Jack Baxter (center) accepts the 'Prix de l’Espoir’ (Prize of Hope) award at the closing ceremony of the 6th International Human Rights Film Festival of Tunis last month. (All photos courtesy Jack Baxter except where noted)

‘The Last Sermon’ Wins Prix de l’Espoir (Prize of Hope) at Tunisian Human Rights Film Festival (VIDEO INTERVIEW)

Iyad Al-Dajani: ‘Reconciliation is missing element in search for Mideast peace’

In 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, filmmaker Jack Baxter was interviewing patrons of Mike’s Place, an American-style pub on the Tel Aviv beach, about life under the threat of terror. Suddenly, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive pack, killing three and wounding many others, including Baxter. Thinking quickly, Josh Faudem picked up the camera and continued to record the scene, including the carnage and the now-comatose Baxter. A year later, the footage became the award-winning film Blues by the Beach. Not content to let it rest, Baxter and Fodum, now        partners, chronicled their quest to find the families of the bombers and seek out moderates amid growing radicalization. The Media Line played a role at its own Townhall event about the sequel, and regional hatred became part of the film The Last Sermon. Dr. Iyad Al-Dajani, one of the panelists brought in by The Media Line, became part of The Last Sermon team and joins me in The Media Line studio.

The Media Line: Welcome!

Al-Dajani: It’s nice to be here; thanks for having me.

TML: Dr. Al-Dajani is a Palestinian peace activist and reconciliation scholar and author of a new book, Internet Communication Technology for Reconciliation. Iyad, we’re proud to be part of The Last Sermon team. The film just won the Prize of Hope at the 6th Annual Human Rights International Film Festival in Tunis. You were there. It must have been exciting. What happened?

Al-Dajani: It was really very exciting. The Tunisian people were very kind to us and they really promoted what we had come for, and then we spoke in a public venue. I thought the venue would be open [only] for scholars and practitioners, stakeholders.  No. It was open for the public, for all the people of Tunis, so I was a bit skeptical, to be honest.

TML: Play out the developments of that day. It was hard to get to that film festival. It happened when Jack Baxter had been seen at another film festival in Cannes, and then it led from there to Tunisia.

Al-Dajani: Yeah, he met a film producer who is the manager of this international human rights film festival. His name is Elyes Baccar. He saw the movie and he also sat with me to talk about the movie and how it touched him, even though he is a Tunisian Muslim who is pro-Palestinian. You know, the Tunisian people are very well known, more than most Arabs in most countries in the world. As you know, it was the place that Yasser Arafat had lived many years before. So for me it was amazing about the movie and how Jack Baxter made the truth understandable and reconciled with himself, and with others, and then to promote it as well.

‘Prix de l’Espoir’

TML: Iyad, what was the response to the film?

Al-Dajani: The film, after the end of the movie, I was sitting with Jack Baxter on the left side, and we looked at each other and people started clapping. Like a huge clap.  And we were like, whoa! He was a little bit astonished and I was as well. I was more afraid because maybe people will get the wrong message. And what was in my head was that it was a public venue. It was not people like you who were coming. And I was okay, and then they took us out to make us ready for the panel. And I said that this would be a really good one, but to me, for reconciliation – I am a reconciliation believer – whether it is with Israel and Palestine or whether it is in any place in the world. I think it is very needed. So like people say, peace, peace, peace. But I think reconciliation is the road.

TML: Was the reaction mixed?

Al-Dajani: Yes. The reactions were very, very, very mixed. It was not everyone. The left side liked it and right side was skeptical. The response was people liked it and they were waiting for questions and answers. So, we had the panelists Elyes Baccar, Jack Baxter and me. Elyes asked Jack Baxter about how he feels being in this movie, and he asked me about how do I see the movie from my point of view as a Palestinian who is living in east Jerusalem and comes from a Palestinian family, and how the Palestinians promote this movie. I told him that it had a big impact on me and my own feelings and experience being a part of this movie, if even to be a part of a 30-second trailer that we promoted and had over 1.5 million views as well. [See below for link to trailer.]

Left to right: Tunisian filmmaker and festival founder Elyes Baccar, filmmaker Jack Baxter, festival director Rym Ben Mansour and Palestinian peace activist and reconciliation scholar Dr. Iyad Al-Dajani.

TML: So, let’s back up. We had brought you in on a panel, and it was one of the opening shots and scenes. It had a very mixed panel. It had Israelis and Palestinians. It had a mixture of many different denominations sitting on that panel to talk about some of these issues. And here, did you ever dream that you would be at this point today in Tunis, where there was an award given to this documentary?

