotiations with a Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN, a third wave of Palestinian violence, and overall disillusionment on both sides, with the persistent refusal by the Palestinian Authority to accept a Jewish state as part of a two-state solution.

Still, if one is knowledgeable about the background and factors contributing to the Arab-Israeli conflict, one can watch the film to retrospectively draw conclusions how it is perpetuated. There is powerful footage, for example, from inside a Jerusalem madrassa of a teacher prompting his young students to declare that Jerusalem belongs to Arabs and Muslims and indoctrinated them to see themselves as victims of an Israel denying them their basic freedoms. He then urges them to draw pictures that depict their feelings about this. Encouraged by his teacher, Mahmoud, one of the seven protagonists in the documentary, draws a picture of a child about to kill an Israeli soldier. At another point in the film, Mahmoud declares his support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and the murder of Jewish men, women and children. It is a lesson in hate indoctrination and incitement, typical of the messages Palestinians receive regularly in schools, camps, television and the media.  However, it is not presented in that context and is only recognizable as a factor that perpetuates the conflict by those who are aware of the relentless incitement of Palestinian society by its leadership.

A young Israeli settler, Moshe, expresses his wish that his Arab neighbors miraculously fly away and leave the land for Jews. In another scene, he discusses the killings of his friend and his friend’s mother by terrorists in a nearby shooting attack. He describes his inability to accept the loss of his friend and places a stone on the grave, poignantly insisting that his friend must be “doing fine in heaven,” at the same time voicing his wish for  all the dead to return – “especially those murdered by terrorists.”

While these  scenes provide compelling evidence of the influences on children growing up in the conflict, one must be knowledgeable about the conflict’s events and history to be able to derive insight from this information.  Viewers yet unfamiliar with the basic issues, like the students to whom this film is geared,  however, are more likely to be vulnerable to the politicized messages, erroneous statements and false implications that are put forth in the film without challenge.  

The Narration

The basic context of the conflict, provided in voiceover by the narrator, BZ Goldberg, is often misleading, especially when followed by unchallenged false allegations made by the interviewees. Below are several examples:

1) The basic history of the establishment of the State of Israel and its aftermath is skewed.

Voiceover:  In 1948, Israelis fought what they call the “War of Independence”. Palestinians call it “The Catastrophe”. As a result of the war, 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forced off their land and became refugees. Refugee camps were set up in neighboring Arab states. In 1967, Israel conquered the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Many of the camps came under Israeli military occupation.  

This narration is immediately followed by the unchallenged assertion by Sanabel, a Palestinian girl from the Deheishe refugee camp that “the Jews kicked us off our land and put us in these camps…”

The false implication is that Israelis were the aggressors who expelled the Arabs from their land and rounded them into camps from which they were never allowed to leave.

Omitted from this history are the crucial facts that five neighboring Arab armies invaded and attacked Israel in a bid to destroy the newly declared Jewish state, that many native Arabs were urged to leave their neighborhoods by their leaders who convinced them that Israel would be quickly defeated after which they would return victoriously to their homes, that neither the Arab leaders who had waged war against Israel nor the PLO that later represented the Palestinians made any effort to integrate or help those in the refugee camps. In fact, the PLO has consistently opposed and obstructed the resettlement of refugees for political reasons, believing that “A Palestinian refugee never moves out of his camp except to his original home in Israel.” Israel, on the other hand, has tried to move Palestinians out of the camps and into new homes.
(For more on this topic, click here.)

2) The battle over the Temple Mount is a key issue in the conflict. But again, the narrator misleads on the topic.

Voiceover: The Temple Mount or Haram el Sharif is holy to both Jews and Muslims. For Jews, this is where the Jewish temple stood 2000 years ago. For Muslims, this is the site of Mohammed’s ascension to heaven and the home of 2 of Islam’s holiest shrines– the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque…. Just below the Al Aqsa Mosque is the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

The false implication is that the Western Wall is Judaism’s holiest site while the Temple Mount holds greater significance to Muslims who revere it both for its significance in Islamic lore and because it is the site of Islam’s holiest shrines. In this inaccurate version, the site’s only significance for Jews is its location as the site of a temple in the distant past.

