The Palestinian-packed coastal city of Akka in northern Israel is at the frontlines of the Jewish state’s efforts to transform its population while cashing in on tourist-attracting corners of the country. This doc relies on the input of teachers, actors, and artists to understand the ongoing struggles endured by people who have lived there for generations, but now find themselves fighting against redevelopment.
There is a major lack of understanding about on-the-ground life in Israel, particularly related to the Palestinians who live there, and your film humanizes the issue, showing them to be “regular” people just trying to get by. Was that an intent of making the film?
Gina: The intent of the film was to shine a light on the great injustice happening to a severely underserved and discriminated population. Major infringements of basic human rights are happening to the Palestinian people right under the world’s nose but, somehow, out of plain sight from mainstream media attention. It’s a tragedy that has been playing itself out for many years and is only escalating over time. So much of Palestine’s history has been denied, blurred, or misunderstood.
Unfortunately, we only get to see or hear about the negative images of Arabs and Palestinians. The true human side is never represented in a fair or realistic light. With this film, we hope to illuminate part of a dark and muddled discourse by letting the people of Akka speak for themselves.
How does the everyday Palestinian get along with the everyday Jewish neighbor?
Patrick: Speaking loosely about “Palestinians” is not specific enough in terms of how this ethnic group relates to Israel. There are basically five groups of “Palestinians,” all under separate micro-legal systems within Israel, which makes their situations and interactions with Jews different in each instance. All of this is described in our film. Briefly, these groups are:
1) “The Palestinians of 1948” which is a group that existed within the borders of Israel when it was granted statehood in 1948 (est. pop. 1.54 million). These are the people on which we focus our documentary.
2) “The Palestinians of the West Bank/Occupied Territories.” This group exists in what would be best described as an occupied netherworld west of Israel and east of Jordan (est. pop. 2.4 million).
3) “The Palestinians of Gaza.” This group lies southwest on Israel’s Mediterranean coast and next to the border with Egypt. (est. pop 1.5 million).
4)“The Palestinians of Jerusalem.” This group lives around the eastern side of the ancient city (est. pop. 260,000).
5) “Palestinian Refugees.” This group was originally pushed out of the region in 1948 and ended up in the countries of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. For the most part, they are still living in refugee camps after more than 60 years with no citizenship of their host country. (est. pop. 3,7 million).
To be fair, each of these groups deserves their own answer to the question of how they “get along” with their Israeli neighbors. This answer could take an article for each group in themselves.
From the standpoint of our story (and talking solely about the “Palestinians of ’48),” getting along requires interaction. Except for the usual necessary commerce transactions on both ends, there seems to be little interaction between the majority of the two groups.
Would there be any advantage for the Palestinians who live in Akka to get ahead of the redevelopment of the Old City and profit from it?
Gina: There may be some Palestinians or Arabs with the means to invest, but they are few and their restrictions are great. They would have to play by the inequitable rules of the housing authority, whose mandate is to follow the cut-and-paste formula applied to many other towns in Israel and evacuate the native population in order to make room for foreign investment. There is no real access for the Palestinians of Akka to obtain outside capital without encountering tremendous legal fallout.
How much does being an UNESCO world heritage site help with protection of the area’s authentic heritage?
Patrick & Gina: As described by UNESCO, World Heritage is the designation for places on earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. Places as diverse and unique as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the Taj Mahal in India are on the list.
Akka has been continuously settled since the time of the Phoenicians. It was the major port of entry for Christian pilgrims heading to Jerusalem during the Crusader period and it flourished under Ottoman rule in the 18th century. It is also the holiest city on earth for the people of the Baha’i faith. One can see why this beautiful and historic place would draw people from all faiths and cultures from all over the world.
It’s status with UNESCO could ostensibly be reversed if its great historic monuments and sites are not preserved, but instead turned into hotels or private housing, as is currently happening. The UNESCO convention was established to protect the architecture and buildings, but has nothing to do with maintaining or protecting the native ethnic population in Akka.
Are there many other cities like Akka in Israel or elsewhere, where Arab Christians and Arab Muslims get along despite their religious differences? There seems to be a hopeful message there for the Muslim world at large.
Gina: The Palestinians we interviewed in Akka were both Christian and Muslim. They made no distinction of religion when we spoke, and the film does not focus on religion. This is also true of inhabitants in other cities where both populations are present, such as Jerusalem, Nazereth, Bethlehem, etc. As far as a hopeful message for the Muslim world at large, it is simply a reflection of the thoughtful, informed, educated and inspired ideas that our interviewees express.
Do many tourists from Western countries visit Akka today? How about tourists from Arab countries?
Gina: We were astounded by the throngs of tourists from all over the world, at all times of the year. Because of Israel’s estranged relations with neighboring Arab countries, the tourists from those countries are minimal to non-existent.
Of course, one of the things that enthralls outsiders the most is to see the kids jumping from the ancient seawall. In a unique way, the tourists and the jumpers have a wonderful exchange. The tourists are in awe of the perilous leaps and the bravado, and the kids feel famous, almost like heroes while being filmed and photographed by people from around the globe. Jumping is one of the children’s only recreational outlets, and it validates them in their fight to be seen and appreciated by so many.
Can a tourist to Akka still expect a traditional Palestinian experience today, in terms of food and entertainment and culture?
Gina: Arab hospitality is something that cannot be aptly described. It comes from pure motivation and an open heart, the likes of which I’ve rarely seen. With the right intentions, you can find yourself ushered into even the most modest of homes and invited to enjoy a Turkish coffee, sweet biscuits, and fruit or fresh juice. Usually all four.
And these things are enjoyed over lively conversation, introduction of family members and authentic conversation. I never tired of it, even when I couldn’t understand a word. You can strike up a pleasant exchange anywhere, as well as get great food and listen to terrific music.
And the children of Akka always pass by the foreigners offering a high-five and uttering a sweet “You are welcome” in English. To which I always replied, “Thank you,” thoroughly enjoying the reversal of pleasantries.
It’s Better to Jump screens on Sat., Jan. 26, 4 p.m. at the Museum of Art, and Thu., Jan 31, 2 p.m., at the Metro 4. See itsbettertojump.com.