Homework before a trip to the Middle East
The histories of Israel and Palestine are very complex, and represent two distinctly different narratives and perspectives. I have long been interested in the history of the region but our upcoming trip to the Middle East served as encouragement to boost our knowledge of the area’s history, religious foundations, and key sites. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve taken time regularly to watch documentaries and television series highlighting Israel and Palestine. Some focused on the conflict, some focused on the food. Some touched on politics, some on religion (though these things can be woven together quite a bit). The majority attempted to be unbiased, some were clearly biased. We devoured all of them, with the hope that going into our coming journey we’d have a better understanding of the area and a better understanding of the people.
For those interested in great reads and films, below are a few that we found beneficial as a little primer before our journey.
Son of Hamas
by Mosab Hassan Yousef
During a long flight, I decided to start Son of Hamas, hoping it would live up to the reviews I read online. I couldn’t put it down. The book is an account by the son of one of Hamas’ founding members, where he shares his insight on the organization, his rise to power within Hamas, as well as his impetus in working as a double-agent with Shin Bet. Pretty incredible information and a relatively quick read.
The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East
by Sandy Tolan (2006)
I’m about half way through this book and already I can’t recommend it highly enough. The book’s name is derived from a house (with a lemon tree in the backyard) that is originally occupied by a Palestinian family and later becomes home to Ashkanazi Jews that fled from Bulgaria during the Holocaust. The book is factual, based on two real families and a real home in al-Ramla, and weaves an incredible story that somehow integrates two distinct narratives. Aside from the great story of these two families, it’s an incredible primer on the history of Palestine and the creation of Israel.
Lonely Planet // Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Beyond reading other blogs and trying to hear personal recommendations before heading on a trip, I also look to Lonely Planet. Frommer’s, Rick Steves, and others are fine, but LP is without a doubt the most rich and relatable text I’ve found. They’re information on Israel and the Palestinian Territories touches on various regions of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, plus stretches beyond that to touch on Petra and the Sinai Peninsula as both areas are often wrapped into a trip to Israel. Beyond the travel-focused elements (where to stay, where to eat), there’s such great historical documentation and information on the conflict, political parties, etc. I’ve read it cover-to-cover multiple times for inspiration, plus the visuals are stunning!
Some other books that I haven’t read and can’t comment on, but that focus on the region:
Fallen Pillars: US Policy towards Palestine and Israel since 1945
by Donald Neff
Arabs and Israel for Beginners
by Ron David
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
by Ilan Pappe
Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel’s West Bank Settlement Movement
by Robert Friedman
Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle
by Mazin Qumsiyeh
Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
by Pamela Olson
The Gatekeepers (directed by Dror Moreh)
The Gatekeepers was the second documentary that we watched (after 5 Broken Cameras), and I can’t recommend it enough. The documentary provides interviews with all of the previous leaders of Shin Bet (Israel’s intelligence agency), getting their input and perspectives on a variety of issues that they had to face during their tenure. I went in a bit fearful that it would be biased; after all, the interviewers were talking to the leaders of Shin Bet, without any input from Palestinian people or leaders. Somehow it was incredibly balanced, perhaps because it was genuine and honest. The leaders didn’t always defend their stance, and empathized with the Palestinian cause on multiple occasions. Truly an incredibly well-done flick worth watching.
5 Broken Cameras (directed by Emad Burnat and Israeli Guy David)
5 Broken Cameras was recommended to us by a Jewish friend, knowing that we’d be visiting Israel. The perspective is a Palestinian one, following a documentarian through five cameras as each one is broken through some sort of altercation with Israeli Defense Forces. While I think this is worth watching, it wasn’t my favorite. It’s interesting and well done, but it was a bit chaotic for me (I can’t think of a better word in this instance). Still, an interesting look at life in the Occupied Territories.
Promises (B.Z. Goldberg, PBS)
I ran across this documentary in my hunt for anything Israel/Palestine related. It was one of few documentaries available on Netflix or iTunes so we downloaded it, unsure of what to expect. Unlike any other documentary or film I’ve seen, Promises provides an entirely new perspective: one of the children of Israel and Palestine, all living within 20 minutes of each other but with incredibly different life experiences and narratives. There are seven children profiled: Palestinian children (boys and girls), a scholarly Jewish boy, an incredibly religious Jewish boy, and two rather secular Jewish twins. What’s truly amazing: these are ten year olds (give or take – it follows them for a few years) that can explain why they feel the way that they do (fear, or hatred in some cases), and why their history has made them feel this way. It’s both incredible and saddening to know that these kids – at such a young age – tell their perspectives with such intensity and soul. While they haven’t lived through the history personally, it’s apparent that they’ve been told their families’ stories and histories for so long that they interpret it as their own.
The Case for Israel (Alan Dershowitz)
A law professor at Harvard University, Dershowitz’s documentary (there’s a book, too), does exactly what it sets out to do: it makes a case for the State of Israel. It’s biased, yes, but we knew that going in. As someone who tends to relate to the Palestinian perspective, I actually wanted to see something that was unabashedly pro-Israel to challenge my thoughts, and this certainly fit the bill. Dershowitz starts the film by saying, “I’m pro-Israel, and I’m proud of it… I’m also pro-Palestine and proud of that,” referring to his belief that a two-state solution is the way. He argues with Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, discussing its shortcomings and also shares the crux of his argument: how can those who believe in human rights, in women’s rights, in gay rights, in the right to religious determination be against the one democratic state in the Middle East that upholds all of these rights? Whether you’re pro-Israel or pro-Palestine (or not sure where you fall on this at all), it’s an interesting flick if it’s watched in conjunction with other, less-biased films.
