The Band’s Visit: Ethnicity and Stereotypes in The Israeli Cinema
Submitted to the conference:
Israel 2008: Sixty Years after 1948: Are the Narratives Converging?
New York University, May 19-21, 2008.
By: Mati Shemoelof, Doctoral Candidate in the Department of Hebrew Literature, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel
The Band’s Visit tells the story of a police musical band from Alexandria, as it arrives from Egypt to Israel, following an invitation to participate in the opening ceremonies of an Arab cultural center in the city of Petach-Tikvah (Hebrew for “Gate of Hope”). A receptionist at Tel-Aviv’s new central bus station mistakenly directs the group to Beith-HaTikvah (“The House of Hope”, in Hebrew), a fictional peripheral development-town in southern Israel. The plot focuses on the supposedly random encounter between the Egyptian-Arab band and the inhabitants of the town, who are Mizrahi (Hebrew for ‘Eastern’ or ‘Oriental’), descendants of the Arab-Jews.
The film can be perceived of as being realistic or surrealistic. While aware of the ‘Genre’ complexity, I choose to discuss its socio-political aspects, and my argument refers to the ethno-national division it portrays. I claim that Arab and Mizrahi characters in the film signify purified and hybrid categories. They do not represent “The Mizrahi” or “The Arab” sociologically, rather re-posits them on the screen, in a way described by Spivak as a passage between representation and re-presentation (Spivak, 2004).
Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1993) contains two main principles – Hybridization and Purification – which serve as sort of a code in Modernism. Following Latour, the model proposed by Shenhav (2005:82) enables a new, dynamic discourse, denouncing the customary essentialist, binary use of the terms ‘East’ and ‘West’, and regarding them as simultaneously hybridized and purified categories. Shenhav has implemented Latour’s model when researching the Zionist discourse on religion, and pointed out to a simultaneous hybridization and purification processes:
“Through simultaneous processes of hybridization and purification, Nationalism forms the religious as a signifier of the non-Modern (The Mizrahi, the political right, the other or the Orient), and the secular as a signifier of the Modern (the modern ‘Us’ or the West). This double signification enables Zionist nationalism to speak in two voices at the same time: the religious/primordial voice and the secular/modern voice. The first hybridizes old with new; it legitimizes, for the rest of the world, the national-Zionist project, for it creates an impression of continuity with a religious past (hybridization). The modern voice is directed both ways – to the external world as well as inside society. It seeks to modernize Zionism by turning its back on the past (purification (and distinguishing the new Jew from the old Jew, the productive Jew from the unproductive (religious) Jew” (Shenhav, 2005: 82, self translation emphasis added).
Shenhav’s argument on hybridization and purification of secularism and religiousness in Zionist discourse (ibid., ibid.) can be implemented when analyzing the film “The Band’s Visit” (2007) if we exchange the terms of discussion to ‘Arabness’ and ‘Mizrahiness’. Zionist nationalism hybridizes Arabness with Mizrahiness but camouflages and codifies the act of hybridization by purifying it from Mizrahiness. This purification is enabled when contrasting Arabness with Mizrahiness and forming them as two antinomic phenomena. Hence in the film Zionist Nationalism speaks in two simultaneous voices:
1. The Mizrahi voice in the film signifies the non-modern. Paraphrasing Biale’s words (Biale, 1992:241) I assert that the image of the Diasporic, helpless Jew has been projected onto the Mizrahi Jew, who -similarly to the Diasporic Jew – has refused to be released from ‘Middle-Ages’ traditions. The Mizrahi is victim of the encounter between ‘Old’ and ‘New’. The arbitrary/naturalist forces acting upon the Mizrahi characters in the film signify those anti-Semitic forces which drove Diasporic Jews from Europe. I assert that this act hybridizes the new Jew with the old Jew and marks the legitimacy and continuity of the Zionist project. It presents to the West an image of Israel, where the Diasporic Jew is a victim. In this context Shohat stresses that “the question of victim is decisive in signifying Jewish experience and identity for the Zionist liberation project. Yet the idea, that the history of other victims can be told, and that some of them are victims of Jewish nationalism, leads to violent resistance” (Shohat, 2003:226). Hence the Mizrahi Jew character is shown outside of the broad cultural and historic contexts in which it exists.
