<i>Ajami</i> and the Oscars: Who Really Represents Israel?

Even if a film is critical of Israel, it is also an expression of the open character of our democracy. This is why I was astonished by the outrageous statement by Scandar Copti, an Arab Israeli director, that he does not represent Israel.
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When I returned to Israel several months ago, after serving for four years as Israel's Consul for Media and Public Affairs in New York, I wrote an article for the Huffington Post, referring to the Israeli Arab minority, indirectly criticizing my country for failing to treat the Arab minority as a bridge to our Arab neighbors. In this article I also referred to the fact that the Arab minority is not fully integrated within Israeli Society.

During the past months, since returning to Israel, I have been intensively exposed to the tremendous creativity of Israel's cultural scene. Such creativity arises, among others things, from the conflict in which Israeli society is embedded and from the paradoxical scenarios emerging from its particular character. The Israeli-Arab conflict and the tensions surrounding it, like the tragic outcomes on both sides, have been and will continue to be one of the topics that stimulate cultural creativity in Israel. Cultural creativity is often born out of pain, suffering, and tragedies, and therefore Israel is a fertile breeding ground for artistic creativity.

When the Israeli film Ajami was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, I felt proud that an Israeli film would be competing in this category for a third time in a row. Ajami is not just another piece of Israeli cinema, which has flourished and received international recognition in the past decade, but also the fruit of a collaboration between an Arab and Israeli director, both Israeli citizens. The three Israeli films that have been nominated for Oscars in the past three years all deal with tensions between Israelis and Arabs in our region. The first two films: Beaufort and Waltz with Bashir dealt with the Lebanon War, while the recent one, Ajami, deals with the tensions between Jews and Arabs within Israeli society. Each of these three movies is difficult to view. They each present Israel in a less than favorable light; all three present an unflattering critique of Israeli society, and at the same time, all three films were embraced and supported by the "Israeli establishment" early in their development stage, and long before they were candidates for an Academy Award.

In recent years I have often wondered whether Israeli public diplomacy should use Israeli culture as a means for improving its image, even when it is critical of Israel or presents negative aspects, which are not necessarily representative of the society as a whole. My answer then was the same as it is now: it depends on the quality of the work. If the work is good, then it should certainly be used, and the more the better! Even if a film is critical of Israel, I don't perceive this as a disadvantage, since beyond its cultural value, it is also an expression of the open character of our democracy. This is why I was truly astonished by the outrageous statement by Scandar Copti, the Arab Israeli director who was born and raised in Tel Aviv-Yaffo, that he does not represent Israel.

Dear Mr. Copti, although you claim not to represent Israel, the film you created together with Yaron Shani certainly does. Ajami represents the neighborhood where it was filmed, it represents the challenges faced by a conflicted multi-ethnic society, and it represents the Israeli establishment that funded the film, without interfering in any way in the creative process. Ajami represents Israeli society, both its positive and negative aspects, and the tension between Jews and Arabs who live together. Above all, Ajami represents the artistic freedom which is of key importance to all Israeli cultural creativity.

Alongside the excellent film you created, your statement represents a kind of antagonism that characterizes a small but vocal segment of the Arab-Israeli public. You were not invited to the Kodak Theatre to make an oppositional political statement. Just as Kathryn Bigelow, who created an extraordinary movie on a political topic, didn't state her political views, I do not expect you, Mr. Copti, to express your political views on the evening of the Academy Awards. You made your political statement clear through your cinematic creation, for which you fully deserve every bit of praise. Mr. Scandar Copti, you may not represent Israel, but your film certainly does.

And a final thanks to 'Ajami' that represented Israel, and also gave Israeli society an opportunity to view its image as reflected through a cultural medium.

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