Filmmaker and peace activists discuss ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ and global relations

A  screening of “Little Town of Bethlehem,” a documentary about peace activists in Israel and Palestine, and panel discussion with the filmmaker and one of the featured activists took place in the Salomon Center last night though the Watson Institute for International Studies and the University of Rhode Island.

“Little Town of Bethlehem” sounds like the name of a Christmas special to Western ears, but in reality the town is the hub of Palestinian culture, conflict and, even more so now, reconciliation.

The American imagination also would pit Palestinian Christian Sami Awad, Palestinian Muslim Ahmad Al’Azzeh and Israeli Jew Yonatan Shapira against one another. They are members of famously warring communities. Yet they star in this documentary as peace activists. What drew them all to the film is that they believe in the lessons we all learned in preschool and later discounted as idealistic. They care about the wellbeing, security and sanity of people — all types of people. And they recognize that more violence is not the answer to violence, though they have seen it treated as such. 

Uninterested in political agendas or land partitioning, and actively avoiding divisive ideologies, the film operates under one fundamental axiom: that human difference is trivial.

Writer and Director Jim Hanon combines shots of everyday life, religious worship, news footage and landscapes in Israel and Palestine for montage, at times stunning and poignant and at times disturbing, of what life might be like for the characters. Clips of historical figures from whom Awad, Shapira and Al’Azzeh draw their inspiration, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., place their struggle in a worldwide, generation-spanning context. The filmmaker’s interviews with the subjects are interwoven, juxtaposed and paralleled. He presents their individual stories as snippets of humanity’s collective struggle toward harmony and mutual empathy.

As a child, Awad witnessed Israeli occupiers murder his grandfather, who left the house during firing to raise a white flag. Shapira’s parents lost family members to the Holacuast before they moved to what is now Israel. Ahmad Al’Azzeh grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp.

All fought back against the injustices they faced, not by mimicking their oppressors, but by forcing them to confront the humanity of their enemies and themselves.

“When Jesus talked about loving your enemy, no longer are there two of you. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are all one,” Awad says.

Awad founded Holy Land Trust, a Bethlehem-based organization that provides guidance for Palestinians practicing peaceful resistance of the occupation, cross-cultural communication opportunities, leadership training and alternative news media. After losing his job as a pilot in the Israeli military for refusing to bomb Palestine, Shapira founded Combatants for Peace, a movement for former Israeli and Palestinian military members to share their perspectives, participate in demonstrations and spread awareness about the conflict. Al’Azzeh, also a Holy Land Trust leader, was arrested during a nonviolent protest in March and remains under custody of the Israeli government.

Hanon has a gift of bringing these issues from the other side of the world close to home, both in the act of touring University campuses with his film and in changing the way people envision the Israel-Palestine conflict and conflict in general.

“Little Town of Bethlehem” does not press the audience to understand the logistics of the fighting, engage with the nuances of each side’s argument, or memorize facts and political jargon about the area’s history. It simply challenges viewers to believe, at least for the duration of the movie, that no situation is worth the trauma that these characters have endured and witnessed. As Al’Azzeh explains, there are ways of reacting to national, religious and political tensions so that “when you go to sleep at night, you will feel sanity.”

A discussion followed with Hanon, Awad and two other panelist — one from Combatants for Peace and the other from the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies.

Hanon told the audience that he set out to answer the question, “What can I do to strengthen humanity?” He decided to use his film to demonstrate similarities between people on opposing sides of the conflict, he said, because “to reach a person’s heart, you have to grant them one.”

One viewer asked Awad how it is possible not to respond with violence when he has been denied access to most of his country. Awad responded that though his family was wronged, who wronged who is irrelevant.

Nonviolent protest is not compliance, but an active solution that works better than fighting, he said, adding that Palestinian violence will only justify Israel’s attacks. “Nonviolence is the choice of the brave,” he said.

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