Jordan Elgrably

'American Sniper' Not Only Inflames Anti-Muslim Behavior, But Is a Botched Film

A week before the Oscars—on Valentine's Day in fact—I finally forced myself to go out and watch the new hit movie from Clint Eastwood. I had no choice. After two months of anti-Arab venom and a week of Islamophobic attacks across America, including murder, aggravated assault, hit-and-runs and arson, I wanted to see for myself if American Sniper could potentially incite anti-Arab violence.

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Jews Must Speak Out For Arab-Jewish Unity and Against Racism in Israel

The appalling racism and act of vengeance inherent in the kidnapping and murder of young Mohammed Abu Khdeir is not an aberration in Israel. It is a trend and the direct result of decades of state indoctrination, and deep-rooted racism in the Jewish community—a racism I have personally experienced in my own family. That is, Jews are taught to believe not only that Arabs are the enemy, but also that we are intellectually and morally superior to them.

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Is Hollywood Afraid of Palestinians?

Every now and then a little sunshine breaks through, and Palestinians enjoy the light. Thanks to occasional complex portrayals in film, television and documentary reporting, they become real people with a cause we can all relate to, seeking justice and freedom. 

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Fight the War Economy

To be a visionary leader is to serve the highest good for the most number of citizens who put you in office. The United States, however, has had a war economy since WW II that hurts more of us than it helps -- the arms industry and its affiliates favor the wealthy few while killing untold numbers of people abroad. Today's war economy influences everything that's important to us -- our domestic economy, our foreign policy and our image in the world. Obama's administration should curb the U.S. war economy to clear the way for universal health care, new energy technologies and peace.

Artists and Musicians Are at the Heart of the Interfaith Peace Movement Circling the Globe

The other day a journalist writing a feature story on local developments among Muslim and Jewish community leaders asked me if Levantine Cultural Center were among many examples of an international movement. Often history recognizes movements and revolutions long after they impact the Zeitgeist, so I hesitated to jump on his bandwagon. Clearly he was building his story on the phenomenon that major Muslim-Jewish initiatives were gaining ground, not only here in Los Angeles, but in other parts of the world. Why would I want to quell his enthusiasm for a good story?

But the fact is that the election of Barack Obama was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg insofar as a paradigm shift is concerned. While Muslim-Jewish engagement is the flavor of the month, Arab/Muslim and Jewish musicians and writers have been in conversation with each other for years. Artists and writers, of course, do not create in an intellectual vacuum. Instead, they reflect the philosophical values of the cultures in which they work. They also innovate. Middle Eastern musicians fuse their own world music traditions with rock, hip hip, electronica and other western forms. Writers read each other across all manner of borders and boundaries, because no writer wants to feel him- or herself limited to a national identity. Music and literature, even while grounded in specific cultural markers, has always been international in scope. The same is true for filmmakers who hope that their movies will be seen in countries around the world.

To be sure, there are many fascinating volumes of comparative religion that illuminate the historical conversation between Islam and Judaism, and Christianity. Over time, there have also been many conversions back and forth between the three Abrahamic faiths, such that one should be cautious about any claim to having been faithful to one's ancestral religion. My preferred phrase for individuals and families who travel and intermarry with other cultural groups is cultural commuters. Muslims have married Jews, Jews have converted to Islam and sometimes back to Judaism, and every family will find a Christian somewhere in their history. Almost every one of us is, or has been, a cultural commuter at one time or another. This is particularly true for immigrants to this country, who straddle at minimum two cultures and languages (an Iraqi Kurd, a Lebanese Armenian or a Iranian Israeli, for instance, straddles three).

There is, to be sure, a growing international movement of younger people who refuse to be limited by their national-religious identities. Musician-historian Mark LeVine documents the Middle East youth generation in his new book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Comparative religion scholar Reza Aslan tunes in to this new generation in his book No god but God, the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam and with his web site, BoomGen. Poet-translator and literary critic Ammiel Alcalay has for years been documenting the Jewish and Arab poets who refuse to be limited to either identity--"Jew" or "Arab"--particularly in his book After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture.

Two Iranian heavy metal bands now touring the United States are Hypernova and Tarantist. An entire generation of Arab American hip hop artists--many of who have been captured in the recent documentary Slingshot Hip Hop by director Jackie Salloum-- are merging English and Arabic lyrics within the hip hop, rock and reggae lexicon. And in Israel/Palestine, there are nearly 200 nonprofit organizations and NGOs that base their mission on bicultural coexistence, envisioning a shared future for Jews and Arabs that in some ways is already bypassing the narrow definitions of national identity that demands fealty to an outmoded idea--that people can be governed justly by the dominant ethnic or religious majority, or by a nation-state preserved by militaristic patriotism. (Visit JustVision.org to learn about some of these initiatives.)

Levantine Cultural Center was founded on the firm belief that we are all multiple, we are all complex--and that national identity cannot subsume the truth about our individual family histories and just how much we have in common with each other--whatever might be written in our passports. Every country in the Middle East/North Africa is an ornate quilt of majority and minority cultures, representing diverse faith traditions and a mix of "eastern" and "western" values. Muslims and Jews and Christians should not be narrowly defined by their religious affiliations nor their passports, for we are only limited by the labels we ascribe to ourselves.

