To watch “Disturbing the Peace” is to be challenged.
Does the new documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian group Combatants for Peace, present a false moral equivalency between Israelis and Palestinians? Or is the apparent symmetry better understood as a tool to enable the film to speak to a wide audience in order to provoke fundamental change?
Chen Alon, one of the Israeli activists featured, is unequivocal that the “full responsibility for the occupation” lies with Israel. “There’s no way to justify it or legitimize it.” But both sides, he insists, have real and authentic pain.
When other Israelis are looking ahead to their children’s military service, Alon anticipates visiting his teenage daughter in prison. She is about to receive her draft notice, and she plans to object on conscientious grounds. Alon acknowledges that the trips she took with him to the West Bank, the Palestinians she met and the non-violent activists who visited their home undoubtedly had an impact. “The typical Israeli process of demonizing the Palestinians didn’t work on her,” he quips.
In thinking about mutual pain, Alon adds, “You can’t forge a non-violent path towards an end to the occupation without dialogue and reconciliation.”
This focus on mutuality and the inclusion of dialogue led Omar Barghouti, a leader of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, to condemn the group for “normalizing” the occupation.
If one considers the official BDS “anti-normalization” guidelines, then Barghouti has some logic on his side. Combatants for Peace takes no position on Palestinian refugee return — one of the key commitments the anti-normalization platform demands. But when Barghouti says about the group that “normalizing Israeli apartheid only entrenches it,” he is missing the bigger point.
Combatants for Peace is, in fact, a direct-action group whose members reject the occupation from the outset. Its members actively oppose violence, though Alon says the group leaves the decision regarding “when and where and how they take responsibility over violence” to the members. The film is not specific on the details of these choices across the membership, and some might critique the organization for not demanding full-scale military refusal outright — often a point of tension between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
The group also makes clear that it also seeks to avoid the kind of dialogue Palestinians often refer to as the boot of Israel pressing against the collective Palestinian neck. The website says that “Combatants for Peace is based on dialogue, but it is not a dialogue group. Dialogue is a means to consolidate the Movement and make it into a powerful political platform, capable of influencing political reality.”
That’s where the Theater of the Oppressed comes in. Directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young show how Alon has introduced techniques from the performance-based activists to the group. Sometimes the soldiers staffing military zones become unwitting players in the impromptu storytelling: moving from “spectators to “spect-actors,” as Alon describes it.
Combatants for Peace has staged events against arbitrary roadblocks between Areas A and B, and the group protests the separation barrier. (At one of the film’s public screenings in the West Bank the film was projected onto the Wall — an experience Apkon says was deeply moving.) The group also holds an alternative Memorial Day ceremony, something that puts it at odds with mainstream Israeli society which valorizes its fallen soldiers while often repeating the “no-partner-for-peace” mantra.
Neither can the group be accused of sticking to what is increasingly seen by some as an unrealistic adherence to a two-state solution, a position that sometimes leads to an unhelpful propping up of the status quo. While the film suggests in at least two scenes that the group aims for a two-state solution, both Apkon and Alon tell me that the group is in the midst of transitioning towards agnosticism around whether a one-state, two-state or some other, confederal, arrangement is best.
“The reaction we’ve had from both sides to the film,” Apkon says, “is that because my story is honored and respected, it’s created a space for me to hear the other narrative and feel empathy for it.” By holding these multiple narratives, he says, “it allows for new narratives, new ideas to emerge.”
Whatever one thinks of the role of dialogue in promoting a rights-based discourse; or the idea that presenting multiple narratives suggests an occlusion of power; to sow the seeds of fundamental political change, new ideas will have to be heard before they can be acted upon by those who wield power. In this sense, “Disturbing the Peace” gets it right.
“Disturbing the Peace” opens in New York and Boston on November 11, and in Los Angeles on November 18.