Portraying Israel as victim (Diasporic Jew) serves a few possible internal and external purposes; first it justifies the national project, for if the Jew is Diasporic (oppressed) rather than strong (oppressing), a ‘pre-modern’ victim of arbitrary forces, then there is no justification to attack him/her (at present) for oppressing both ‘inwards’ as well as ‘outwards’ – the Palestinian population. In so doing, the film takes us back to the moment before the national redemption from anti-Semitic Europe, and represses the Palestinian narrative.
Second, presenting Israelis as victims represses civic, class and political responsibility for achieving equality and removing mechanisms of social oppression. The rationale is that if the Mizrahi Jew is at a similar position to that of Diasporic Jews, and the arbitrary forces oppressing him/her are not indicated, then Nationalism has no impact on his/her social status. When adopting an anti-Semitic gaze, the fault seems to be placed in the Diasporic Jewish body, rather than in the state body.
2. The Arab voice in the film signifies Modernity. Zionist Nationalism sees itself as part of Modernity, and as belonging to the West, despite its location in the East (Shohat 2006: 330-1). Khazzoom mentions three characterizing elements in the adoption of Orientalism to Jewish thought; first, Jews accept the idea that something in them is defected. Second, they believe that resembling Christians implies progress. Third, they trust that West-European Christians are the appropriate authority to estimate the level of their progress (Khazzoom, 1999:405). In the film, Arab characters are marked as the new ‘Jew’. Nationalism, centered around the Ashkenazi (European Descendant) Sabra, has taken credit for ‘Modernity’ and ‘Occidentalism’. Hence Khazzoom insists that: “Ashkenazim have formed themselves as Westerners, educated, intellectuals and Zionist, possessing know-how and therefore fit to manage the new state” (Khazzoom, 1999:408). In the film, Nationalism takes responsibility for the ‘cultural missionarism’ and Orientalism of ‘the East’, hence, for example, the alleged establishment of an Arab cultural center in Petach-Tikvah, at the margins of Gush-Dan; it enacts the missionary gaze towards the Middle-Eastern space, which is regarded as under-developed and under-achieving (if you resemble us, ‘Westerners’, you shall reach the margins of the center, Petach-Tikvah).
Yet the ‘Modern’ voice is not only directed inwards towards the Jewish society (“this is what a ‘good Arab’ should look like”) but also, paternalistically, towards the Arab society inside Israel (“this is what you should look like”). In the film, the passage from Egypt (oppression) to the margins of Israel (redemption), symbolizes the Jewish narrative of exodus from theological and political chase to redemption that ends in the founding of the national state. If we consider the geo-political relations between Israel to Egypt and the other Arab states, the film gives Egypt room in the margins of the Israeli center. The theological and political redemption discourse – from Egypt to Israel – implies a fantasy where Middle East countries live in the margins of the Dan area. If, in addition, we consider the relationship between the Palestinian people and Israel (note, for instance, the casting of Saleh Bakri for the role of Khaled), then the performance at the Arab center in Petach-Tikvah perhaps delineates the hoped-for arrangement for the relations between the majority and the minority in the “Jewish-Democratic” state, an arrangement which can be summarized as follows: ‘if you agree to live at the periphery of the state of Israel, we shall supply you with a cultural center at the margin of the segregated Jewish society’.
In a dynamic, dialectic, non-continuous fashion, the Mizrahi embodies the Diasporic Jew who meets the Arab – himself an embodiment the ‘new’ Jew. The Mizrahi then goes through a process of renewal – regard, for instance, the new relationship between Papi (Shlomi Avraham) and Yula (Rinat Matatov) – while keeping an under-developed position: remaining in “Beit-HaTikvah”, the development town, a peripheral underclass surrounding. The Arab, too, goes through a process of renewal. Thus, for example, the conductor’s deputy, Simon (Khalifa Natour) discovers the rest of the notes necessary for the completion of his concerto. However, they, too, keep an underprivileged position; the threat over the future existence of the band is not removed.
