Every January, Tucson hosts an International Jewish Film Festival, and I haven’t been for years because I haven’t lived here and I was never visiting in mid-January because of school schedules. So it’s been nice to be home this year. I’ve seen two films thus far and will hopefully catch another one or two. The first was called Mr. Kaplan and is pretty strange in its approach to humor, but it was cool to revisit Jewish Uruguay, since I spent a summer there doing a Hillel study abroad program.
A Palestinian-Israeli boy named Eyad is sent to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, where he struggles with issues of language, culture, and identity.
[That poster is stupid, because the main character is the boy in the middle, not the girl. She’s cool and all, but she’s just the girlfriend. (That’s very antifeminist of me, but really, she’s not a focalizer at all, just a character interacting with the protagonist.) And if it’s not clear, this boarding school, being prestigious and in Jerusalem and all, is a place where non-Jews are not super welcome]
You never have to say much beyond “boarding school” to get me to want to read or watch something. And add in a fish-out-of-water story with actual substance instead of some sort faux outcast (y’know, the girl who thinks she’s so humble and boring and quirky because she listens to the Smiths and needs a boy to tell her how pretty she is) setup, throw in a pointed microaggressions, and force me to perk my ears up by listening to multiple foreign languages, and you’ve got me.
You may know I wrote an article about Israel recently that spurred some….reactions. (Generally speaking, people who found out about the article via Facebook pegged me a narcissistic bitch, and people on Twitter were supportive.) So it was pretty fitting that a week after it printed, I would go see a movie that might confirm my biases against what I felt was a lot of hypocrisy on the part of Jewish Israelis or that might just make me see a kindred, bicultural spirit, or that would do something else entirely.
Like I said, this film does a lot of stuff right and a lot of stuff that other marginalized people will latch onto immediately, like when people call Eyad “Ayid” over and over no matter how many times he tells them otherwise. Or when a group of bullies comes over to make fun of Eyad and his friends because they’re nerds, and then when they realize Eyad is Palestinian, they sing some horrible little jingle about Muhammad that is so deeply offensive, and it does not cut off for A LONG TIME. The director lets it linger, and it’s cruel, and Eyad’s friends look uncomfortable, but they don’t do anything, and Eyad looks around and realizes that they might silently feel bad for him but they won’t speak up.
And, thanks to useful subtitles that played with language, it showed how he struggled to change his accent to appear to be a native Hebrew speaker but had sounds that were not natural to him because they don’t happen in Arabic. (It was fun to pick out the 10-20 non-prayer words in Hebrew I actually know, though I was disappointed that my ear wasn’t better at picking out when people were speaking one language or the other, unless I was given contextual clues. I have a very equipped ear when it comes to hearing languages and remembering rhythms, sounds, and forms, even if I can’t actually communicate in them, but I guess I need to watch more movies in Hebrew and Arabic. [Oh! This one is funny.])
Anyway, Eyad ends up making friends with an Israeli Jew named Yonatan, who has MD, so they both know what it’s like to be a bit outside the mainstream. From the little experience I have knowing somebody with MD, it seemed an accurate, respectful portrayal, and the best part is that instead of being Disability Boy Who Inspires Others, Yonatan is, you know, a fully-fledged character with interests and snark and personality. Eyad also starts secretly dating Naomi, the first person at his school to be nice to him, but she keeps it on the DL. Officially it’s because it’s the late 80s/early 90s and Arab-Israeli conflict is hella real and but also because her parents will disapprove, but let’s get real – the film and the actors make it very clear that this is also about how people treat others in relationships and how people often engage in relationships with people but still reserve enough derision to be embarrassed to be publicly associated with that other person.
Even though Eyad does well in school and, even in the midst of bullying, makes some good friends and has some fun, he realizes his opportunities are severely limited by his identity and legal status. He can’t get a good job. He’s going to get pulled over and searched and detained whenever law enforcement feels like making him do that. And as Yonatan’s illness gets worse and he becomes bedridden, Eyad steals his ID and starts using that to pass as Israeli. And then Yonatan’s mom figures out what he’s doing. And even though I don’t believe in spoilers, I’ll leave it at that as far as plot.
What I really want to talk about, in addition to how brilliantly the bullying and microaggressing and discrimination are portrayed, is all the parallels to life in the U.S. Watching this film was a really good chance for me to reflect on how little I know about Israel, because I never learned a whole lot in school and I didn’t learn the right stuff or in the right way when I was there, and it was also easier to understand in this format because I could point to the structures that match it in the U.S.
My political stance on Israel-Palestine is that G-d told too many people to go to the same place, and that sucks, and at this point, everyone involved is being awful to everyone else, and everyone is in the wrong. Probably it should just be a UNESCO site and belong to everyone. Whatever. Not getting into it. Not the point. BUT when I was watching, I was remembering when my sister brought up that being Palestinian in Israel must be a whole lot like being Native in America, where people come in, decide they have more of a right to your home than you, and do this weird disenfranchisement-cum-fallacious-allocating-of-resources that lets you stay in your home kind of, but then they also treat you like crap and like an oddity every day that you attempt to be a part of their society, even as they constantly tell you you have to if you want to fit in. You know. Simple.
Naomi, even if she’s generally a lovely girl who really likes Eyad a lot, always asks Eyad to say “I love you” in Arabic instead of Hebrew. I’m sure a lot of people are all “awww,” but it just makes me think of how guys I encountered at Hillel, but also elsewhere, were always out to get me to say something in Spanish because it’s so “exotic,” even though a) nope and b) Spanish isn’t my first language.
Eyad dresses like a normal teen, walks around, tries to wait tables, goes to restaurants, waits for the bus, and does everything that a normal person does. And yet at every moment he has to be doubly conscious that he represents all Palestinians and Arabs at any moment in which he is the only one of them in a roomful of Jews, and he has to be ready to cede his time and dignity to anyone who demands that he prove he has a legitimate reason for being anywhere. Sound familiar?
Even Eyad’s friends make jokes about Arabs that are totes all in good fun because they love him, so they’re not offensive…..?
When he’s in class, Eyad has to read books that characterize his people as villains, rapists, enemies, losers, weirdos, jokes….and simultaneously participate as a student and hold those books up as high quality (because if it’s taught in school, it’s culturally significant and absolutely infallible, right?) but also represent an Arab point of view should there be space to entertain such a thing for a hot second.
Seeing my experiences and the experiences of marginalized people that I know reflected in this different world –
And also knowing that I once vacationed in that world and similarly felt half-welcomed, half-hated –
It was some powerful shit.
You can watch A Borrowed Identity on Netflix streaming, and I highly recommend it.