‘1913: Seeds of Conflict’: European invasion causes discord

The 2014 documentary “1913: Seeds of Conflict” attempts to look at the shaping of the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, something that began long before World War II but not as far back as the origin of Islam. Jews, Christians and Muslims at one point shared Palestine as part of the Ottoman Empire. The documentary mixes contemporary interviews with re-enactments of historic written words. The documentary “1913: Seeds of Conflict” airs on PBS 30 June 2015 and will be available online VoD thereafter.

At the beginning of the documentary, the subtitle announces that “The dialogue spoke by the actors is drawn directly from the historical record” and the dialogue referenced is in different languages (French, German, Arabic, etc.) with English subtitles.

The year is significant in two ways. The first we learn early on. Film archivist Yaakov Gross had been looking for a 1913 film since 1975.  The film “The Life of the Jews in Palestine” was a Zionist propaganda documentary in French about the dream of a Jewish homeland, one that contrasted the persecution of Jews in Europe.

To understand the current conflict, the documentary takes us back as far as the 1800s, when the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. Palestine today was once part of several Ottoman provinces in the mid-1800s. At that time it was populated by 1/2 million Ottoman subjects which included 400,000 Muslims, 60,000 Christians and 20,000 Jews. Until the 1880s, half the Jews were Sephardic Jews.

Yet this would change. With the pogroms of Jews from Russia was one part of the problem. The percentage of Hasidic Jews who immigrated to Palestine was small, but it did create a change in the culture of Jews and of the balance between the religious factions in Palestine and Jerusalem.

Pulitzer Prize winner Amy Dockser Marcus is among the interviewees and her book “Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” serves as a the framework for the program.

While an Austrian would eventually cause World War II, it was an Austrian Jew who would begin the Zionist movement. Theodore Herzl, was Viennese Jew and a journalist who founded the Zionist Movement and of the World Zionist Organization that was focused on the creation of a Jewish state, using legal or illegal ways to do it.

Yet Jerusalem was a place that the Jews consider a Holy Land and that the European Zionists felt all Jews would rally behind. Before 1913, Jerusalem was once a place where a man such as Christian musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh could have a band that included Jews and Muslims and entertain people of all three religions.

When people like Russian Jew Eliyahu Zeˋev Levin-Epstein come to Palestine, they founded colonies. Levin-Epstein was the leader of the 1890 Rehovot Colony which had a conflict with the Bedouin tribe.

Abu-Ḥaṭaba,  Muslim Ottoman, the mukhtar and elder of the Abu-Ḥaṭaba Bedouin tribe was one of the people troubled by the colonization of the lands his people had used for centuries. Abu-Hataba wrote a petition to the Grand Vizier in Istanbul about the Jewish activity. This was the first, but not the last appeal to the Ottoman officials about Zionist activities.

The apprehension against the Zionists in Palestine and the continuing influx of Yiddish-speaking European Jews wasn’t just found in the Muslim population. Yusuf Khalidi, the mayor of Jerusalem between 1899 to 1907 warned against the Zionist cause. A Jew from Damascus, Albert Antebi, was a go-between the Jewish and Arabic communities in Palestine who worried about the influx of Russian citizens, even though they are Jewish. A Palestinian Orthodox Christian Khalil al-Sakakini was concerned about the Zionist movement. A Palestinian Greek Orthodox journalist Al-Isa wrote about Arab Nationalism and was opposed to the Zionist movement. Nissim Malul, a Sephardic Jew from Tunisia, advocated that Jews learn Arabic in order to peacefully co-exist with the Arabs.

The documentary “The Life of the Jews in Palestine” is integral to understanding the conflict not because of what we see, but what we don’t see. As part of the Zionist movement, the documentary ignores the presence of Arabs. The slogan of “A Land Without a People for People Without a Land” arises, reducing the Arabs of any religion to the same level as a rock or tree–part of a land. Yet the Arab is not a donkey and they had a much longer history on the land than the Russian and European immigrants.

The Zionist settlements eventually needed guards who at first were recruited from the locals and might have included Arabs of any religion but eventually were made into a specific organization peopled only by Russian Jewish immigrants who usually didn’t speak Arabic or Hebrew and were more likely to speak Yiddish. These guards were involved in an incident that in 1913 would cause an uproar and signify a change in cultural identity, pitting Jews against Arabs and foresees the conflict between Israel and Palestine of today.

Other experts include the director of the Israel Studies and 20th Century Jewish Histories International MA Program Gur Alroey, Paris-based historian Elizabeth Antebi, University of Haifa professor Yuval Ben-Bassat, director of the Hypercities digital research platform Etan Bloom, University of Florida associate professor Michelle Campos, Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University Beshara Doumani, Brooklyn College City University of New York assistant professor Louis Fishman, film archivist Yaakov Gross, MIT history lecturer Abiguail Jacobson, Illinois State University Palestinian historian of photography research fellow Issam Nassar, Ben-Gurion University associate professor Saposnik, UCSan Diego professor of sociology Shafir, and Birzeit University professor of sociology Salim Tamari.

Weaving together the past and present, we come to a moment when the culture changes, a definitive moment when a simple theft becomes a crime against not a person, but from the Jewish people and justifies a severe beating of the Arab thief. The identify of Ottoman identity is replaced by a dichotomy that pits Arabs against Jews. And a propaganda documentary invites even more European Jews to join the Zionist Movement that would eventually result in the establishment of Israel.

The thought-provoking documentary “1913: Seeds of Conflict” airs on PBS 30 June 2015 and will be available online VoD thereafter.

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