Arabs on Israeli Screens

Israeli films portray the ties and the tensions between Jews and Arabs.


 Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Arabs were portrayed in locally produced films as primitive and exotic, compared to the Jewish pioneers, who were seen as modern and industrious.  Arabs rode donkeys and used old-fashioned plows to work the land, whereas the Jews used mechanized equipment to dig for water, cultivate the land, and pave the roads. Arabs were part of the quaint local landscape, often depicted visually together with images such as camels, palm trees swaying in the breeze, and barren desert.

These early films did not provide an in-depth understanding of the local Arabs or their culture, and neglected to portray them as individuals. In fact, Arabs were portrayed as peripheral characters, and their roles were played by dark-skinned Sephardic Jews.

In the Galilee

Arabs continued to be portrayed as one-dimensional characters and visual symbols–and only appeared in supporting roles–until the Israeli political and psychological realities began to change in the 1980s. At that time, a major feature film was produced that grappled with relations between Jews and Arabs, set against the background of life in the agricultural area of the Galilee in northern Israel.

An image from the 1982 film Hamsin, directed by Daniel Wachsmann

Hamsin (Daniel Wachsmann, 1982) is still considered a landmark production because of its brutal honesty and intensity and because it was the first attempt at tackling this difficult subject. The film centers on the relationship between a cattle rancher and his young Arab hired hand, and it touches on issues of land expropriation, the difficulties Arabs faced being accepted within Jewish society, the growth of Arab nationalism, and the sensitive subject of sexual relations between Arab and Jew.

At about the same time, another film was produced about Arab-Jewish relations in the Galilee–this time from an Israeli-Arab point of view. Wedding in Galilee (Michel Khleifi, 1987) is a story of tensions between Israeli military authorities and Arab villagers during the 1950s and early 1960s, when Arabs in the Galilee were still under military law. The first feature film directed by an Israeli Palestinian Arab, Wedding in Galilee deals with generational differences in political consciousness, family tensions, and sexual inadequacies.

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Amy Kronish is a freelance film consultant from Jerusalem who has lectured, written, taught, and produced extensively and internationally. For 15 years she worked at the Jerusalem Cinematheque/Israeli Film Archive, where she eventually served as Curate of Jewish and Israeli Film. She is previously the author of World Cinema: Israel.

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