AN INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR BETH TONI KRUVANT AND EDITOR CINDY KAPLAN ROONEY ABOUT THE FILM, LEVINSKY PARK (2016)

by Esther Cohen

SOUTH TEL AVIV is home to one of Israel’s underserved populations, Sephardic Jews, some barely earning a living. In the midst of this neighborhood, home since 2005 also to more than 60,000 African refugees from Sudan, Eritrea, Congo, Nigeria and Somalia, is a large park, Levinsky Park. Refugees describe escaping “bad places” in search of a better, safer life. They pay Bedouin tribesmen to smuggle them across the Israel-Egypt border. Some bring their families, but male migrants easily outnumber women.

Some of the refugees end up in a detention center in Holot in the southern Negev desert. Many try hard to build a life. Levinsky Park remains a problem for Israel and Israelis.

In this moving and unusual documentary, even-handed and revealing, filmmaker Beth Kruvant and editor Cindy Kaplan Rooney depict an Israel which outsiders rarely see.

Jewish Currents recently interviewed Beth and Cindy. The questions and answers are immediately below the trailer. The film can be seen around the country in various film festivals. This weekend (Sunday, June 11, 7PM) it’s the closing film at the Rutgers Film Festival in New Jersey.  For a complete schedule, go to https://www.facebook.com/Levinsky-Park-189413674857905/.

Jewish Currents: How did you hear about this story?

Beth Kruvant: My daughter was working at a refuge health clinic while studying for a master’s in crisis and trauma at Tel Aviv University in 2012. I visited her there and spoke with some of the refugees.  She was able to assist me in getting access to many refugee stories.

JC: What made you decide to make the film?

BK: I am a granddaughter of immigrants and feel a direct connection to the stories of immigrants. Israel is a country of immigrants. It is in a unique situation where it should be super-sensitive to immigrants fleeing from danger. I was curious to see how this played out amongst a variety of people from different backgrounds. I slowly accumulated footage of different refugees. I wanted to learn about their plight and experiences in coming to Israel and living in Israel. I filmed for about 2 weeks once a year from 2012 to 2016. I realized I had a lot of stories and that it would be a challenge to create a coherent film from what I filmed. The refugee situation in Israel is very complex and it was difficult to distill it into a coherent film.

JC: What were your goals for the viewer?

BK: I hope the viewer could understand the situation as I had come to understand it myself. I really wasn’t sure if anyone would be interested in the situation. As time went by, the refugee crisis grew globally and the universal themes from the film speak to everyone.

JC: Are there heroes and enemies?  One of the many fascinating points is that they live in a poor Sephardic neighborhood. Not a rich one. What were you hoping for us to understand?

BK: The neighborhood where the refugees live is a neighborhood which needs municipal services more than other neighborhoods. The burden of more needy people in one area adds to the stress of living. In the span of one year the population doubled and there was no corresponding change in infrastructure. No increase in funds for health, education and social services. The reality of the situation is a human problem.

JC: The New York Times had a fascinating piece recently about Filipino workers in Israel. Does Israel have a different relationship to immigrants than we do here?

BK: Israel accepts any immigrant if they are Jewish. If they are not Jewish they basically don’t accept you. The Filipinos are temporary workers. The refugees from Africa who are not Jewish are seeking Asylum status under the UN Refugee Charter.

JC: Watching the film, I wondered about the Palestinian community. Did they interact at all?

BK: As far as I know, the Palestinian community does not interact with the refugee community, but I am not an expert on this. I just read a book about the Eritrean community and its entanglement with the Bedouins around Beer Sheva.  It’s called Waking Lions, by Ayelet Gundar Goshen — I highly recommend it.

JC: What is the official reaction of the Israeli government to non-Jewish asylum refugees?

BK: The Israeli Government is trying to get the asylum seekers to “voluntarily” leave. They just passed a law to withhold 20% of their salary, which they will receive when they leave the country. It is an ongoing set of laws designed to make their life intolerable.

JC: What was the attitude of the average Tel Aviv citizen to the people in Levinsky Park?

BK: As far as I could tell, the average Tel Aviv citizen, meaning one who does not live in South Tel Aviv near the refugees, thinks that the ones who are living there should be treated fairly, but not to let any more in. Israel is a small country and can’t afford to absorb a lot of refugees who could challenge the demography. Tel Aviv has liberal residents; other places in Israel could be much different.

JC: What role does color play in the Israeli hierarchy?

BK: Color is a typical universal role, no different than in most places in the world. There is a lot of prejudice against dark skinned. It depends on your political point of view.  Adding to the color, you have non-Jewish, that stokes the fire.

JC: What about now? Where are the people today?

BK: Nothing much has changed since the making of the film. Laws restricting life are passed and civil rights attorneys keep contesting them. It’s a pendulum that keeps swinging.

JC: Cindy, how did your opinions and impressions about the subject change as you learned more through working on the film with Beth?

Cindy Kaplan Rooney: My understanding of the issue of absorbing thousands of refugees into an already underserved and poor community became more nuanced as we explored the challenges that the residents face in Israel. It’s a very complex subject. It’s easy to say, from the comfort of my home, that all refugees should be welcomed with open arms because they are fleeing persecution and sometimes torture in their home countries. My sympathies certainly are with the asylum seekers.

But if the government will not acknowledge the refugees [or] that they have a responsibility to provide assistance to both the permanent residents and the newcomers, then it’s an impossible situation. When the infrastructure is stretched to the breaking point, miserable conditions for all make friction and sometimes violence almost inevitable. This scenario is being repeated all over Europe and elsewhere. By focusing on the people themselves and their stories, rather than on politics and politicians, the film will hopefully shed light on the subject and help open the door to finding a new way forward.

JC: Thank you, Beth and Cindy.

Levinsky Park will close The 27th Annual New Jersey International Film Festival
Sunday, June 11, 7PM
Voorhees Hall, Rutgers U. 71 Hamilton St.
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
http://njfilmfest.com/

Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website, esthercohen.com.