But the facts are inverted. The Temple Mount is Judaism’s single holiest site. Jewish reverence for it long predates the building of the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, and even predates the construction of the first Jewish Temple by King Solomon almost 2000 years earlier. The first Jewish Temple was built, according to Jewish tradition, on the “Even Hashtiya,” the foundation stone upon which the world was created. It is considered the epicenter of Judaism, where the Divine Presence rests, where the biblical Isaac was brought for sacrifice, where the Holy of Holies and Ark of the Covenant housing the Ten Commandments once stood, and where the Temple was again rebuilt before being destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. 

The Western Wall is simply the remnant of the outer retaining wall built by Herod to level the ground and expand the area housing the Second Jewish Temple. Its holiness derives from its proximity to the Temple site. For the last several hundred years, Jews have prayed at Herod’s Western Wall because it was the closest accessible place to Judaism’s holiest site and the only one where Jews were permitted to pray.

By contrast, the Temple Mount ranks number three in the sanctity of sites in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. The site assumed significance as a holy site in Islam during Umayyad rule in the 7th century CE, when a Syrian-based caliph, facing challenge to his power from a rebel who controlled Mecca, sought to consolidate his leadership by establishing a place of worship for his followers in Jerusalem in place of Mecca. He built the Dome of the Rock on the spot where the Jewish Temples had stood. Two decades later, the Umayyads built another mosque on the Temple Mount which they named the al Aqsa Mosque.
(For more on this topic, click here.)

3) By omitting essential information about terrorism, the narrator obfuscates on this basic issue, as well. 

Voiceover: Sanabel’s father is a journalist and a local leader of The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a political faction that vehemently opposes the peace process. For the last two years, he has been held in an Israeli jail. However, no formal charges have ever been brought against him and he has never stood trial.  

The false implication is that Israel imprisons people solely for their political opinions.

Concealed from the viewer is the fact that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in which Sanabel’s father holds a leadership position is not simply a “political faction” but a terrorist group, on the list of foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S., Canada, EU and other Western countries. The PFLP is considered the pioneer of the commercial airline hijackings of the 1960s and 70s. Some of the PFLP’s best known hijackings include the 1972 murder of two dozen passengers at Israel’s international Lod airport, perpetrated with a Japanese terrorist organization, and the 1976 hijacking of an Air France flight bound to Paris from Tel Aviv, diverted to Entebbe, Uganda with the help of the German Revolutionary Cells, a spinoff of the radical Baader-Meinhof Gang. That attack triggered the now-famous Entebbe rescue where Israeli commandos, led by current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s older brother Jonathan – who lost his life in the operation – raided the plane on the tarmac to free the hostages.

The terrorist group was also responsible for numerous murders and bombings of civilian targets over the years, including the assassination of Member of Parliament Rehavam Ze’evi in 2001 and most recently, the 2014 massacre of worshippers in a synagogue in the Western Jerusalem suburb of Har Nof.

But perhaps most relevant to the film was a drive-by shooting that took place in December 1996, shortly before the documentary began filming. The victims of that PFLP-perpetrated terror attack were Ita Tzur and her 10-year-old son, Ephraim – mentioned in the film by Moshe as the friend who was murdered. The film devotes more than 2.5 minutes Moshe’s heart-rending account of his friend’s death, with pictures of the victims, footage of their funerals and their tombstones. Yet never once in the film is the Palestinian identity of the perpetrators mentioned, much less their affiliation with the PFLP terrorist group. With so much information hidden from viewers, they have no way of making the connections between “Sanabel’s father” sitting in an Israeli prison and his affiliation with the terrorist organization responsible for the murders of Moshe’s friend and his friend’s mother. 

