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November 03, 2016

UAE Supported Film That Demonizes Israel Shown at Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

Dubai Open Bethlehem.jpg

The Dubai Entertainment and Media Organization, which runs the Dubai Film Festival, co-produced Leila Sansour's film "Open Bethlehem," which was recently shown at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston as part of the Palestine Film Festival. Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates, is well known for employing foreign workers in slave-like conditions. (Screenshot from DVD.)

This past weekend, The Palestine Film Festival hosted a showing of “Open Bethlehem: A Big Film About a Small Town� at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

The film is a documentary produced by Leila Sansour, a pro-Palestinian activist who spent her childhood in the city.

The film, which was shown at the MFA on Saturday, October 29, 2016, is about what you can expect from pro-Palestinian human rights activists. It highlights the impact of the security barrier on the residents of Bethlehem without providing any detail about the suicide bombings that prompted its construction early in the last decade. The movie is intended to make Israel look bad and the Palestinians to look innocent. (Apparently, we should all know by now that nothing is ever the fault of the Palestinians.)

Die-hard anti-Israel activists will love the movie, but as a source of usable and meaningful information about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the choices Palestinians must make for their lives to improve, the movie fails, and fails miserably.

The film, which lasts 90 minutes, is pretty self-referential, to the point of narcissism. It’s all pretty underwhelming. Nevertheless, the film got a four-star review from The Guardian in 2014.

Aside from documenting Sansour’s efforts to disguise anti-Zionist activism in Bethlehem as an effort to promote tourism to the city, the real drama in the story does not have much to do with life in the city itself but whether she is going to be able to get foreign donors to foot the bill for her activism and allow her to stay in the city. Eventually, after living in the city for a few years, Sansour has to leave because well, the money runs out.

The narrative is frankly, kind of contrived. The audience is supposed to cheer when the then-mayor of Bethlehem Victor Batarseh gives his blessing to Sansour’s project. “There needs to be an intimate relationship between Open Bethlehem and the City Council,� he says.

Batarseh’s declaration is kind of prosaic for a man who, prior to becoming Mayor of Bethlehem, was a member of the PFLP, a terror organization responsible for terror attacks against Israeli citizens.

Viewers aren’t told about Batarseh’s connection to the PFLP, which was responsible for the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheel-chair bound American Jew who had the misfortune to be a passenger on the Achille Laurel in 1985 when the PFLP terrorists hijacked the vessel, shot him and then pushed his body over the rails into the Mediterranean Sea.

Viewers are supposed to be impressed when travel reporter Jeremy Head tells Sansour just how shocked he was to see just how big the security barrier was when he first was confronted with it. Head, whose blog says he was a “guest of Open Bethlehem� during his trip to the city, responds to the group’s hospitality by describing the barrier as “this incredibly physical obstacle� that’s “completely and utterly mind-blowing.�

Head’s commentary, which is supposed to come across as incisive, is just silly. Of course the barrier is “physical!�

If it wasn’t “physical,� it wouldn’t be able to stop terror attacks from the West Bank into Israel. And what is so “mind-blowing� about a security barrier built in response to suicide bombers killing Israeli civilians in shopping centers, open air markets, restaurants, and bus stations?

It would be mind-blowing for such a barrier not to be built and any journalist worth his salt would understand this, but apparently not Head.

The audience is supposed to be impressed when Sansour is able to get a bunch of Bethlehem passports printed and hands them out to foreign dignitaries who applaud her for her efforts to bring attention to the plight of the city’s inhabitants, as if the residents of Bethlehem haven’t been getting a disproportionate share of the world’s attention every Christmas for more than a decade. (If only the folks in Aleppo had the PR that Mitri Raheb, Sami Awad and the folks at Bethlehem Bible College have generated for their city!)

And viewers are supposed to feel bad for Sansour when she complains about the difficulty of raising money for her Open Bethlehem Project. “Palestine,� she says, “survives almost entirely on international aid. But there’s the problem. Aid money comes with conditions. You cannot be overtly political. So what were we supposed to say we were doing?�

Eventually the problem is solved, at least for a while, when the Swiss Development Agency gives Sansour $160,000, making her “the boss of a tourism initiative.� Eventually, the money dries up and Sansour explains what happens as follows: “The political nature of our work had become so obvious that we no longer disguised it when we spoke to donors. The Swiss, like all the others, nodded, saw our problem and then disappeared.�

Sansour, in effect, admits to duping the Swiss government into giving her project money, despite the fact that she’s going to use it for propagandistic purposes.

The Swiss weren’t the only folks she duped. At one point, Sansour sits down with some unnamed Jews who are visiting Bethlehem and agree to speak to her on camera. The leader of the group blithely tells her, “It’s very striking to me that you choose to meet with a group of Jewish Americans. Given what you showed us about the wall, it would be very easy to demonize Israel, Israelis, Jews altogether. So I’m very struck by your choice to proactively meet with Jewish groups.�

In response, Sansour says earnestly, “I always believe that we will be able to see the true values that we all share.�

In fact, despite what the Jewish leader from the U.S. said on camera, Sansour does demonize Israel — in the very film in which he appeared.

