Movies 19131913: Seeds of Conflict, a 2014 PBS distributed documentary by Ben Loeterman, is a fine, short introduction to the little known history of pre-Israel, Ottoman Palestine.  Absolutely indispensable to making sense of the resentments, fears and mistrust that keep the conflict boiling in our day.

One hour isn’t much, but Loeterman uses clips from a long lost film, “The Life of the Jews in Palestine,” to narrow his focus.  Made in 1913 by Noah Sokolovsky to show to the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna, it showcases the wonders of Jewish immigration to Palestine: energetic workers harvesting plentiful wheat, pulling fruit from laden trees, modestly dressed women, traditionally dressed men, Sunday painters, children playing.  Like the “Go West Young Man” posters and articles in late 19th century America it urged viewers on to a “land of milk and honey.”   After the showing and tour around Eastern European Jewish communities it disappeared until found again in Paris, 1997.

Near the top frame of an early scene stand some people apart.  “Who are they?” the interviewer asks the archivist. “Oh, I don’t know,” he replies.  They are, of course, Arabs, farmers and traders.  We can’t see much of their faces, but as Seeds of Conflict unfolds, we get to know they are watching the influx of Jewish immigrants with some alarm. And not only Arabs.  With the help of journalist Amy Dockser Marcus, Loeterman has culled the historical record and presents 13 period-dressed actors speaking from letters, journals and newspaper articles, with convincing in situ  hand gestures and persuasive vocal emphasis.

Eliyahu Zeˋev Levin-Epstein is a Russian Jew who immigrated to Palestine in 1890, and is one of the founders of Rehovot Colony which looms large as a likely “turning point” in Arab-Jewish  antagonism.  Najib Nassar is a Palestinian journalist from Lebanon, the founder of Al-Karmil newspaper in Haifa, an early voice of opposition to the Zionist project.

Theodore Herzl, who credited himself as being the founder of the state of Israel, is given space.  Countering him is Albert Antebi an Ottoman Jew who worried about the non assimilating Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe.

The voices of two Arab Christians are heard as well, one an itinerant musician who kept a detailed diary of daily life. [For more about each, see here. ]

Ottoman and Zionist historians and sociologists contribute salient points, their ‘talking head’ shots interleaved with old stills and film-clips of the time.  We get a strong sense of Ottoman Palestine, where multiple religions and ethnic groups lived in and among, or in near proximity to, each other.  If it wasn’t a brotherhood of difference it was, at least until the Second Aliyah, a begrudging tolerant sharing of geography and acknowledgement of ‘the other.’  If I have one caution about the film [actually I have two,] it is that the claims made about the mixing of cultures and religions in pre WW I Jerusalem sometimes sound a bit utopian, as though in the late-night coffee houses full of Moslem, Jew and Christian no one had any idea, or wariness, about who was who.

As pogroms terrorized Jews in Russia and Poland after the assassination of Czar Alexander in March of 1881,  the first major influx of Jews to Ottoman Palestine came to be called The First Aliyah.  Before it was over the Jewish population in Palestine had tripled. The rise of Zionism in Europe is tracked from the First Zionist Congress in 1897 as, led by Theodore Herzel, it grew in influence added to, the population, land and tolerance issues in Ottoman Palestine.  Cultures clashed over the use of land.  Jews bought land from absentee landlords and considered it theirs; Arabs had cultivated the same land for generations in an ownership of use.  If an “owner” did not use it, what could ownership mean? Disputes were taken to Ottoman authorities, often far away in Istanbul, of often with unsatisfactory results. By 1913 Jewish settlements, grown in size and wealth, were hiring guards, no longer from local Arab communities but from mercenary immigrant men.  The first Hashomer, was composed of Russian tough-guys, who didn’t speak Arabic, or Hebrew, only a poor Yiddish, as one commentator describes it. Riding horses and brandishing rifles, their slogan was “In blood and fire Judea fell, in blood and fire Judea will arise again.”

Old film clips takes us through the Young Turks revolt and their attempt to revive and strengthen the crumbling empire. The rise of nationalism all over Europe, bursting into flames in WW I, contributed to Arab nationalism already pushing against the Ottoman Turks and surging to counter to Jewish religious nationalism. Surprising to some, will be how immigrants from Russia, following the 1917 revolution, bringing strong socialist beliefs, changed things for the worse.  While sometimes looked on nostalgically as being part of an early, more tolerant socialist, communal Israel, they were in fact, westerners with “advanced” ideas.  Organized and organizing as westerners they brought a “back to the land” ideal, a disdain for earlier immigrants with their urban backgrounds and promoted what they called “pure Jewish labor.”  As this took hold, Arab day workers on Jewish holdings were displaced, thereby contributing to the growth of Arab nationalism.

The second caution I have is that, as in any telling of history, time lines can get out of whack as one theme or another is pursued.  Thus, we hear about the Second Aliyah, of 1918 before a mention of the rise in conflict from Hashomer provocations in 1913.  For some, it will take a second viewing, and possibly further investigation, to get everything properly organized,  which in any case is not a bad idea.

Loeterman says his direct inspiration for making the film was Amy Dockser Marcus’s book “Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” (2007)  Most, if not all, of the text and characters in the film come from her deeply researched book, in which the 1913 Sokolovsky film also forms the beginning of her own interest.

Loeterman is so good at an honest laying out of the historical situation I wish he had been propelled further to look at some of the on-the-ground organizers of pre-state Israel. Scott Anderson’s recent (1913) Lawrence in Arabia, has fascinating detail about Aaron Aaronsohn, a bright young Jewish biologist who, during the early years of the film, was in the service of the Ottoman regional government.  As the immigrants arrived and the Zionist idea took hold, he joined the state-building cause as a self-promoted spy, along with his sister, Sara. Mina Weizmann, sister of fist-president to be, Chaim, was also involved in WW I related activities as the Jewish presence began to coalesce.

The film does not offer any solutions, nor does it intend to.  It does help penetrate the current claims and beliefs about the early years of Jewish immigration, the growth of the antagonism — it did not just begin with the 1948 nakba of Palestinians from their homelands– and that it was not at first religious ethnic hatred, but real, universally human issues of land, productive activity, population pressures, cultural identities, group formation and enemy creation.

Loeterman brings good credentials to the film.  He has worked as an associate producer, investigative reporter, and producer/director in documentary films since 1979. He worked for Frontline, including a film called The Prize, (1993) based on Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer prize-winning book about oil.  He has also made a TV documentary on the Golden Gate Bridge, (2004) part of the American Experience series, another PBS film, The War that Made America, 2006 and The People vs Leo Frank, 2009.  All look very interesting, with strong themes of social justice throughout.

To stream the film at PBS go here.

For a fair though somewhat critical  look at the film see this from the Israeli Forward.

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