The Editing

While the topics of Palestinian incitement and terrorism are played down or obscured, the theme of Israeli aggression and Palestinian victimhood is highlighted and emphasized. So, for example, when Mahmoud voices his support for Hamas and Hezbollah and for the killing of Israeli Jews, that scene does not directly follow the one where his teacher indoctrinates the class into a sense of victimhood and hatred of Israelis. Instead, Mahmoud’s violent declaration is placed directly within a scene of an Israeli parade through the Old City to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem as Mahmoud watches in the foreground. It is prefaced by narration that omits essential history:

Voiceover: Until the 1967 war, Jerusalem was a divided city. West Jerusalem was Israeli and East Jerusalem, including the Old City, was in Jordanian hands. Jews did not have access to their holy sites. When Israel conquered the West Bank, all of Jerusalem came under Israeli rule. Every year, Israelis from all over the country come to Jerusalem to celebrate its reunification. In recent years, the settlers movement has organized a Jerusalem Day parade that marches through the Muslim quarter on their way to the Western Wall.

In fact, Jerusalem was a single, unified city for most of its existence and for much of that time, Jews made up the largest group of the city’s residents. Jordan’s occupation of the city, deemed illegal  by the international community, lasted a scant 19 years, paling in comparison to the thousands of years of unification before the Jordanian occupation and 49 years subsequently.

The false implication that Jerusalem was Arab until its 1967 capture by Israel is emphasized by Mahmoud saying:

They say today is the celebration of the reunification of Jerusalem. But Jerusalem isn’t for the Jews, it is for the Arabs. This is just a provocation. The Jews act like they own this land. How would you feel? My heart wants to burst.  

The scene then shifts to a somewhat older-looking and differently-clad Mahmoud who voices his support for terrorists who target Jewish civilians. “They do it for their country,” Mahmoud explains.

While the latter clip was clearly filmed at a different time, it is set to the same background parade music as was heard before, as if to emphasize the connection between the two parts of the scene. The filmmakers’ message seems obvious: Support for radical and violent groups is fueled – not by Palestinian teachers’ incitement, but – by Jewish takeover of Muslim areas.

It is through this lens of Israeli aggression that an uninitiated audience is likely to view the film. Already in the first frame of the film, the introductory screen states:

In the fall of 2000 a new Intifada broke out. The Israeli military responded with force and the region was plunged into an unprecedented level of violence.

The text establishes responsibility for the violence with Israeli military forces. What about the role played by then-leader Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority in initiating the onslaught of terror against Israel after the failure of the second Camp David summit?  And what about the participation of Palestinian security forces in planning and directing the Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists who targeted civilian malls, buses, restaurants? These facts apparently have no place in the filmmakers’ narrative.

While Palestinians are never shown or identified as perpetrators of the terrorist attacks that are mentioned in the film, Israelis are repeatedly presented as aggressors, both in the narration and in the footage. Israeli soldiers in uniform are seen stopping Palestinians for their documents and shooting guns at youth throwing stones. The latter are described in heroic terms, both by the narrator, who calls them the intifada’s “heroes” and by an interviewee who suggests they are “liberators of Palestine.”

The Film’s Target Audience

The target audience for the film is precisely those who are still unfamiliar with the details and history of the conflict. The filmmakers promote the documentary as a learning tool for young people. Co-producer Justine Shapiro suggests the documentary was tailored toward children and teens, age peers of the film’s protagonists, to teach them about the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is marketed as part of an educational curriculum for middle schoolers, along with a 50+ page study guide that includes lesson plans correlating to different scenes, classroom activities, student worksheets, etc. The PBS documentary program “Point of View,” which aired Promises in December 2001, similarly includes an online “lesson plan.”

It is easy to see why a teacher might be attracted to a film whose protagonists are his students’ age peers. The film draws viewers in, with charming, sweet and articulate children discussing the ongoing, grim situation in which they were born and raised.

Teachers, however, should not be seduced by the appealing protagonists. The documentary’s drawbacks – the misleading information, omission of context, politicized scene editing and datedness – create an inaccurate and partisan image of the conflict which can leave a lasting but erroneous impression on vulnerable children.

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