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by Esther Cohen
Discussed in this essay: P.S. Jerusalem, a documentary film by Danae Elon. 2017, 90 minutes.
I AM IRRESISTIBLY drawn to books, films, dance, theater pieces about Israel and Israelis, even though in so many ways this might seem counterintuitive, given my politics, my New York loyalties, my interest in mixing up many cultures.
My own Israel focus began in seventh grade, when I heard a charismatic speaker at Young Judaea, a college student named Jon Norman, the most dynamic person I’d ever seen in person, explaining Ahad Ha’am to all of us, and then socialism. “Life,” I remember him saying, “should be lived collectively. We need one another, to live.” Somehow those words, as common as words can be, rang a big chord, and the next eight years, when the world turned upside down in so many ways, when I joined SDS, marched all the time for civil rights, the rights of the Jewish people seemed part of the Big Equation.
What happened over the course of my lifetime is the subject for a much longer article. Reading, activism, going to Israel to be in a service program, traveling back and forth many times, working for a two-state solution for years and years, meeting people who would be lifetime friends: Jews and Arabs both. At a certain point though, because I live in New York, because of the Occupation, and because there are so many ways to work, I more or less moved away from activism with Arabs and Jews. But when there is a movie, almost any movie, about Israelis or Palestinians or, better yet, both, I can’t help but go.
A few days ago I went, on a free afternoon, to Danae Elon’s documentary. Danae is the daughter of Amos Elon, one of the Israeli writers of conscience, author of Founders and Sons, a classic book about the visionary leaders (all his depictions are male) behind the creation of the state of Israel. After the Occupation, Elon spoke eloquently and often about amorality and about the way that Israel lost its soul. A while ago, he and his American wife Beth moved to Tuscany, where he lived and died. He had one child: a daughter named Danae. They were very close. Before he died, he begged her never to go back to Jerusalem. She and her North African partner were living in Brooklyn, where she was making films. In Hebrew, there’s a very good word: dafka. It’s an Aramaic word that came to Hebrew from Yiddish, with no direct translation. “In spite of” is one way that dafka is understood. So Danae moved her family from Brooklyn to Jerusalem, after Amos died. Dafka. This film tells the story of their move, the birth of her third child, and the impossibility of Jerusalem for Danae and her family. It’s a tense, sad, difficult story, told largely through the lives of her young boys, who attend a school -– the only one in Jerusalem where Jews and Palestinians learn together.
The film is full of pain, of demonstrations, of shouting, of the ugliness of settlements and soldiers, and of so much impossibility. At one point Danae’s partner, angry at how he is treated in Israel as a North African Jew, angry at how others are treated too, cries on camera and explains why he has to leave. And leave they do, in the end. To make a life in Canada.
We talked about the family and their life, when it ended -- the row I sat in discussed this with the strangers behind us. Is it impossible to have any kind of joy in Jerusalem, given the government reality? Why was their life so relentlessly difficult? Why were there no friends? No meals? None of the pleasures that Jews and Arabs understand?
I SPENT TODAY with an old friend, an American woman who moved to Jerusalem many years ago. An artist, she has children and grandchildren, and has always been active in the peace movement there. “Israel needs us,” she said. “If we all leave, then what?”
Amos Elon had to leave. And so did his daughter. Still, I wonder what it is that makes some of us keep trying.
Esther Cohen’s novel No Charge for Looking is available on Amazon.