“My So-Called Enemy” is a feature-length documentary, available on DVD, that speaks to my mind, my heart, my soul. Lisa Gossels, director and producer of the feature-length 2010 film, explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the evolving perspectives of Israeli and Palestinian teenage girls. With a touch of irony, the majority of this film is shot not in Israel and the territories but at a camp in Bridgeton, New Jersey, where the girls are participating in a 10-day leadership program under the auspices of Building Bridges for Peace, which at the time of filming had been in existence for 20 years.
It is the summer of 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada; tensions run high. The young women, – Israeli, Palestinian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim – have been selected for their leadership potential. Melodye, founder of Building Bridges for Peace, reminds the participants, ages 16-19, that they have been brought together to learn how to listen, really listen. They are not expected to agree with each other, nor are they expected to try to convince each other of the correctness of their opinions. Rather, their task is to affirm the dignity of each other, “to honor each other by listening.”
During their brief but intense time together, these teenagers begin to bond with each other. The camera catches their tears, their fears, their laughter, their anger and frustration. A Palestinian expresses outrage at what she calls the Jewish dispossession of her homeland: “Before it was your country, it was another people’s country.” To which an Israeli, whose parents are from Iran, counters: “Look at my eyes and tell me where to go ... You want to kick me out.”
In response to an Israeli’s condemnation of stone-throwing Palestinian children, a Palestinian Christian explains, “Our children didn’t have their childhood. They have nothing to do ... only to learn to hate the other side.”
In the middle of the 10-day program, on July 31, the dialogue is severely tested by news of a terrorist bombing in the cafeteria on the Hebrew University Mt. Scopus campus; six men and three women are killed, and about a hundred others are wounded. The bombing sparks a large celebration in Gaza City, with Hamas claiming that the bombing is an act of revenge for Israel’s targeted assassination of one of their military leaders. Rather than driving apart the participants during their leadership training, the bombing seems to reinforce the necessity of building bridges of communication.
As the participants prepare to return to the tinder box that is the Middle East, Melodye warns them that “camp is the easy part.” Going back to their homes, going back to a place where the faces of their newly found friends might well be transformed into the faces of their so-called enemies, will be a source of continuing challenge. Can these young women preserve their capacity to listen, to empathize, to work for peace in such a stressful and conflict-ridden environment?
The final section of Gossels’ documentary follows the lives of six of the participants for almost seven years: Adi, a Jewish Israeli; Gal, a Jewish Israeli; Hanin, a Palestinian Muslim Israeli; Inas, a Palestinian Christian; Rawan, a Palestinian Muslim; and Rezan, a Palestinian Christian. Their life stories do not proceed in the same direction.
Hanin finds her identity in her deepening connection with Islam: “I am a Muslim before I am Hanin.”
By way of contrast, Adi and Gal, as required by law, join the Israeli Defense Forces. Each of them struggles in her own way to find a balance between loyalty to her country and loyalty to her Palestinian friends.
Rezan, who early on laments that she doesn’t have a country, continues to work for peace and for the “normalization” that will come with peace: “I’m just asking and begging to live a normal life, like everyone else my age. I don’t want anything else.”
As “My So-Called Enemy” draws to a close, the last words that appear on the screen are “Gal and Rezan are still friends and still trying to connect.” Their friendship is the embodiment of hope and possibility; their friendship means that idealism is not always defeated by so-called realism. Their friendship will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but friendships like theirs are necessary first steps.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at email@example.com.