Israeli filmmaker Gitai blasts Israel for ‘cosying up to anti-Semites’

Amos Gitai screens “A Letter To a Friend in Gaza” and “A Tramway in Jerusalem” films at Venice film festival.
Wednesday 05/09/2018
Director Amos Gitai attends a photocall for the film "A Letter to a Friend in Gaza" presented out of competition on September 3, during the 75th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (AFP)
Director Amos Gitai attends a photocall for the film "A Letter to a Friend in Gaza" presented out of competition on September 3, during the 75th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (AFP)

LONDON – Israeli director Amos Gitai lashed his country’s government for trying to “turn culture into propaganda” and cosying up to the “worst anti-Semites in Europe”.

He warned that Israel’s “open society” has been put at risk by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government as he premiered two new documentaries at the Venice film festival.

“It used to be said that the best homage that an artist can make to his country was to be critical of it,” he told reporters.

“Strong cultures don’t always need to be caressed. But in Israel now there is a big debate about the minister of culture of this very bad government who thinks that all culture is propaganda.”

Gitai, who was badly wounded in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, insisted that he and other Israeli liberals “love our country, but the direction the country is taking is very problematic. The government can destroy the very idea of an open society.”

The director, who said his next project will be about the origins of European anti-Semitism, blasted Netanyahu for what critics called his “illiberal bromance” with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

He said people have to speak out “when you see Netanyahu shaking hands with the worst anti-Semitic leaders in Europe and at the same time he allows shooting unarmed Palestinian protestors in Gaza.

“He only believes in physical force. This is very un-Jewish so it needs to be criticised,” he added.

He said anti-Semitism is still deep in the “DNA of European society” so it is no surprise it should be resurfacing across the continent.

“Its origins are religious, the Church brought up generations to hate the Jews, they burned Jews and discriminated against them and humiliated them for centuries.”

But the Jews have survived and “prevailed. They are still around which is impressive, but they should not forget the lessons.”

Gitai screened two films at the festival, “A Letter To a Friend in Gaza” and “A Tramway in Jerusalem”, both trying to warn of where Israel’s “intransigence” might lead it.

Gitai’s “Letter to A Friend in Gaza” offers unflinching criticism of Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its lethal response to Palestinian protesters, in which the filmmaker asks fellow Israelis to examine their conscience.

In the non-fiction short, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this week, Israeli and Palestinian actors read out stories and poetry, including a piece by journalist Amira Hass published in Haaretz called: “‘I Was Just Following Orders’: What Will You Tell Your Children?”

“It’s a very strong text,” Gitai told Reuters in an interview.

“This is a piece that she wrote to the Israelis, wanting them to be aware of what is happening a very few kilometres from their border where there are 2 million people kind of caged in Gaza.”

Gitai denied that the film drew any comparison to Nazi Germany, where people who committed crimes against humanity often justified their actions as only “following orders”.

“Amira Hass doesn’t make the comparison, you’re making it, it’s in your mind, maybe it was in her mind,” Gitai said.

“I’m for talking precisely. When we go beyond precision I don’t think we help our argument.

For more than a decade Gaza has been controlled by the Islamist group Hamas and subjected to an Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has caused deep economic hardship among its people. Israel says it has to enforce the blockade to defend itself against Hamas, which has called for its destruction.

Gitai also brought a feature film to Venice, “A Tramway in Jerusalem”, which takes a light-hearted look at very diverse characters travelling together through the divided city.

“It’s a metaphor for what can be the relationship in a city as divided, as conflicted as Jerusalem when things get back to normality,” he said.

As the movies screened, the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was facing accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism, something he denies. Last month Corbyn apologised for hosting a 2010 event at which another speaker reportedly compared Israeli policy towards the Palestinians to the Nazis’ policies towards the Jews.

“I think that making this kind of comparison… helps right-wing tendencies within Israel,” Gitai said. “So it’s better to be … precise and not make generalities.”

Gitai will tackle the roots of anti-Semitism in his next film, set in the 16th century, which he said might feature one or more of the actresses he has directed before: Natalie Portman, Juliette Binoche or Lea Seydoux.

“Some of them are in it…I’ll let you guess,” he teased.

Gitai’s films were screened out-of-competition at the Venice Film Festival, which ends on Saturday. 

(Arab Weekly and news agencies)