She does this by relentlessly documenting the impact of the security barrier on the residents of Bethlehem without acknowledging the lives lost to Palestinian terror attacks during the Second Intifada. It was these deaths that legitimized the security barrier in the minds of the average Israeli citizen. One could chide the Jewish leader for unwittingly cooperating with this demonization, but the ultimate responsibility for the charade lies with Sansour, who by the way, is not above engaging in some suspicious editing.

At about 17 minutes in, the film shows Sansour surveying a group of olive trees that had been cut down, presumably by Israeli soldiers. In a voice over, Sansour says “I was afraid of what I would see next. Scenes like these, and even worse, were unfolding all over Bethlehem, along the route of the wall.�

As she says this in the voiceover, Sansour looks up the hill from where she is standing and the next image is that of a bulldozer destroying a home at the top of a hill.

Combined with her voiceover, the jump between Sansour looking up the hill and the destruction of the home at the top of a hill gives viewers the impression that she witnessed the demolition as it took place.

But did she? The quality of the footage showing Sansour looking up the hill and the demolition is markedly different (as is the weather in the two scenes), strongly suggesting that the two events took place at different times. If Sansour did mess around with the footage to give viewers a false impression, it wouldn’t be the first time a Palestinian filmmaker did something like this. Such a technique was used in Five Broken Cameras.

It is also troubling that Sansour — and so many other Palestinian propagandists — cannot acknowledge that Palestinian leaders of all stripes insist on their right to a sovereign state while at the same time embracing an ideology that denies the Jews their rights to a sovereign state. Until this contradiction in Palestinian ideology is confronted, and corrected, the conflict will continue and the security barrier will be necessary to protect Israeli lives.

But Sansour would have her audience believe that we must acknowledge Palestinian suffering, rights — and agency — without holding them accountable for the decisions they make. This is a common problem in the so-called peace and justice community’s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East.


After the movie was shown and Sansour took the stage to bathe in the applause and answer questions from a fawning and sympathetic audience (photo above), one attendee asked if she was able to show the movie to “neutral Jews.�

The questioner said this was necessary because Jews regularly send money to Israel making the country even more powerful. She also said that she regularly asks Jews why they do the Palestinians what they say the Germans did to them. “Of course, I never get an answer,� the questioner declared.

The hostility directed at Israel by the film, and its impact on audiences who see it, might help explain why Sansour’s movie was co-produced by the Dubai Entertainment and Media Organization. This entity operates the Dubai Film Festival. Dubai is the largest city of the United Arab Emirates or UAE for short.

If you ask people who are knowledgeable about human rights issues in the Middle East the first thing they think about when they hear the word “Dubai,� one likely answer you will get is “slavery.�

“Slavery� might be a bit polemical to describe the working conditions of foreign workers who work construction in Dubai, but how else can you describe things when employers take possession of the passports of foreign workers, work them to the bone, house them in terrible conditions and not allow them to leave until they’ve paid off the cost of their plane ticket?

Now, if the word “slavery� is not the first word that comes to mind when people hear the word Dubai, it is because another word — antisemitism — popped into their head. Recently, the head of Dubai's police force, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim, ranted on Twitter about Jews controlling countries and stated in one tweet that "“Jews need psychologists to analyze their personality.� In 2010, Tamim announced that Jews would not be allowed into UAE and that security personnel in UAE would be trained to recognize Jews from their features.

In 2014, UAE made the ADL's list of the top 10 most antisemitic countries in the world. In 2013, the ADL documented the sale of anti-Semitic books such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion at a book fair in the UAE.

Despite all this, we don’t hear the chants “Don’t Buy Dubai!� or “UAE? Not For Me!� at human rights rallies because when it comes to targeting a country in the Middle East with boycotts, divestment and sanctions, well that’s reserved for Israel.

No one in the audience at last weekend’s showing asked Sansour if it was ethical for her to use help from the UAE to produce her movie, nor did anyone ask exactly how much the folks from Dubai contributed to the production of her film.

But one way or another, Sansour was helped by folks from Dubai — the largest city in a deeply antisemitic country with one of the worst human rights records in the world — in the making of her movie about Israel. Of course, there’s a problem here.

By taking help from the UAE, a deeply repressive nation that mistreats women and foreigners in an undeniable way, Sansour reveals herself to be a hypocrite of the first order.

Hopefully, Sansour’s reliance on help from the UAE will be a subject of questions at future screenings of her movie.

Posted by dvz at November 3, 2016 02:41 PM


Please also use quotation marks when using the terms "pro-Palestinian" and "human rights activists" in this and similar contexts.

Posted by: Paul Leslie at November 4, 2016 06:08 AM

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