If there is indeed an international interfaith movement that embraces peace and coexistence, it is one that reflects our innate understanding that we cannot allow the voices of extremism to rule our emotions. Just as the election of Barack Obama reflects the American movement toward the middle--away from the last eight years of neo-con rhetoric and toward a centrist government--the international peace movement characterized by a new generation of artists and writers shows that most of us desire moderation. We wish to be in conversation with each other. To stake out a rigid national or religious position is to allow the most extreme elements of society to represent us all.

Instead, the programs and purpose of Levantine Cultural Center recognize our natural tendency to live in a larger human community, one in which we are free to express ourselves beyond all boundaries and limitations, and where we acknowledge cultural commuters--like Barack Obama and perhaps ourselves--as harbingers of freedom.

Palestinian Narratives Enter the Mainstream

Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now," which won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, has been nominated in the same category for an Oscar, marking the first time the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized a film from Palestine about Palestinian culture. (Several Israeli and Jewish groups have petitioned the academy to change the entry from "Palestine" to "Palestinian territories" to no avail as of this writing.)

With the recognition of "Paradise Now," a gripping tale of two young would-be suicide bombers from the impoverished town of Nablus, the entertainment industry has acknowledged that there is not just one narrative; that the Israeli-Jewish story must make room, finally, for Palestinian stories about themselves. And a just-published translation of the novel "Gate of the Sun" (Archipelago Books, 2006), by Elias Khoury, offers another opportunity to learn about how Palestinians see themselves as a people in exile, and how they view what happened to their country in 1948.

But questions of identity and identification are rarely without complexity, and the Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad is the first to recognize this. A former aerospace engineer who lived in Holland for 25 years, Abu-Assad began making films in the '90s, first coming to attention with the documentary "Nazareth 2000" and the feature film "Rana's Wedding" (2002), which described a day in the life of a young woman in Jerusalem trying to get married before 4 p.m.

A native of Nazareth, a predominantly poor Christian town in Israel, Abu-Assad, is a Muslim from a wealthy family who carries an Israeli passport. Palestinian Arabs --both Muslim and Christian -- number about one million in Israel and received Israeli citizenship in 1966.

Abu-Assad views his Israeli passport as just a "ticket to cross borders."

"I have an Israeli passport, yes," he says, "but that doesn't make me an Israeli, because as long as Israel wants to be a Jewish state, and I'm not Jewish, I can't be an Israeli."

Most Israeli Arabs speak fluent Hebrew, and many writers, including Said Kashua ("Dancing Arabs") and Anton Shammas ("Arabesques"), have chosen to express themselves in Hebrew, despite their Palestinian identity and native Arabic spoken at home.

"Why not have Arabs speak and write in Hebrew?" Abu-Assad says. "I have no problem with accepting the Israelis as fellow members of the land. I have no problem accepting the Israelis, their language, their culture, as a nation. I'm not in denial. Being a Palestinian is not in denial that Israelis have the right to be there and to be as a nation. But we are also there and we have the right to be there, and there are also people who have the right to go back. As long as the Israelis are not recognizing these facts and dealing with them in a compromise, and while they are controlling the land and want to be a Jewish state, I can't be an Israeli."

"Paradise Now" is a bleak depiction of the poverty that grips Nablus and the West Bank. The film shows the Israeli occupiers as the Palestinians see them. There is endless waiting at check points and border crossings, frequent arrests and the hopelessness that empowers Islamic extremists to recruit suicide bombers from among young Palestinians who see no future under occupation. The film was co-produced by Israeli producer Amir Harel, and several Israelis worked on the film, alongside its Palestinian cast and crew.

Hany Abu-Assad says that whether or not his film wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, the nomination itself means everything for the Palestinians "because part of our struggle is just to be recognized. This is the best the West can do to give hope to Palestinians."

Popular culture can largely be credited with creating awareness of an alternative Palestinian narrative.

However, Abu-Assad says, "I don't make films to create awareness. I make films to resist. There is a civilized way to resist, by using art to tell your story, or the uncivilized, violent way. I don't believe in bullets. I make films to tell stories and to have a dialogue, but without denying the rights of others to have their stories."

Abu-Assad says, "Israel as a state denies our stories; their leaders are using fear in order to make others inhuman and to continue this injustice. And you know, I don't understand this fear. When you are stronger than me, and you are afraid of me," he says, "you don't need politics to solve your problems, you need a psychoanalyst."

Abu-Assad is a moderate who dreams of a constitutional democracy where Israel and the Palestinian territories exist today. "I would like to be a national of a state that considers all the people as equals," he says; "a state that is not a national or religious state. If Palestine were to become an Islamic state, only for Muslims, I would also be against it. I want to see a state that respects and serves the civil and human rights of all its citizens, without discriminating between races and religions."

Abu-Assad understands what it's like to be a minority and says this condition is in part what drove him to become a filmmaker. "I am a Muslim in Nazareth. I come from a wealthy family in a poor society. I am a Palestinian in what is called Israel. In Europe I am an Arab, and in Holland I'm a foreigner. Always I'm the minority," he adds with a grin.

"I'm smiling, and I'll tell you why. This is a good way to understand life, in its complexity. Because you are all these conflicting things, you have to create peace between all these identities. In order to create peace, you have to look from all points of view, to get to know more about yourself, about others, about history, about humanity. I am privileged," he says. "I have all these conflicting identities at once, yet there is peace between them, harmony, not war."

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