Shout (Ester Gould, Sabine Lubbe Bakker)
Shout was the first documentary that I saw on conflict with Israel and Arab countries broadly. I was able to catch a screening of Shout at the Barbican in London with the directors present in a panel format to ask questions and share their thoughts on different elements of the film. Unlike the other documentaries listed that focus on Israel and Palestine, this touches on Israel and Syria, focusing specifically on the Golan Heights. It’s a subtitled film as many of those being interviewed speak solely Arabic. For the longest time I’ve been trying to find a place to download it or rent it so I can watch it again and share it with others. I remember distinctly being moved by the stories of individuals without an identity: no longer Syrian but definitely not Israeli. It looks at the Shouting Hill, on the border of Syria and the Golan Heights, where people may not be able to see each other from across the divide, but can shout out to their families from one side to another. Definitely well done and eye-opening, and a great story about an area that gets very little attention in the media.
Other documentaries that I haven’t seen that focus on varying parts of Israel and Palestine with varying viewpoints (I wasn’t able to find these films on Netflix or iTunes, unfortunately):
Louis Theroux: The Ultra Zionists (2011)
A perspective on Ultra-Zionism
Palestine is Still the Issue by John Pilger
Life in Occupied Palestine by Anna Baltzer
Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land
The Bible (The History Channel)
I posed a question on Facebook, looking for suggestions on great reads or films to watch before our trip. Someone half-jokingly suggested reading the Bible. Well, it’s a valid point, but the Bible is rather long (shocker) and without a list of Bible verses to catch up on, the prospect of ‘reading the Bible’ is rather daunting. Instead, we decided to download the series, The Bible, which ended up being brilliantly done. A 10 part miniseries, each episode highlights a distinct section of the Bible, with the last 4 – 5 episodes focusing on the new testament. The fact that someone took on the task of shoving the entirety of the Bible into ten episodes is pretty amazing, and the fact that it’s well done is even more incredible. Regardless of whether or not you’re a particularly religious person, it’s nearly impossible to explore Jerusalem’s main sites without recognizing the deeply religious significance that the area has for Abrahamic religions. As a follow up, I think it’d be equally interesting to read parts of the Quran and Torah and understand the significance of some of these same sites according to the Islamic and Jewish faiths.
Parts Unknown: Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza hosted by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series never fails to enthrall and inspire (and perhaps offend, in some cases). Despite the fact that he takes us through the region’s culinary scene, it doesn’t focus solely on food; it delves a bit deeper to show us life in Jerusalem and in the Occupied Territories. He heads to Gaza to dine in a family’s home, and eats at a little home-turned-restaurant in Jerusalem owned by a couple, a Palestinian man and Jewish woman. He noshes on street food and visits a refugee camp in the West Bank. It’s entertaining but also provides a decent glimpse into the food, culture, traditions and conditions in Palestine.
Israel: The Royal Tour by Peter Greenberg (PBS)
If you’re looking for something less intense and more general and easy to digest, this is it. Reporter Peter Greenberg starts by interviewing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to help viewers understand Israel’s stance on ‘peace through strength’ and how Israel has developed since its creation. The hour-long piece showcases Israel’s religious sites, bodies of water (‘the Red, the Dead and the Med’), nightlife in Tel Aviv, and the incredible minds and tech savvy coming alive in Haifa at the Technion. It’s a fun and informative ride that focuses more on the thrill of travel in Israel.
Jerusalem on a Plate hosted by Yotam Ottolenghi (BBC)
After months of watching intense documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we decided we needed something a bit lighter. Both Bourdain-lovers, we decided to turn our attention again to food. Hosted by Ottolenghi, who originally hails from Jerusalem, the show hones in on great restaurants in both Arab and Jewish-dominated areas, highlights cuisine of varying cultures and also addresses what food of Jerusalem (as a veritable melting pot of cultures) truly is. While the series is light-hearted, it’s amazing to see that even a discussion of food can spur a controversial conversation (e.g. He asks a Palestinian famous for his hummus, ‘do you feel like Jews have taken Arab foods and made them their own?’ The shop owner doesn’t answer.) Some fun insight on great restaurants to try though. After watching we made dinner reservations and Machneyuda.
Secrets of Jerusalem’s Holiest Sites (NatGeo)
This is a must if you’re headed to Jerusalem. It’s a National Geographic production and takes no sides politically or religiously. Rather, it focuses on all of the sites that are holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. As much as we’ve read and researched on the region, understanding all of the holy sites and their importance to different religions can still be a bit confusing and rather daunting. What’s the significance of the Wailing Wall? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre? The Dome of the Rock? al-Aqsa Mosque? We know these places are holy, but many of us don’t understand why they’re important. This documentary delves a bit deeper and shares that history in a short film.
I hope that provides a bit of help to anyone looking for resources to prep for their trip to the Middle East! There are so many great books and documentaries out there, and I think it’s important to have a decent foundation of knowledge going in to a trip like this so you can have a richer, more meaningful experience while traveling.
Any other documentaries, television shows or books that we should add to the list? Leave your comments below so we can have a great list together for travelers!