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Holy Land: A Year in the West Bank

Distributed by New Day Films, 190 Route 17M, P.O. Box 1084, Harriman, NY 10926; 888-367-9154 or 845-774-7051
Produced by Peter Cohn
Directed by Peter Cohn
DVD, color, 80 min. (with 56 min. abridged version included)
Middle School - General Adult
Civil Rights, Arab-Israeli Conflict

Reviewed by Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary Library, Pittsburgh, PA

Date Entered: 7/20/2015

Although advertised as a documentary about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in actuality Holy Land’s focus is more narrowly centered on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the fever-pitched disagreements that ensue from that. This documentary uses the gaze of various stakeholders in this dynamic: an ecumenically-minded rabbi and a populist Palestinian mayor exemplify the range of perspectives beyond what might be expected. However, there is also the expected sides to this argument. Viewed as a land grab by the Palestinians already living there, they now live under the specter of occupation by Israeli forces. Says a Palestinian journalist, “Occupation is inside of us now, like cigarettes, like heroin.” For their part, radical Jewish settlers stand on their ancient claims to the land, as expressed in the covenantal promises delivered to Abraham. Says one Orthodox settler from America, “This is our promised land; this is where we belong.” Over against both of these, there is a tired Jewish peace activist who works against on-going government settlement efforts with her group, Peace Now. For her part, the struggle is daunting at best: “We are fighting a fight that nobody believes can be won.”

What emerges from this film is an unrelenting picture of the dysfunctionality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writ large here. Anger suffuses this film: local Palestinians for the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s strong-arm tactics, Jewish settlers against the Arabs, peace activists against radical elements on both sides, and near-hatred of the Israeli army by Palestinians as well as Jewish settlers who are forcibly removed from illegal settlements in Migron. In one scene, Israeli paramilitary training invokes the brutal imagery of lynching as well as Auschwitz to whip up ethnic fears in defense of the settlements.

There are no winners in this film and ultimately, it would seem, for the West Bank; while it seeks to offer an honest appraisal of various perspectives on the conflict, it offers no solutions, provides no options for how those involved might go forward. For these filmmakers, it seems that every victory is a pyrrhic one: success by one group means the other group is marginalized or oppressed. Even when settlements must by law be evacuated, activists who lobbied for this regret the waste of time and money put into building things that will eventually have to be demolished. Furthermore, it paints with a fairly general brush: filmmakers make no distinction between Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians. Admittedly, Palestinian Christians only comprise about 2% (roughly 50,000 people) of the Arab population of the West Bank, but for this film, Arab seems to be a stand-in for all Palestinians who uniformly appear to be Muslim. Thus, the perspective here is less religious than it is ethnic—it is the searing divide between two groups trying to occupy their birthright (the land of Israel) at the same time.

Extras include interviews with some of the key players, which were filmed in 2011. Since then, one has died and another was imprisoned so their cool-eyed gaze adds significant gravitas to the film. One need not have comprehensive knowledge of the political history of Israel to appreciate what is going on, but some information on the history and politics as well as the driving ideology behind Israeli settlement might help put this in context for audiences.