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Autumn 2006 | Volume 29, Number 4 | Books, Film & Music

Response onScreen

Israeli and Arab Children Ponder Prejudice and Hope in Promises

As the 2001 documentary Promises opens, a tire that has been set ablaze rolls out into traffic. The image captures that feeling of a world spinning out of control, where a cycle of violence between Israel and Palestine continues, bloodying one generation after another, with no signs of letting up anytime soon.

Recently the big screen has given us several memorable perspectives on the problem of violence and retaliation in the Middle East, including Chronicle of a Disappearance, Divine Intervention, Paradise Now, and Munich. A 1999 “Frontline” documentary called 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs is now available on DVD.

But Promises is a unique, revelatory feature that has earned film festival awards in the United States, and the cities of Munich, Jerusalem, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Paris. And there’s good reason for the acclaim.

Promises includes interviews with seven children who lived on both sides of that cultural barrier between 1995 and 2000. These interviews were conducted and filmed in Jerusalem and on the West Bank by Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg, and Carlos Bolado. Goldberg, who participates both behind and in front of the camera, is our guide into these dangerous territories. We encounter young hearts and minds already clouded by prejudice, but impressionable enough to consider — if only guardedly — the prospect of reconciliation and peace. It’s even more moving to see the film now, knowing that they are becoming young adults as the conflict escalates.

Goldberg’s passion for the subject is contagious, and his compassion is inspiring. With warmth and courage, he coaxes confessions of remarkable candor from each participant. And the way they veer between impassioned diatribes and childish play is both astonishing and troubling.

But this is not just another documentary full of talking heads. For viewers unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, the clash of West and East will offer some startling imagery. As we ride along in a car down a Jerusalem street, a camel strides in the opposition direction, past storefronts with familiar logos — Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Marlboro, Subway, KFC. At a children’s volleyball game, a man sits in the stands with a machine gun in his lap. Israeli and Palestinian children play a rowdy game with slingshots. Wearing an Orthodox uniform of black and white, Shlomo, the young son of an American rabbi who has returned to live in Jerusalem, describes his views on the conflict while a Palestinian boy playfully belches into his ear, and soon they’re giggling as though this is just any old playground.

You’ll fall in love with little Sanabel, a girl living in the Palestinian camp called Deheishe while her father is imprisoned in Israel for opposing the peace process. “The Jews kicked us out of our own villages and put us in camps,” she explains to us as we accompany her through her household chores.

A Palestinian child named Mahmoud, who likes to sneak sips of coffee at his grandfather’s house, declares that he would never consent to meet with an Israeli child. “I support Hamas and Hezbollah,” he boasts. “They kill women and children, but they do it for their country.” He firmly believes the Koran’s claims. “The Jews say this is their land,” he says. “How could it be, when the Koran says that Prophet Mohammed went to the sky from al Quds?”

Meanwhile, Moishe, a Jewish boy passionate about his religious heritage, declares that “God promised us the land of Israel, and the Arabs came and took it.” In the future, he says, he’d like to be the “first religious commander in chief.” And he adds, “If I could make my own future, all the Arabs would fly away.''

Goldberg shows us a range of perspectives even among the Israelis. Daniel and Yorka Solan, twins in a non-religious family, are skeptical and even spooked by their culture’s religious heritage. They confess that a bus ride through the city can provoke them to “count the seconds,” for fear of bombings. Considering a future in the military, Yorka decides, “My problem is I don’t want to shoot people.” They speculate that a gathering of “the smartest people in the world” might be able to produce some kind of solution.

On the other side of the line, we travel with a Palestinian boy, Faraj, and his grandmother to visit a plot of Israeli land where his grandfather’s house used to be. “Where was the front door?” he asks. He lies down in his Nike shirt while she prays that his descendants will come and live there. Faraj has scars of his own. He gets teary-eyed reminiscing about the day his close friend Bassem was gunned down while throwing stones at an Israeli soldier.

The film’s riveting conclusion occurs when the Israeli twins are convinced to cross over to the West Bank to meet Faraj. Together, they play, laugh, eat pizza, and discuss their shared love of sports. As their fears and assumptions begin to crumble, their conversation arrives at some moments of astonishing candor. Pizza and sports may not save the world, but here, they provide forms of simple communion. And in view of the current debacle, any little bit helps.

Where is God in the midst of this? According to the children and their families, he is either absent or interested in vengeance. When Yarko and Daniel visit their grandfather, they ask him if he believes in God. After trying to brush off their questions, he admits, “I don’t believe God could have watched all this and done nothing.” Later, Moishe visits the grave of a friend, Ephraim, who was killed by gunmen. “God will avenge his death,” he says, placing stones on his friend’s grave. “If I have one wish,” he says, pained with emotion, “it’s that the messiah would come.”

Alas, none of the children, nor their families, seems inclined to consider if the messiah might have already come. No one even mentions that rabbi and miracle-worker who offered us hope by demonstrating forgiveness toward his enemies, even as they killed him, even as he stared into their sneering faces and hate-hardened hearts.

Nevertheless, Promises serves as an excruciating portrait of an age-old dilemma, made that much more memorable for the feeble glimmers of hope we glimpse along the way. When the cameras rolled, these children represented the future. Today, they’re the present, caught in a violent and chaotic situation, full of potential, and striving either to perpetuate what has gone on before, or how to change it. And the future? They’re learning how to read and write, how to play and work, and how to relate to each other right now — in the schools and on the playgrounds of what the world knows as “the Holy Land.”

— BY Jeffrey Overstreet (

To read past columns in Response OnScreen, click here.

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