THE BLOG

Junction 48: Sexual Is Political

As befits an old Communist, my choice of the best film of the last 12 months depends on ideologico-political criteria, so it is without a shadow of a doubt Udi Aloni's Junction 48. The film (which deservedly triumphed at the last Berlin festival) deals with the difficult predicament of the young "Israeli-Palestinians" (Palestinians descending from the families that remained within Israel after the 1948 war) whose everyday life involves a continuous struggle on two fronts: against both Israeli state oppression and the fundamentalist pressures from within their own community. The main role is played by the well-known Israeli-Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar who, in his songs, mocks the tradition of "honor killings" of the girls in Palestinian families.

A strange thing happened to Nafar during a recent visit to the U.S. After he performed his song protesting "honor killings" at the Columbia University campus in New York, some anti-Zionist students attacked him for dealing with this topic -- their reproach being that in this way, he promotes the Zionist view of Palestinians as barbaric primitives (adding that, if there are any honor killings, Israel is responsible for them because the Israeli occupation keeps Palestinians in primitive conditions and prevents their modernization). Here is Nafar's dignified re-ply: "When you criticize me you criticize my own community in English to impress your radical professors. I sing in Arabic to protect the women in my own 'hood.'"

What Nafar does in real life, as an artist, coincides with the actions of his protagonist in the film: neither of them is protecting Palestinian girls from family terror in a patronizing way. Rather, he is allowing them to fight for themselves, and to take the risk of doing so. (At the end of Aloni's film, after the girl decides to perform at a concert against her family's wishes, her two cousins wait for her in a car in front of her house to carry out her honor killing. Although the film doesn't show what will happen, the impression is that the girl will be killed.)

Nafar is also engaged in an extremely important struggle that is going on in Palestinian social media, and is sadly ignored in the West. Two figures are at its center: Nafar and Mohammed Assaf, a pop singer from Gaza wildly popular not only among Palestinians but in all the Arab world and even in parts of Europe. Assaf is supported by Hamas in Gaza and by the Palestinian Authority, which proclaimed him the cultural ambassador of Palestine; he sings with a beautiful voice, tender love, and patriotic songs orchestrated in orchestral pop style. Politically, he is a unifying figure, above political divisions except for his support of Palestinian freedom. In March 2016, Assaf declared in an interview that as part of keeping "tradition," he would not allow his sister to sing in public. Nafar responded to Assaf in this touching open letter:

"If any other pop artist said: 'According to our tradition women are not allowed to sing, and on a personal level i cherish these traditions so I cannot allow my sister to sing.' I would protest and hurt him, but since it's Assaf, our Cinderella from Gaza, saying these words, I still will have rage, but mainly I am hurt.

Like the Palestinians who were united for the first time in the streets of Gaza, the West Bank, the Diaspora, the Refugee Camps and inside of '48 to support Muhammad Assaf, we ask Assaf to join us on the same streets to encourage that girl from Yemen, Gaza, Morocco, Jordan and al Lyd -- that girl who is dreaming to sing, dance, write and perform in Arab Idol! We as Palestinians must fight the Israeli Apartheid and the Gender Apartheid. My dream is to march hand in hand, a woman holding a man's hand against any separation wall. It is not reasonable to walk separately and ask for unity at the same time!

You want to talk about traditions? From personal experience, I used to be an angry kid in the ghettos of Lyd. I wouldn't calm down unless my mom sang to me a Fairuz song. That is the tradition i want to cherish! So, my dear Arab sisters (Hawwa), sing as loud as you can, break the borders so we can calm down. Freedom for all or freedom for none!"

What is crucial is that Nafar is not crying for help from Western liberals. In Spike Lee's film Malcolm X, there is a wonderful detail: After Malcolm X gives a talk at a college, a white student girl approaches him and asks him what can she do to help the black struggle. His answer is: "Nothing." The point of this answer is not that whites should just do nothing. Rather, they should first accept that black liberation should be the work of black people themselves, not something bestowed on them as a gift by the good white liberals, and only if they fully accept this fact can they do something to help the blacks. And herein resides Nafar's point as well: Palestinians do not need the patronizing help of Western liberals; even less do they need the silence about "honor killing" as part of the Western leftist's "respect" for Palestinian ways of life. These two aspects -- the imposition of Western values as universal human rights, and the respect for different cultures independently of the horrors that can be part of these cultures -- are the two sides of the same ideological mystification.

A lot has been written about how the universality of universal human rights is twisted, how they secretly give preference to Western cultural values and norms (the priority of individual over his/her community, and so on). But we should also add to this insight that the multiculturalist anti-colonialist defense of the multiplicity of "ways of life" is also false: it covers up the antagonisms within each of these particular ways of life, justifying acts of brutality, sexism and racism as expression of a particular cultures that we have no right to judge by foreign "Western values."

So go and see Junction 48 -- it does not only follow a correct political line, it is also beautifully shot and acted, as well as full of wonderful rap music. In the best Brechtian tradition, it combines learning with pleasure.