Book Chapter: B. H. YAEL: FAMILY STATES
This 140-page book brings together a collection of writings about the essential work of Canadian media artist b.h. Yael addressing issues of power and belonging, Palestine and remembering, gender roles and activism. The ideas and locations featured in Yael's films and videos reverberate through these responsive texts by fellow artists, filmmakers, writers, teachers, and activists, providing new and startling perspectives. The book also includes an interview conducted by editor Mike Hoolboom and pictures galore.
EVEN IN THE DESERT | video, 2006 | Excerpts from Chapter.
In 2014 I left Israel/Palestine after working as a journalist and documentary filmmaker for several years. Though I grew up there, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I stepped across the wall and witnessed the Occupation. I interviewed the best minds and those on the front line and even though it seemed like nothing was changing, I witnessed so much change. I picked up enough Arabic to understand which minibus could get me to any village, hospital, cemetery and town. There were weeks when all I did was cover funerals. The chaotic checkpoints were turned into permanent border crossings that boasted watchtowers, snipers, barbed wire and the ever-present screech of an impatient soldier screaming incoherent instructions. The young no longer spoke about what party they joined, but what country they’d applied to leave to. The peace talks became negotiations about “the management of the conflict.” 2014 began with so much hope. It seemed that leaders of Palestine’s two major political parties—Hamas and Fatah—would set aside their long feud and join a unity government. Instead, their reconciliation blew up. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered and in revenge a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and murdered. If you follow the conflict you’ll remember this moment, but on the ground it felt different. The government knew the three Israeli teenagers were dead but refused to make the news public. Instead, it recruited their parents into a shameless propaganda tour, rallying the nation in support of the regime. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu’s mouthpieces kept saying that they were just around the corner. We are closing in. We will find them. When their bodies were uncovered a dam burst. Hateful demonstrations flooded Israeli streets demanding blood, and blood was drawn, both by vigilantes and the government. The brutal bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the wave of destruction that swept over the West Bank that summer felt different. I can’t describe for those who live it, but as a Soviet-born, Jewish immigrant to Israel, I was brought up inside a different frame. I had come of age in a matrix of obfuscations, illusions, and what today appear as extravagant lies, but any justification can gain legitimacy if it plugs into your desires.
I grew up in a settlement in the heart of the West Bank, yet I lived like millions of Israelis in a constructed space, a landscape poured into contrived narratives held together with duct tape. That same year, 2005, b.h. Yael’s Palestine Trilogy was filmed and released. I don’t remember where I first saw it, but I distinctly remember the sensation of being thrown into crisis, like a raw piece of meat dumped into a stew. Here were the same familiar roads I had travelled countless times, now clogged arteries in a network of dead ends, fenced walls, and checkpoints. Here were the nameless villages I would pass, sitting in the back of my mother’s car, now named and placed pointedly on a map I, amazingly, had never seen before. Here were people, no longer silent, speaking clearly and directly, leading the way. They were addressing an audience I had never been part of before, and they spoke about atrocities I could not reconcile with the memories I carried of what I had always thought of as my home. My land. Mine. Their words rose up out of the blacked-out spaces I had never thought to enter, asking questions I was wholly incapable of answering. They left pauses where my response and actions might be made. The actions Yael documented became guidelines and a few years later the people she interviewed welcomed me into their lives when I became a journalist. My soundscape was soon stacked with reports, news items, frantic phone calls and interviews. My visualscape was reframed by electric fences, press releases, and pixelated drone footage. When I left Palestine, I couldn’t imagine that I would still be away six years later. The quiet of Canadian snowfalls became too welcome, the news became harder to look at. The choice not to know was accompanied by the guilt of not listening, looking, acting. I wasn’t doing my job. Before COVID-19 shut me into my apartment in Toronto, b.h. Yael’s Palestine Trilogy reappeared in my inbox like a silent gas grenade. Mike Hoolboom was editing a book of essays about her work and asked me to write about the Trilogy. I read the email, then clicked “return” and remarked it “unread.” I did that about a dozen times because the email kept showing up in my inbox, nagging at me. I started dreaming about it. It invaded the unbearably quiet moments of quarantined winter days.
While the Fhadats opened their doors to solidarity, Beit Arabiya, the home Yael filmed and where she interviewed Halper in Even In The Desert, was demolished to make way for a checkpoint. The village of Susya, whose Bedouin cave-dwellers Yael interviewed, was demolished many times since 2005, but recently I filmed a brand new organization, the Centre for Jewish Non-Violence, taking up the solidarity work against the Jewish National Fund. A major enactor of Israeli colonialism, the JNF uses its environmental mandate to disguise its involvement in the demolition and erasure of hundreds of Palestinian villages. In Canada, activists have joined a global campaign against the JNF’s century-long involvement in the displacement of Palestinians. They have garnered endorsements from prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Diana Buttu, and a slate of Canadian politicians who introduced an official petition to Parliament. In 2017 they filed an extensive complaint with the Canada Revenue Agency, demanding JNF’s international branch, through which it does much of its fundraising, lose its charitable status in Canada. In Canada I’ve met dedicated solidarity activists who not only set out to take a principled stand, but have enacted change that has direct, concrete impact in Israel/Palestine. Getting the JNF’s charitable status revoked would impact the organization’s bottom line to the tune of millions of dollars. Those are millions that won’t support the demolition of Bedouin villages in the Negev Desert such as Al Araqib. Millions that won’t go towards building roads and resting areas for the Israeli army’s beautified bases, nor help erase the traces of the Nakba. This is where we’ve seen the most significant progress. Israel’s failure to abide by the Oslo Agreement and return control of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, has meant that the land where a Palestinian state was promised has been stolen by Israel. With this annexation, legalized this year by the Israeli government, the so-called Two-State Solution was formally cancelled. When the hope for Palestinian nationhood was snuffed out, fundamental questions were raised about the colonial nature of Israel’s relationship to Palestine. As the map in Even In The Desert shows, in its transformation from a spiritual movement into a political one in the 19th century, Zionism became a colonial force.