Introduction to Sleepless in Gaza and Jerusalem Screening American University, School of International Studies Washington D.C., June 3, 2010

American University, School of International Studies
Washington D.C., June 3, 2010

Introduction to Sleepless in Gaza … and Jerusalem Screening

My name is Tom Block. I want to thank Dr. Mohammed abu Nimr of American University for hosting this make-up screening of Sleepless in Gaza . . . and Jerusalem. We will be viewing one of the 90-part series that captures the reality of daily life in the Palestinian territories by following several Palestinian women through their everyday lives. The viewing will be followed by a panel discussion with Executive Producer of the series Abdallah Schleifer (via Skype from Cairo), Director Ramzi Khoury (via Skype from the Palestinian Territories) and local peace activists Shelley Cohen Fudge of Jewish Voices for Peace and Mitch Plitnick from B’Tselem, the Israeli-based human rights group.

The reason I stand before you this evening is because I unilaterally chose not to show this work at the recent Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival, which I produced in Silver Spring, MD. The Festival comprised more than 400 artists participating in 200 art-advocacy events, covering many aspects of the struggle for human rights and justice. Included were several that addressed the situation in Palestine and Israel.

However, I chose not to show this film because I did not feel that it led to healing energy. After reviewing the film, I decided that it’s motivation stemmed from anger and led only to anger.

I was led to reconsider my position after receiving a well-reasoned email response from Drew Poe, an independent journalist who sits in the audience with us tonight. What I found upon introspection was that there was a hidden and insidious dynamic playing out inside of me. Buried beneath my desire to control the Festival’s content for “healing,” was something else: a feeling of embarrassment, humiliation, impotence and even horror at the behavior of a government with whom I am identified.

Although I am no Israeli, I am Jewish – and due to the manner in which I view myself, as well as how identity is conceived in our society, this allies me with Israel and its policies, whether I like it or not. My recoil at showing epdisodes from Sleepless in Gaza had something to do with my own sense of distress at seeing the indefensible behavior of a government with which I am linked. I allowed this subconscious unease to color my rational reasons for denying Sleepless in Gaza a place in the Art Festival.

Like many people involved in this issue, there is little I can say or do to change things, yet I feel compelled to try. My book Shalom/Salaam: A Story of a Mystical Fraternity, which will be published this fall in both the United States and in Turkey, unearths a nearly one thousand year story of comity and mutual respect between Jewish and Muslim mystics. This research project is my small impulse for a rapprochement between these contemporary enemies.

However, it will take much more than books and movies to achieve piece between these warring cousins. In my opinion, victory by either side is impossible. For there to be a cessation of hostilities, partisans on both sides must come to the realization that their most fevered dreams of justice will never come true.

Peace, when it finally comes, will be messy, unsatisfying and very difficult. It will characterize a break with past visions of conquest and the beginning of a new chapter in this relationship, based in the grim political reality of Israel and Palestine living as neighbors. When the battles are finally quelled, few on either side will be content with specific decisions made concerning Jerusalem, land and water rights, the right of return, the settlements, air rights, armaments and other seemingly insurmountable obstacles that make peace, at this time, unattainable.

The question is: what will it take to lead a majority on both sides beyond their fantasies of total victory and toward an acceptance of a grim peace? The Executive Producer of Sleepless in Gaza Abdallah Schleifer had this to say to me in a recent conversation: “the moral realism example of accepting Israel’s existence is [for Palestinians and Muslims] like eating a pig in the desert to avoid the worse sin of a suicidal starving to death.”

For many Israelis and Jews, no doubt, there is a similar feeling: making a compromise on aspects of Israel deemed central to the Jewish state would be akin to eating pig, something that is no less forbidden for Jews than it is for Muslims.

So we are left to ask ourselves, in the shadow of the recent horrific events surrounding the Free Gaza flotilla: how bad must things get before Jews and Muslims sit down together to a metaphorical pork roast? How many more egregious human rights violations by the state of Israel? How many more suicidal provocations to focus the world’s attention on an untenable situation? And, to bring us back to the matter at hand, does Sleepless in Gaza . . . and Jerusalem help lead us, somehow, away from the self-destructive desire that both sides have for total victory and toward the difficult place of compromise?

I really don’t know the answer to that question – the experience of first suppressing and then helping to produce a screening of Sleepless in Gaza, all in the shadow of the growing catastrophe in the Holy Land, has moved me beyond the assurance that I felt when I initially chose not to screen this work as part of the Amnesty International Human Rights Art Festival. If Sleepless in Gaza helps others move beyond certainty and toward grim compromise, than it will be a vital tool in the difficult task of building peace.