Issue 26 Magic Summer 2007
The Barber Trial: Sivan vs. Finkielkraut
Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman
In February 2004, French-Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan filed a libel suit in the Paris courts against philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. The previous year, Sivan, working with Palestinian filmmaker Michel Khleifi, had released Route 181: Extracts from a Palestinian-Israeli Journey—a four-and-a-half-hour travel documentary tracing what remains, in the memories of the landscape and its inhabitants, of the violent expulsion in 1947–1948 of some three-quarters of a million Palestinians from the territory that would become the state of Israel. The film had been aired on the European cultural television channel Arte in November 2003, and a few days later, on November 30, Finkielkraut was interviewed on the French Jewish radio station RJC. In the radio broadcast, Finkielkraut launched an aggressive critique of the film, arguing that its entire meaning rested on a false analogy between Israel’s 1948 war of independence and the Nazi Holocaust, that the film was a “call to murder,” that Arte was guilty of “incitement to hatred,” and that Sivan himself was representative of a “particularly painful, particularly frightening reality—Jewish anti-Semitism.”
We asked Sivan about Shoah, the barbers, partition, and history. For him and Michel Khleifi, he explained, it was not a matter of “comparing” the Shoah and the Naqba, as if they were discrete entities that required outside intervention to be brought together. Rather, he told us, they should be seen as historically continuous and contiguous, part of a single historical process extending across the decade between 1938 and 1948. Like Lanzmann, his emphasis in investigating the apparently bygone past by means of its living witnesses was to restore it to its rightful place in our present—the Palestinian catastrophe, for him, is still ongoing. “It is shocking for a Frenchman, but frequently evoked in Israel,” said Sivan. “For an Israeli Zionist poet like Avot Yeshurun, it was possible to say that ‘these two holocausts together, are the Holocaust of the Jewish people.’ The Naqba of the Arabs of Palestine and the Shoah of European Jews are two sides of a single Holocaust—ours…”
The strength of Route 181 is in providing an oral history of the forgotten Naqba, in presenting scores of conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, and in unearthing stories repressed for decades. The film powerfully demonstrates Israelis’ willing ignorance of and ongoing complicity in the suffering of Palestinians and the denial of their national rights—and, paradoxically, their often remarkable recall of the events of 1948, their former Palestinian neighbors, and the intense proximity of their lost life together.
In its filmic language and its relation to witnessing and testimony, Route 181 is a worthy successor to Shoah, charting a significant shift in the relation between memory, responsibility, and history. That, for Sivan, is what is at stake in the barbershops. “Abraham Bomba was staged! He was no longer a barber when he was interviewed, and three times during the interview he begs Lanzmann to stop. But Lanzmann believes that it is the victims who should bear the ‘duty of memory.’ I believe that this duty should be the perpetrators’.”
Of course, Lanzmann interviewed perpetrators and not-entirely-innocent bystanders as well, and famously argued that the intent of Shoah was not to ask why (an “obscene” question, he wrote) but rather to lay out how the mass murder happened. Sivan—who had earlier, with Rony Braumann, re-edited the footage of the 1961 Eichmann trial into a powerful portrait of the banal professional “specialist”—radicalizes this pursuit, with an unexpected outcome. He told us that his project was “to treat the actors in a crime as bearers of the capacity both to witness and [to] reflect on it, and as the ones who have a ‘duty of memory.’ In the Israeli case, I am interested both in their memory of the land (before 1948) and their actions. What is surprising is to notice to what extent the analogy with the Nazi genocide existed already during the 1948 event—it was only three years after the end of the Second World War. It throws a completely new light on the myth ... that memory can be a vaccine against future crimes.”
Sivan also drew our attention to the power of the camera, or rather, to the power of speaking before a camera. We asked whether his interviews aimed to produce a reflection or even a transformation in his witnesses, or simply to document their recollections, justifications, evasions. Did he want them to accept their responsibilities? He reminded us: “In the case of the Israelis, I am as responsible as they are. … I was very interested in trying to follow the structure of the discourse as a starting point for opposing it. So I was not interested just in statements but in a process of thinking. This is what the documentary camera can and even should try to do. ... The articulation of an argument in front of the camera allows the witness to think and reflect on the event, sometimes for the first time since it took place! Let’s not forget that while undertaking a collective crime, people think that they are thinking, while in fact they are merely repeating the discourse of power.”
“I am as responsible as they are.” It is the very possibility of acknowledging the continuity between the Shoah and the Naqba that would, for Sivan, establish the condition for sharing a single democratic state between Jews and Palestinians. “The problem is that we Israelis must take responsibility for the deeds of our parents, deeds for which they refused to take responsibility. In the eyes of Lanzmann or Finkielkraut, if they acknowledge the crime of 1948, then Israel does not have the right to exist.” Sivan speaks instead as one who accepts that right, but differently—as a citizen. “The existence of the Israelis is careless for them, they need Israel as a concept, a shelter, an insurance company. They do not have the relation of citizens to this state, but a relation of ‘share holders’ or ‘members of a religion.’ ... For them, to acknowledge the crime is to de-sacralyze the State which replaced their Jewish identity.” For the citizen, he said, the experience of the partition and its remainders, the proximity of proximity and separation, can only issue in a sense of the inevitability of sharing: “We share the history of the land, we share a memory of the Naqba/Independence, we share a destiny. This is a basis for thinking equality.”
The authors would like to thank Haim Bresheeth and Adi Ophir for sharing their reflections on the trial.
For the English translation and French transcript of the original trial, see here.
This article and accompanying transcript of the trial are published as part of Cabinet‘s contribution to Documenta 12 magazines, a collective worldwide editorial project linking over seventy print and online periodicals, as well as other media. See Documenta 12 for more information.
Thomas Keenan teaches human rights, media, and literature at Bard College. He has written Fables of Responsibility (Stanford University Press, 1997), edited New Media, Old Media (with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Routledge), and should be finishing a book on war, crisis, and media.
Eyal Weizman, editor-at-large of Cabinet, is an architect and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His new book, Hollow Land, has recently been published by Verso.
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© 2007 Cabinet Magazine