Al-Dajani: No. To be honest with you, no, I never dreamed it will be. When I came to the first panel for you, I came for one reason. I saw Israelis and Palestinians fighting forever and I said that I will be the only person who will call for reconciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I feel that a lot of people told you that they will back you up, and the Israelis will [ultimately] not back you up and the Palestinians will [ultimately] not back you up. Maybe they’ll get beaten up, but nobody knows your panel. I don’t know who is there, but I said that it is only my part to say about reconciliation as [something] to just put out there. And I think that it was meant that it would never become bigger and bigger and huge and have impact. To be honest with you, it has impact.

TML: As a reconciliation expert, you see a film about wanton killing in Blues by the Beach, followed by The Last Sermon, which does not throw happy platitudes about.  It’s interesting that the film won the Prize of Hope. What do you think?

Al-Dajani: I think a movie is important for three types of reconciliation. Jack Baxter – the first type of reconciliation that he does is with himself. This is the most important thing for any person who is in conflict. So he’s in trauma. This is how I see it. And he has conflict, being bombed in a place where, there it is, the location. The conflict that the bomber came to him and bombed him, and he wanted to find peace in himself. So in any conflict, when we want to find peace in ourselves, I think of this as reconciliation with oneself, and I call it “Israelis and Palestinians want to do peace, but don’t do peace.” Do reconciliation within yourself first and accept to reconcile with the other, with your enemies, with Israelis or Palestinians or Jordanians or refugees.

Left to right: Jack Baxter, interpreter Wasilla Baccar, Dr. Iyad Al-Dajani and Elyes Baccar.

TML: Take the next step. Here it wins a prize in Tunis. It is centered around something that happens in Israel. It’s centered around very touchy issues. It can go further. It goes to other film festivals. Do you think it finally… because it happened in the Middle East and it was acknowledged in the Middle East by an Arab nation, that it will actually have more legs, that it will make a difference?

Al-Dajani: I tell you, Tunis is a special place. The Arab Spring started in Tunis. So this is how it will go, because Tunis is the first Arab country that really does democracy. Not really do it – but they fought for it. And how they did it is they… all the political parties left the arena. And they let the people choose. And I tell this to all the Arabs. I even want to tell it [to] the Palestinians as well. These political parties are fighting each other for who will rule. We leave it for the people, as Tunis did. I think Tunis will be a very good example for all Arab nations to start doing what they are doing.

TML: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict features two notable attempts at reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians and between Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas. Both seem to be reconciliation-proof. How would you approach it?

Al-Dajani: Yeah, I tell you, this is a very good question, because I was thinking of it while I was in Tunis. And I talked to a lot of Tunisian politicians and parties, and they told me one thing. They said, “We don’t want to rule. The parties don’t want to rule. The people want to rule. So, we gave it to the people.” What really happened in Tunis [is that] they went out into a circle of ruling. This is what he told me. We went out and the people came in. I would tell Fatah or Hamas or all of the 40 political parties in Palestine to leave the arena of politics, of ruling the Palestinian people, and let them rule [themselves]. Let them do the elections. Let them choose who they want. And not just elections between Fatah and Hamas, or Fatah and all those political parties. You know, their election should be for the Palestinian people. As long as they have this mentality, that there are elections between parties, they are not going to have elections. Elections should be with the Palestinian people.

Jack Baxter (left) and Dr. Iyad Al-Dajani pose in Tunis.

TML: As an expert in reconciliation, tell us how the longevity of the conflict affects the conflict. Do the players tire of fighting? Or do their positions solidify and become unmovable?

Al-Dajani: The second one is really true. The problem is the stakeholders. They are very strong where they are right now, whether it’s in Israel or Palestine, and they don’t want to move. The status quo is very good for them, for both parties, so the best thing is to keep asking [them] to tell what they want in the future.

TML: Who benefits?

Al-Dajani: Only the stakeholders, and not the people. The people are not benefiting. I was thinking when Israel wants peace or reconciliation, it will not come out of checkpoints. The checkpoints can stay; security can stay. But for example, if you want to be like the Tunisian experience, the army has to leave and bring civilians instead. When you go to the borders in any country, you don’t see an army guy with an M16 waiting for you to check you. No, you see a civilian guy who will check you.  This will likely change the atmosphere. This is like a reconciliatory way, that you can tell the people [that] we want to do reconciliation, but we want our security.  This is from the Israeli perspective. From the Palestinian perspective, when I go to a checkpoint and I see an Israeli with a gun, or he is here and he took my land and he’s here by force, and I want him to be here by force, because if he’s not here by force, I will attack him. What the best thing to do is to show the way humanity is. This is one aspect about the movie.

TML: The Americans did leave the door open for a counterproposal [to the Trump Administration’s peace plan] to hear what the Palestinians are going to come back with and request. I think time will tell. Don’t you?

