Mike Leigh and His Falling-out with Israel

The British film director Mike Leigh has enjoyed a considerable triumph at the 2010 Cannes and London film festivals with his latest film, Another Year. He is known for his social conscience and a rehearsal technique for training his actors to put across ordinary lives in a style of compassionate realism. The new film, a study of the humour and melancholy involved in ageing, is a magnificent justification of his methods. He is, therefore, a voice to be listened to.

The Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem clearly thought so when it invited him to be their guest this autumn. Himself the son of a Jewish immigrant family in Manchester, Leigh was due to arrive in Israel on 20th November, but now is reported to have refused to set foot in the country in protest at its government’s policies towards the Palestinians.

In a letter to the school, he evidently makes his views plain, saying that he had considered cancelling the trip on many occasions.

Mike Leigh is furious with the Israeli authorities over their violent interception last May of the Turkish flotilla on its journey to Gaza and their arrest of many of the peace activists on board. He is also opposed to the never-ending expansion of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, whose illegality apparently creates no inhibitions to their continuation, despite the fact that they have emerged as a central blockage to hopes for peace in the Middle East.

The points Mike Leigh makes are in line with changes in public opinion in the West, which now tends to swing more towards sympathy for the Palestinians, despite the media’s reluctance to follow suit. Today this springs largely from the false (but assiduously cultivated) assertion that any criticism of Israel has its basis in anti-Semitism.

The intemperate rhetoric we still hear from some Arab zealots meanwhile does little to help with anyone’s understanding of the situation.

Historically, from its foundation in 1948, Israel came in for a good deal of sympathy from the liberal left in the West. Its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, established his Mapai party (the Labour Party of Israel), which was affiliated to the Second (social democratic) Socialist International, as a driving force. The kibbutz movement gave every impression of promoting principles of grassroots mutual aid and positive collectivisation. Israel was seen as a counter tendency to the monolithic centralised government of the Soviet Union. It was also regarded as a democratic bulwark against Arab dictatorships and autocracies.

Those days seem long ago. The Jews who founded Israel were from a generation associated with many of the leading and most progressive movements in science, philosophy and politics.

From the start, however, there were signs of a ruthless nationalism within the ideals of Zionism. The demographics of the country changed  with the admission of Jews from many other cultures under the Law of Return, which guaranteed their citizenship; and right-wing hardline governments began to predominate. The opinions of the more bigoted religious sections of Jewry have had an increasing influence.

Israel has also had its problems with its attitude to Holocaust survivors, whom it has often treated shabbily. Nevertheless, its spokesmen, along with the lobby groups in other Jewish communities of the Diaspora, have continued to exploit the Holocaust to cry ‘anti-Semitism’ at the first sign of any criticism of Israeli actions. This tactic has done Israel few favours in the long run, as its motive becomes ever more transparent with each new incursion into others’ sovereign territory, attacks on Gaza that involve indiscriminate collateral damage to its entrapped people and unimpeded usurpation of Palestinian land to build further settlements.

It often seems that Israel can get away with these policies, arrogantly confident in its unique position as a ward of the government of the United States. Unfortunately this has also led to an undermining of America’s moral authority in the brokering of peace initiatives in the Middle East. Previous administrations in America could have put pressure on Israel to slow down on and draw back from the establishment of the illegal settlements before they became a fait accompli. They decided not to do so, aware, no doubt, of the votes of the Jewish lobby in Washington.

Now the present regime must pay the price.

Similarly, President Obama would like to declare the Middle East region nuclear free, but is hamstrung through not being able to make any open mention of Israel’s own nuclear capability, said to possess over 200 nuclear warheads. This is surely one of the most open secrets on the planet. Israel’s ambitions to become a nuclear power went back to the days of Ben-Gurion. The uranium was out there in the Negev desert.

It might be thought that apartheid South Africa stood in opposition to the ideals of any truly democratic state, but the former association of Israel with that oppressive regime was more than a curiosity of history. Nuclear technology was exchanged and Israel used Pretoria’s range in the Cape of Good Hope for its missile testing. Rockets could be fired off from there into the South Atlantic with a reduced risk of discovery.

Today South Africa is free of any nuclear taint, and of apartheid, but the same cannot be said of Israel. No wonder parallels have continued to be drawn, likening the treatment of Palestinians in Israel to that meted out to the black underclass of the white republic.

Many academics and men of letters – though few politicians, I have to admit – are today disillusioned with Israel for not seeking to heal the wounds inflicted on the Palestinians through no fault of their own. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 may be said to have triggered a deadly conflict that has destabilised the whole region and shows few signs of resolution.

It seems both ironic and deeply sad that the Jews, noted throughout modern history as champions of every liberal and enlightened movement, should now find themselves the targets of the world’s anger on those very issues that they themselves fought so hard to preserve and claimed as a human right.

Does loyalty to Israel imply the forsaking of ideals inherent in the Jewish race, for fear of being cast as renegades to their national cause?

In an age where human values are respected, it seems uncanny to find that, when it comes to nationalistic considerations, we can still be driven by a perverse and dangerous impulse to adopt the kind of fundamentalist zealotry that we recognise in others but rarely in ourselves. Religion can be a force for good, but may just as easily be misused for evil purposes. Few today would claim that the Crusaders of the Middle Ages were anything but a bunch of murderous criminals.

In my view, political Islam, as well as certain elements of the Christian ‘bible belt’ in the United States, are equal in constituting a threat to peace. Likewise, some of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, today well represented in the Israeli cabinet, are also a threat to peace. The latter dream of a biblical Israel, consisting of the whole of Palestine and beyond, believing that in effect they hold the title-deeds from Jehovah.

Reactionary radicalism on either side will, if not toned down, always be a major obstruction to creating harmony.

For Israel to secure its future, force alone can never be the answer. Even to live in a paradise is no guarantee for enjoying life to the full if it is surrounded by enemies. You can never forget the threat in the background or at any time afford to drop your vigilance.

Peace is, therefore, the only key to stability and tranquillity.

If that were finally to be achieved in the Middle East, Israel would reap benefits almost unheard of in our present age. The land described in the Bible as flowing with milk and honey would be theirs. The country would prosper beyond anybody’s expectations. With their knowledge and highly advanced technology, Israelis would be in a unique position in the region. Israel could become the focal point, not for suicide bombers, but as a centre for learning and innovation in every conceivable field, from art to medicine to technical evolution in manufacturing and agriculture.

The Arabs and the Jews share much in common. Both have their origin in the lands of the Bible, from the same place where the Prophet Muhammad received his inspiration and founded Islam. Where Jewish communities existed inside Arab countries, as in Iraq, they were in general easily assimilated and their religion was respected.

The balance was disturbed only by the arrival on the scene of Zionism  as a militant political force, but whatever divides Jews and Arabs may also unite them.

The Holy Land should remain holy and never be allowed to become a doomsday arena of conflict, whatever satisfaction this may give to those who look for the apocalypse and the end of time.

If Mike Leigh can provide a counterweight to the rigid thinking of politicians on all sides, he will be doing humanity a great service.

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