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Israel's Arabs -- A Cinematic Voice in New York

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Few whirls of the Mideast maelstrom are more confusing than Israel's Arab population - those 1.7 million urban and rural Arabs whose forebears wisely chose to remain in the newborn State of Israel rather than flee and become Palestinian refugees.

Today, Israeli Arabs (or "Palestinian Israelis" as some now modishly call themselves) comprise more than 20 per cent of the Jewish state's overall population. Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouin - they are Israel's largest and fastest growing minority.

They are also arguably the luckiest Arabs in the Middle East. Citizens of the region's only functioning democracy, they enjoy the same legal rights as their Jewish compatriots. They vote, have Israeli Arab members of the Israeli parliament, Israeli Arab judges, Israeli Arab diplomats, Israeli Arab writers and entertainers, Israeli Arab lawyers, teachers, scientists, industrialists and doctors - notably women as well as men.

What's more, Israeli Arab standards of living have risen with Israel's burgeoning economy. Once dusty villages now boast paved roads, parks and sewer systems, multiple car families, fancy villas and shopping centers. Israeli Arabs take advantage of their nation's first rate health system; their sons and daughters attend its best schools and universities.

The other side of this brightly shining coin is a long history of mutual suspicion and occasional outright discrimination - some perceived, some very real. Israeli Arab villages, for example, have historically received a far lower per capita share of government budgets than Jewish ones do - except at election time when Israeli politicians would rather layout more shekels than risk losing the votes of the Arab electorate.

Still, the biggest conundrum facing Israeli Arabs is self identity. Who are they? And what are they? They're not sure.

"We are Arab, Palestinian - but our mentaliyut [Hebrew for mentality] is Israeli," notes one Israeli-Arab intellectual. " We are caught in the middle. We are not fully accepted by either side".

True or not, national schizophrenia has become an obsession for the Israeli Arab community - and to the benefit of Israeli cinema, the subject matter of a growing number of increasingly fine films, many of them in-tandem efforts by Arab and Jewish film-makers and actors.

It is these productions that are the focus of one of New York's newest and most provocative annual happenings: The Other Israel Film Festival which opens its third season on November 12 at Manhattan's Jewish Community Center. This year's premiere screening: director Keren Yedaya's "Jaffa", a moving Romeo and Juliet tale of a Jewish girl who falls in love with a young Arab mechanic employed at her father's garage.

The "Other Festival" is the brain child of Carole Zabar, the activist wife of one of the scions of New York's most famous fine foods family. Herself the daughter of a "devoted Communist", the ebullient Mme. Zabar says she herself "converted to Zionism" in her late teens, actually went to study and live in Israel, then abandoned the Holy Land, she says facetiously, "because there were too many Jews there".

A predilection for Upper West Side liberal causes ultimately led her to undertake (and underwrite) The Other Israel Film Festival. "It was my way of showing people the culture and the problems facing Israeli Arabs," she says. "We needed dialolgue. Their voices just had to be heard".

And they are in the films - sometimes with touching family tales, sometimes with rarified looks at traditional Israeli Arab ways of life, sometimes with kvetchy "it's not our fault" complaints about how they believe they are mistreated by the Jewish state, and sometimes with outright political propaganda such as radical Palestinian director Mohammad Bakri's Zahara, an otherwise beautiful saga of his 78 year old aunt, the family matriarch that frequently falls flat on its agit-prop.

One of this year's most fascinating documentaries is director Ibtisam Mara'na's Badal - an inside look at a common Muslim tradition whereby a brother and sister from one family wed a sister and brother from another in a two way contract that links both couples together for life.

Director Dorit Zimbalist offers us Sayed Kashua - Forever Scared, a close up look at one of Israel's most popular columnists, novelists and screenwriters, an Israeli-Arab who writes in Hebrew but still feels he "doesn't belong".

And for tragic-comedy, there are episodes from Arab Labor - a term used as an Israeli perjorative for "shabby work", but here the title of a much acclaimed TV sitcom about an Arab journalist who tries desperately to fit in yet is rejected by both communities.

Solving this identity crisis has become one of Israel's most pressing internal problems. Part of the solution clearly lies with Israel's own political and social bureaucracy; a deeper consciousness and understanding of the culture and full rights of its Arab citizens is sorely needed. But the ultimate cure lies with the Israeli Arab community itself - with an acceptance of the understanding that to survive and continue to grow in Israel, Israeli Arabs must accept their status as a loyal minority in a majority Jewish state.

Unfortunately, the opposite is happening - a growing political radicalization among many Israeli Arabs, and a growing Islamicization among others has already resulted in shocking demonstrations supporting Palestinian terrorist groups , calls for celebrating Israeli Independence Day as "Yawm el Nakba" - Disaster Day - and demands for outright Israeli Arab political autonomy.

That will not and should not happen. Israel, established on a very small piece of Mideast real estate, was founded and internationally recognized for what it is: a Zionist Jewish state albeit one that guarantees the full rights of its non-Jewish minorities. Few Israeli Jews would trade in their Jewish state for a bi-national one (a concept that never works anyway). Moreover, polls show that even fewer Israeli Arabs would prefer to move to a future Palestinian state - and certainly not to another Arab nation. More of their films should express the positive side of that reality

The Third Annual "Other Israel Film Festival" runs from November 12 to 19th. Screenings are at the JCC, 334 Amsterdam Avenue, NY; at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, NY and assorted other locales. For details see:
http://www.otherisrael.org/films