In a recent column in the English-language Saudi daily Arab News, Christian Palestinian-American columnist Ray Hanania laments that Christian Arabs receive more support from Israel than from their fellow Arabs. As an example he presents Palestinian-Christian filmmaker Shady Srour, whose new film, Holy Air, is celebrated by Israelis but is likely to be disregarded by Arab activists because it was made with Israeli funding. Arab activists, says Hanania, pay lip service to the idea that Christian and Muslim Arabs are brothers, but in practice they do not regard Christian Arabs as their equals – especially if these Christians challenge mainstream Arab principles such as supporting the BDS or rejecting normalization with Israel. Stressing that films are far more effective than protests as a means of swaying public opinion, Hanania suggests that, instead of rejecting normalization with Israel, Arabs should make quality films that will show Israelis, and the rest of the world, the positive face of Palestinians and Arabs.
The following is his column:
Ray Hanania (image: arabnews.com)
"Shady Srour, a Palestinian-Christian filmmaker based in Nazareth, has produced a comedic film called 'Holy Air,' which has received huge promotional support from Israeli activists. It is about a fictional character who devises a scheme to sell bottled air from the Holy Land to enrich himself and pay his family’s bills. It is one of several Palestinian-made films headlining this year’s Israeli Film Festival in Los Angeles.
"The message in Srour’s film is that money cuts across Middle East differences and brings Arabs and Israelis together. Even though the film is not political, because of Israeli funding it is unlikely to get support from Arab activists.
"Overall, I think Christian Arabs tend to get more support from Israel than they do from Arabs. Israel recognizes how important Arab Christians are in the war for the hearts and minds of the world, especially in gaining US support. Arabs tend to pay lip service to Arab Christians, parroting the politically correct line that Christians and Muslims have shared the same suffering and challenges, and shed their blood for the same causes.
"But Christians are not equal to Muslims in the eyes of Arab activists. Christian Arabs who challenge mainstream Arab principles — such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and rejection of the two-state solution — are marginalized, demonized as 'Zionist shills' and labeled 'traitors to the Palestinian cause.' Activists do not want their 'wisdom' questioned. They want these moderate voices silenced.
"There are only a few places Christian Arabs can turn to for support. One of those places is Israel, which constantly addresses their needs. Israelis talk about us; Arab activists want us to disappear. I am sure Israel is motivated by propaganda value, but the point is that it is supporting Christian Arabs. This is one reason why so many Christian Arabs flee the Middle East to Western nations, where they are embraced and can blend in.
"Israel loves to showcase Palestinians who stand up to the anti-normalization policies of the extremists of BDS and other groups. And nothing gets more attention than a message embedded in a movie. Film festivals are presented as cultural environments, but their products can convey powerful messages. Cinema is very effective in delivering strong political messages through drama, humor and storytelling.
"In the 1960s, Israel used the film 'Exodus' to brand its propaganda messages into the minds of Americans. The movie was based on the 1958 book by Leon Uris, who had been commissioned by pro-Israel activists to create the fictional print blockbuster. The movie starred some of Hollywood’s most popular actors, including Paul Newman, a child of Jewish and Christian parents.
"Israel knows the power of film, and many Israelis and American Jews have played prominent roles in Hollywood. Critics have argued that the industry has been traditionally racist against Arabs due to personal and political biases. Growing up in America, I watched more than 200 Hollywood films that presented Arabs only as sinister characters, terrorists and murderers. Americans rarely got to see the true face of Arab culture.
"Only a few films included positive images, such as the 1976 Arab-funded film 'The Message,' which told the story of the rise of Islam and featured Hollywood powerhouse Anthony Quinn.
"Other, modern films include 'Kingdom of Heaven,' starring Liam Neeson, about the crusades; 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist'; and 'American East,' which examined the challenges facing Arab Americans after the 9/11 attacks, starring my friend Sayed Badreya.
"Why does the Arab world not produce movies with compelling storylines that can appeal to non-Arabic-speaking audiences? The region produces many great films, but most avoid politics and are in Arabic rather than English. This misses an important audience that needs to hear the Arab voice.
"BDS does not agree with me. But instead of pushing Israelis away and rejecting 'normalization,' we should embrace them away from their country’s racist, apartheid policies. We should show them the positive face of the Arab and Palestinian peoples, even when we disagree with their policies. And we should support Palestinians from Israel, such as Srour, whose voices are more important than the protest rhetoric of BDS.
"Srour’s film should be showcased across the Arab world and in the Arab activist community. It is easier to protest in front of an Israeli Embassy than to fund and produce a compelling movie that tells the Arab narrative in a positive, effective way to people who need to hear it. A compelling movie about Palestinian suffering without political rhetoric and ideology can do far more than the largest protest."