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Jonathan Shamir (JC fellow): There is a paucity of cinema in the Gaza Strip, which has to do with entangled material and imaginative constraints. As Sheren Falah Saab recently wrote in Haaretz, Israel’s blockade and Hamas’s religious closure of theaters have both contributed to conditions antagonistic to making films. Against this backdrop of enforced isolation, “not everyone is able to touch on the complexities that characterize the local population in Gaza,” according to Palestinian film critic Saleem Albeik. That is perhaps why Michel Khleifi’s Tale of the Three Jewels (1995)—the first feature-length movie to be filmed entirely in the Gaza Strip, which follows a young boy with an expansive imagination—feels especially remarkable.

Tale of the Three Jewels tells the story of 12-year-old Yusef, whose father is jailed, brother is on the run, and family is hungry. Desperate to escape his bleak reality, Yusef spends long hours out in nature. During one of his hunts for birds, he meets a striking girl, Aida, and falls in love instantly. He embarks on a bid to fulfill Aida’s mysterious request to find three missing jewels from her grandmother’s necklace in order to take her hand in marriage.

Khleifi’s film is a tender portrayal of childhood innocence: Yusef’s love of birds, his loss of appetite at the first pangs of young love, his fanciful plan to escape to Europe in an orange crate. But his imaginative forays are curtailed by the world’s limitations: The travel agent scoffs at his plan to travel to South America “without a passport,” his best friend, Salah, tells him that the money he raised for his trip would barely get him to Jerusalem. Seeking to acquire food for his family, Yusef sells some of his beloved birds; he even offers to sell the Palestine necklace that his incarcerated father gifted to him. Back in Yusef’s mother’s childhood, she tells him, “the children would play their games. They would run around screaming, filling the air with laughter. Now every family is split or squeezed together in this small piece of land. They want us to live like wild animals.” Still, in Khleife’s fabulist world, the childhood imagination prevails. Though the occupation is palpably present, it is ultimately Yusef’s mind—flitting between fantasy and reality—that guides the film.

In the current moment, I found the film incredibly painful to watch. Tale of the Three Jewels makes felt what Israel has stolen from Palestinians in Gaza: the right to a childhood, the right to dream of a future. In the opening sequence, when his sleep is disrupted by the routine interjection of a mother and the horrifically normalized rumbling of warplanes, Yusef quips: “If only once you’d let me finish my dream.” Today, the ordinary choreographies of family life in Gaza have receded and the warplanes are ever louder. How many more dreams have since been aborted, or turned into outright nightmares?

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): A couple of years ago, when I was quite ill and thought my time was up, I wanted to send in an omnibus recommendation of what I consider the greatest Jewish American novels. I didn’t croak—which is just as well, since I never wrote the piece. But that never-realized rec has haunted me ever since, and I continue to ponder which books merit this designation. Topping the list are Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold, and two by Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, all of which share a dyspeptic and darkly funny vision of Jews in America. Most of them have also been branded antisemitic by those unhappy with their portrayal of Jews and Jewish life—none more vociferously than Portnoy’s Complaint, which was roundly decried by the Jewish establishment upon its 1969 publication. Back then it was not just critics of Israel who were hounded, condemned from pulpits, and cast out as self-haters and antisemites; the mainstream Jewish community also targeted Jewish writers who failed to portray their people as noble, suffering figures, and dared to depict them as real, flawed human beings.

I first read and loved Portnoy’s Complaint as a teenager, not long after its release. I finished my umpteenth and probably final reading a short while ago and still found it the most perspicacious look at American Jewry ever written. No other text has so perfectly skewered the smugness, self-satisfaction, and unearned sense of superiority endemic to the middle-class Jewish world Roth saw around him in Newark, and which existed throughout the country. But his genius is not just in his perceptive mockery of the attitudes of his parents’ generation, filtered through the voice of narrator Alex Portnoy. Rather, what makes the book so brilliant is that, for all of his condescension toward his parents, Portnoy shares so many of their attitudes. He is merely a more self-aware version of them.

What I always find remarkable when reading Roth, particularly in the two works I have cited, is that though he was my parents’ age, his experience resonates uncannily with mine and my peers’. For instance, there is no better summary of the achingly aloof Jewish attitude toward goyim that we grew up with than a passage I can find in any copy of the book in seconds, in which Portnoy describes non-Jewish baton twirler Alice Dembosky and her “pièce de résistance” of tossing a flaming baton in the air and catching it. The nice Jewish boys in the stands appreciate her skill and worry she’ll be injured by the flames, but “despite this genuine display of admiration and concern,” Portnoy observes that “there was still a certain comic detachment exhibited on our side of the field, grounded in the belief that this was precisely the kind of talent that only a goy would think to develop in the first place.”

I’ve always said that being a Jew is one of the three constitutive parts of my being, along with being a New Yorker and an atheist. But the Jew I am is a vexed Jew like Portnoy, like Roth—and like Kafka, one of Roth’s gods, who once remarked, “What do I have in common with the Jews? I don’t even have anything in common with myself.”

Alisa Solomon (contributing writer): When an old colleague asked on Facebook last week—in good faith—whether “from the river to the sea” must always suggest the “non-existence” of Israel, I first shared Yousef Munayyer’s illuminating response to that question, and I then wondered what is meant by Israel’s “existence?” Couldn’t Israel continue as a center of self-determining Jewish life in some different relationship to Palestinians?

It’s obvious enough that the status quo is unsustainable, but there were also alternative roads not taken: what if the early Zionist movement had heeded the warnings of Ahad Ha’am or followed the antinationalist cultural vision put forward by Martin Buber and his colleagues in Ihud, the binationalist party founded in Palestine in 1942? I pulled the writings of an Ihud leader from the shelf after contemplating that Facebook query.

The book, long out of print, alas, is Dissenter in Zion, a collection of letters, speeches, and other writings by Judah Magnes (1877-1948). A rabbi and Jewish communal leader in the US in the early decades of the 20th century, and, after emigrating to Palestine in 1922, a founder and the first chancellor and president of Hebrew University. Magnes was an ardent binationalist who envisioned the university as a core of Jewish-Arab cooperation. Here’s a small and stirring sample from an address delivered by Magnes in Jerusalem in 1923:

And Eretz Israel? Here the Jew expects to develop a nationalism of his own. Of what kind will it be? Will the Jews here in their efforts to create a political organism become devotees of brute force and militarism as were some of the later Hasmoneans, and will they, like the Edomite Herod, become the obedient servants of economic and militaristic imperialism? Is it among the possibilities that some day it may become political treason for someone sincerely to repeat in the streets of Jerusalem Isaiah’s teaching that swords are to be beaten into ploughshares and men are to learn war no more? Or will the Jews of Eretz Israel be true to the teaching of the Prophets of Israel and attempt to work out their ideal society so that Jerusalem may be restored and Zion redeemed through righteousness and peace?

The world tumbles only forward, so it feels pointless, not to mention depressing, to imagine these alternate histories. Still, amid the moral vertigo of the Israeli assault on Gaza and its Jewish communal defenders in the US, Magnes’s vision provides a solid pillar to hang onto.