FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut

Rough Cut: Occupied Minds
Behind the Lens: Interview WIth the Filmmakers

David Michaelis and Jamal Dajani talk about growing up in Jerusalem and the prospects for peace in their homeland.

What memories do you have of growing up in Jerusalem? And how deep are your connections to the city?
David Michaelis: My family lived for many centuries in Germany, and in the 1920s, when the atmosphere became impossible for the Jews, my mother left for Palestine to begin working as a gymnastics teacher in a youth village. She was thinking about her identity as a Jew, and she went to her parents and said, "I don't think the Germans want us here. I am looking for a place where we can do something totally from the beginning." So she went to Jerusalem. Her organization saved maybe 15,000 or 20,000 children from the Nazis. I was born in Jerusalem in 1945. I didn't land from Mars or Berlin, I have some roots there. It's a harsher city now. It doesn't want to accept compromise that could lead to a normal co-existence.

Jamal Dajani: My family lived in Jerusalem for centuries. In 1948, the state of Israel was founded, and for Palestinians, this time was called the Nakba, or the "catastrophe." Like many Palestinians, my father and his whole family were pushed out of their ancestral home. They moved to a small apartment in East Jerusalem because the city was divided into a Jewish and Arab city. And then in 1967, the Six-Day War happened, when the Israelis invaded Jerusalem and conquered it. My childhood memories are divided between what happened before 1967 and what happened after. Before the war, a wall separated Arab and Jewish Jerusalem, and I only knew what existed beyond that wall through the stories my father told me. I grew up knowing a united Jerusalem, but I also lived under an Israeli occupation, where we always longed to go back to our ancestral home. Today, the Israelis who tore down the wall in 1967 are building larger and uglier walls. Jerusalem's beautiful hills and suburbs are turning into ghettos.

David Michaelis.

David Michaelis.

You clearly have a good friendship and a healthy respect for each other. What do you argue about most around this conflict, and what do you admire most in each other?
DM: We basically agree more than we disagree. I think Jamal underestimates the power of the fundamentalists and gunmen on both sides. The way I observe it, they can derail any progress made between the secular Israelis and Palestinians in the population. I admire Jamal's ability to learn quickly about any subject he sees as a real challenge -- where he's able to create new frontiers.

JD: We both want peace, but David thinks in terms of centuries and I think in terms of years. I feel that if there's a will, there's a way for a fast-track resolution. David's a loyal friend and truly believes in peace. He's not fake. I can't understand how he managed to serve in the Israeli army.

What will it take for Arabs and Jews to live together peacefully in the Holy Land?
DM: We need a third-party intervention -- the United States plus Europe intervening in the conflict; also, the populations need to be separated for an interim period. After this period of two to four years, we need to find a Palestinian-Israeli federation-style solution for a Palestinian and an Israeli entity to exist. Both sides have to recognize the narrative of the other side, and the Israelis need to understand that this is not a symmetrical conflict. They need to stop arguing for control over how Palestinians need to or want to live.

JD: Clearly, I am the optimist of the two of us. I believe that rather than creating two separate states -- one Israeli and one Palestinian -- we should have a one-state solution where everyone shares the same land and has equal rights. No other solutions will last. The current situation resembles a scrambled egg. You can't unscramble an egg. Arabs and Jews are intermingled in historic Palestine.

Jamal Dajani.

Jamal Dajani.

Do you think you'll see a resolution in your lifetime?
DM: This is a long 20-year process that will need a lot of patience and understanding. The Middle East moves at a different pace than other parts of the globe.

JD: I'm planning to live beyond 80 so perhaps late in my lifetime. But definitely my son will see it.

In your hour-long documentary there's a whole sequence shot in Hebron that includes an interview with a former Israeli soldier. He says, "You enter [the army] as a good guy and come out as a monster." You also talk to one of the leading gunmen of the Palestinian intifada. Did anything surprise you in talking to both sides in the conflict?
DM: As a guy who carried a gun in the Israeli army for 25 years, I was not surprised to hear Yehuda [the former Israeli soldier] describe how occupation corrupts the mind and the soul. I totally identified with his portrait of this road to "monster-hood." Zubedieh [the Palestinian gunman] surprised me because of his honest conversation with me in Hebrew. He recognized me from the program I produced on Israeli TV, and we quickly understood that this would be a no holds barred interview. It was the first time in my life that the Palestinian side had a gun and I did not.

JD: Both the soldier and the gunman suffered from losing normality in their lives. They were thrown into the conflict right after high school, and they had no chance to lead a normal life. If we had more time to make the film, I think we could have brought them together to talk. What surprised me were the victims of the conflict we met. People who survived death or lost their loved ones weren't full of anger, but were compassionate and resilient.

How do you think Israeli extremism differs from Palestinian extremism?
DM: There's no difference in their racism or their Messianic beliefs. Both sides have people who don't understand the basic term "one man, one vote."

JD: Extremists do not differ. Both are willing to fight it out to the last drop of blood. Both believe that God is on their side.

David Michaelis and Jamal Dajani.

Michaelis and Dajani were both born in Jerusalem but in reality come from two different worlds.

Did you return hopeful that the people in the region could find some harmony and understanding? Or did you come back with a gloomier outlook?
DM: It wasn't gloomier than I expected. My feeling is that both sides are tired, fatigued and brainwashed and have become pawns. And they will not rebel in the way that they would march in the streets. At least on the Israeli side, people say, "I care about my four corners and my little garden. And outside, it is so terrible, it's out of my control, and I don't see this revolution happening." As a guy who has fought against the occupation for the last 35 years, I know that those who want to live together are in the minority. But as the Gaza withdrawal has shown people, every 30 years, more Israelis understand that power corrupts and complete power corrupts completely.

JD: I'm always eager to go back because this is my home. And then, when I return to the U.S., I take with me a load of guilt, leaving these people behind. When are we going to get to the human level? People should be incensed, and not just the Palestinians. It usually takes me an entire year to regain my hope and return to Jerusalem to try again.

What is the core of the conflict today -- land, religion, retribution, destiny? What's at stake for Palestinians and Israelis today?
DM: For Israelis, it's the democratic character of the state and the chance to make Israeli society a real, open and equal society. For the Palestinians, it's their very basic empowerment as a nation and the right to self-determine their future. Basically, both sides have to decide if they want to die together or to live together.

JD: We can't put any of these labels on the conflict without understanding what happened to the Jews in Europe and the Palestinians under the colonization. The Jews faced racism in France [The Dreyfus Affair] and Germany [the Holocaust] and then you have to look at what happened to the Palestinians afterward because of the Balfour Declaration. Both sides believe that they are victims, and victims sometimes behave irrationally because of their insecurities. To move forward they both have to get out of their "victim-hood box."