Al-Dajani: Yeah, I think so. I think the Palestinians want to go more into negotiations. Israelis and Palestinians should have to understand to reconcile with each other so [that] I don’t see a soldier at the checkpoint. I see a civilian person. I see a civil checkpoint, like [in] any country in the world, between two peoples. This, I will not have a problem with that. Let’s even think of the animosity of it. This is rapprochement for reconciliation. The problem is [that] Israelis and Palestinians did not work for peace or reconciliation. The Palestinians did BDS, and Israel voted [for] settlements. Israel did not give more rights. Palestinians did not accept Israel. They still are thinking how they are going to fight and get the whole country back. Their students’ curriculum still [features] a lot of hatred for the other, for their enemies. The Israelis are doing the same. I never understood any of this. Salam is shujan is “peace for the brave.” Today, after 20 years, I understood [Arafat’s] speech. He said Salam is shujan, only people who have courage can bring peace, because peace is not easy. Everyone thinks peace we can do. No, peace is a word.

Dr. Iyad Al-Dajani appears with film festival director Rym Ben Mansour on a Tunisian TV talk show. (Courtesy)

Iyad:  Yeah, I think so. I think they did what they can, but I don’t think negotiations is the path. I think reconciliation…. If they did reconciliation with negotiations – that I’m working to reconcile with you. I’m not working to reconcile and take what is best for you. No, I’m working toward our nations reconciling with each other. I want the settlements that are there for Israelis and Palestinians to live in the settlements, for example. I want them to go eat together. They have to live with each other. This is reconciliation.

TML: Do you think the Israelis and Palestinians can go back to this? There are those, the elder generation, who talk about eating in each other’s shops and buying from each other. It’s a whole different story from what you really see today.

Al-Dajani: Yeah. It can happen. I can tell you why. I also go back to the Tunisian experience. If the politicians leave it for the people, the people will choose reconciliation and the road for peace, and to reconcile with each other. Today you see a lot of people-to-people – Israelis and Palestinians – gathering together [over] food and everything – and [then] the politicians will come and destroy all of that.

TML: Iyad, there is a new poll that just came out that shows that there is an increase in Palestinian violence, or a path to it. What’s being done about that?

Al-Dajani: …Yeah, there is going to be violence, but it is how we encounter violence, so I think that if the Israelis start working with the Palestinians as their neighbors, and not as enemies, the children of Palestine should not be dealing with soldiers. Like they have trauma now, and the hatred comes from there.

TML: Uprisings in the Arab world have been fed by the internet and social media. How can these tools be used for positive purposes?

Al-Dajani: I’ll tell you something. This is a very good one because… I did it in the last survey. What was in the comments that were there in the 1.5 million views? 700,000 comments. But they were with me or against me. Those who were against me, they were radicals who were attacking me, [saying] I’m not a Muslim. I’m an infidel. I just follow the West. It was really hardcore and I was afraid for my own life. Like, if they know where I live, that’s why I don’t tell anybody where I am anymore. And I use different names as well. But then I read the comments and [noticed] there’s a lot of people against radicalism. They are Muslims who are saying that it is not in the name of Islam. And they are in the same comments. And then the people who were really against me left the forum, and those who were with me stayed, and I was surprised at the comments. They were interacting.

TML: Tell us about your new book. It’s about reconciliation and using the internet.

Al-Dajani: Yes. Yes. Okay, my book is about that exactly. It’s a philosophical book, and it’s more into [things] as an academic book. I wrote a book for teaching the teachers. This is what my professor told me. This is a teaching book. The first five chapters…. Reconciliation is the first chapter. It talks about the practices, measurements and tasks for reconciliation, where it happened and how ICT was used for reconciliation in different countries like in Sri Lanka and like in China and like in other places where reconciliation is using ICT.

TML: On that note, Dr. Iyad Al-Dajani, it’s been a pleasure having you here. Keep an eye on The Last Sermon and where it’s going to go. And your book is going to be available when?

Al-Dajani: In May, actually, and it’s now available online. It’s published by Olive Springer, and I can give you an online e-book.

TML: And they can go to themedialine.org as well, and they can see things that are happening with The Last Sermon.

Al-Dajani: Yes, exactly.

TML: Thank you very much!

Al-Dajani: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And it was a pleasure to be here and I thank you very much for letting me… for being my voice to the people as well. This is an honor for me.

Next stop for The Last Sermon is the Queens World Film Festival, at the Museum of The Moving Image, on Saturday, March 21. Jack Baxter and his wife, Fran Strauss-Baxter, will receive the Truth Seeker Award at a news conference on March 16.

To view the trailer for the film, click below.

 

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