Yet while the Mizrahi – signifying the ‘old Jew’ – remains dwelling in the imagined underprivileged territory which is the ‘development town’, the Arab – signifying the ‘new Jew’ – continues the journey from the periphery of the Middle East (in the margins of Israel) to Petach-Tikvah, a beginning of hope in the boundaries of Tel-Aviv, Israel’s main business city. This journey takes place while attempts are made to establish an Arab cultural center at the brims of the Israeli/Tel-Avivi center, the city of Petach-Tikvah, as part of a renewed confirmation of the Neo-Liberal order in the Middle East. Kfir Cohen phrases this desire, saying: “The conflict between Israel and its neighbors can end, on the condition that everybody became customers in a global economy which solves cultural and national differences by re-writing them as commodities” (Cohen, 2007, self translation).
The hybridization and purification process between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Jew, as expressed in The Band’s Visit, includes marking, erasing and demarcating of the solid separation line between the establishment of these two categories. In certain places it seems there is no absolute distinction between them. Hence, for example, casting actor Sasson Gabai to play the role of Tawfiq, the band’s manager and conductor, supposedly disrupts the distinction Mizrahi/Arab. Similarly, the fact that Khaled (played by Saleh Bakri) in the film has sex with Dina (Ronit Elkavetz), undermines the separation between the Arab (Palestinian actor) and Mizrahi (Jewish actress) categories. These contradicting markings form the innovation, the ‘alternative’. Attempting to describe the normative and the alternative aesthetics, Yaron Shemer, in his encompassing work on Mizrahi cinema, cites Robert Stam: “]T[o Address the question of alternative aesthetics, we first must address the question of the normative aesthetics” (Stam 2000:258, original emphasis in Shemer 2005:357).
My argument does not keep the different categories fixated, rather stresses the tension between the normative aesthetics to the alternative one, exactly because the marking and erasing processes happen simultaneously. Shenhav and Hever claim that “Erasing and Marking can never be separated, neither in language nor in social praxis” (Shenhav, Hever, 2008:6, self translation). I admit that there is a thick borderline between Arabness and Mizrahiness in the film. Yet, adopting Shenhav and Hever’s assumption, I make the analogy between their discussion of the term Arab-Jew and the term Arab-Mizrahi in the film. As they note, “Within this borderline, certain border-marking does not organize into a clear binary product. The erasing acts of the hegemony, and the re-marking, leave many traces within the broad margins which surround that borderline” (Shenhav & Hever 2008:7, self-translation).
The Way to Purify the Under-Development from the Arab and Hybridize the Flaw into the Mizrahi
The film utilizes several mechanisms to project the character of the helpless, Diasporic Jew onto the Mizrahi, so that in the end Mizrahim are extracted out of the historical and cultural context in which they dwell. First, Mizrahi figures are separated from their Arab-Jewish history and attached, instead, to the establishment of the state, so that they are ‘dated’ to it. Second, Mizrahi cultural and musical heritage is eliminated. Third, Mizrahi biographic signifiers chain is obscured – and I refer here to the absence of surnames from the plot. Fourth, the loads of Arab past (e.g. language) and Mizrahi present are flattened. Fifth, discussion of third-generation Mizrahis is partial and lacking. Six, Mizrahi figures are ridiculed and stereotyped. Seven, Mizrahi figures lack historic, social and class and social awareness; Eight, cinematic discussion of the relations between Mizrahi and Arab history and ‘third-world’ categorization is shallow. Nine, there is no reference to the ‘White’ position. Ten, the plot focuses on personal dilemmas in lieu of social conflicts. Eleven, the film introduces new populations to the screen of Israeli cinema through attaching political prestige to them, while fitting Mizrahi characters to old stereotypes. Twelve, it contains shootages of the empty ‘ghost’ development town, as a characterizing of metonymic (subjective) and metaphoric (objective) absence in the identity of figures, without critically examining the implications of this framing. Last, women figures are stereotypically presented as hospitable, warm and passionate.
The figure of the New Jew is projected on the Arab using the following mechanisms; first, the link between the Egyptian band to third-world populations is detached. Second, the film lacks broad social, political and class awareness. Third, religion and ethnicity characteristics are removed. This enables, forth, a shift from powerful and ‘threatening’ figures to a mere ceremonial police band. Five, the classic Arab band is unaware of its Arabness. Thus, for instance, it employs Jazz players. Six, the young generation is characterized with liberalism and opportunism, as manifested in Khaled’s figure. Seven, the band members speak English. Eight, these figures are devoid of surnames, hence detached from their biographic signifiers chain. Nine, the band is unacquainted to the Israeli sphere, with its social and urban meanings. Ten, the emphasis is on personal identities deprived of political identifications. Eleven, their figures posses ‘Western’ traits of restraint, civility, punctuation, intellectualism, etc. Last, among the band members we note an inter-generational passage from a ‘non-Arab’ culture to an even more ‘non-Arab’ liberated culture.
Two scenes in the film mark the thick boundary between the Mizrahi and the Arab, which persists beyond the purification and hybridization processes. They render the film a more complex meaning. In the first, Papi gains – thanks to Khaled’s help – an intimate moment with Yula. In the second, Khaled sleeps with Dina. These scenes raise a few questions. Will Papi and Yula remember Khaled’s good deed? If so, will the binary relations between ‘New’ Arabness and ‘Old’ Mizrahiness consequently change? Dina, who has moved the plot, did not have intercourse with the oedipal ‘father’ Tawfiq, rather with the ‘son’ Khaled. Does this choice bring about an awareness change for the both of them? The answers are far from being obvious, for in these moments the film goes beyond contrasted, simplified and flattened figures, and points to the thick line between them. Yet in the end, the two identities are pulled apart: the Egyptian band plays for the old-new Zionist settlement of Petach-Tikvah, while the development town remains out of plot.
The Arab-Jew and the Arab in Israel Will Never Be Like “Us”
In order to identify what is happening within the thick boundary between Mizrahiness and Arabness, we must ask how the text corresponds with and ratifies the extra-cinematic reality, and whether, in the end, it leaves a chance for a new social equality (Orian, 2004: 27).
In the first phase of the film, the Arab-Jew (as part of Mizrahiness) is threatening Zionism from within, and therefore needs to go through a de-Arabization process, in order to erase its ‘Arab’ signifiers, and emphasize the ‘Jewish’ ones. The Arab exists as an ‘Other’ in the political sense of Zionism, that which distinguishes friend from Enemy. In addition, the public debate in Israel has no room for Palestinian Nationalism (neither in Israel nor in the occupied territories), and it remains marked but denied.
In the second phase of the film, Mizrahiness and Arabness ‘help’ each other, however they are posited in a contrasted special structure – Beit HaTikvah vs. Petach-Tikvah. This way, Zionist nationalism disavows the ‘Janus face’ at the basis of its Europocentric view of both Judaism and its Arab past and Arabism and its national past. The film’s wide acceptance ratifies the (ethnic) flaw of the Mizrahi (old Jew) while de-Arabizing him/her, and ratifies the (national) flaw of the Arab (New Jew), while re-Zionizing him/her. This is part of ethno-national purification and hybridization processes which stand at the basis of Zionism.
The Arab-Jew remains in the development town, unaware of his/her Arab past, and the Arab (Muslim) remains at the margins of the center, without insisting on his/her Arab nationalism. Zionism remains trapped in a play between the two categories of ‘old’ and ‘new’, for it is unable to resist dichotomies, to refrain from attaching the Mizrahi to the old Jew and the Arab to the new Jew. Despite the ties and relations taking place in the thick boundary between the categories, the Egyptian band still finds itself performing in front of emptiness in Petach-Tikvah, and the Mizrahis remain facing the emptiness of the development town, devoid of performance and a gate of hope (Petach-Tikvah), and even out of the plot and off the screen.
I have attempted to show that in the film, a link between Mizrahiness and Arabness has been deprived, and the connection between the two has been enabled only on the grounds of structural separation. Yet we have to bear in mind that the random meeting between ‘Arabness’ and ‘Mizrahiness’ is contingent. It is fascinating, then, that in this contingency ideal, ‘purified’, types meet. Nevertheless, in the encounter with the Egyptian Arab, the Mizrahi in fact faces the Diasporic option of an ‘Arab Jew’. In other words, had Mizrahis stayed in Arab countries, this is what they would look like. To a large extent, if we checked this claim with regards to the contingent relations of Arabness to Mizrahiness, the Diasporic ‘Arab-Jew’ (represented by the Egyptian band) would still be more modern than the Mizrahi (Israeli). The claim would still approve of the flaw in the Mizrahi vis-à-vis the progress in time of the Arab.
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