When Carole Zabar created last year’s Other Israel film festival, she says her brother-in-law worried that customers of Zabar’s, the renowned family food business on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, might complain about the festival’s focus on Israeli Arabs. Hardly. The festival, under the auspices of the JCC of Manhattan, was so successful that a second run opens this fall. Zabar, a longtime supporter of Israeli culture, particularly documentary film, spent her college years, in the early 1960s, at Hebrew University. She speaks fluent Hebrew, and says this unique festival grew out of her observation that though Israel’s Arab citizens (Christian, Muslim, Bedouin and Druze) are about onefifth of the country’s population, American Jews “have no awareness of what’s going on in these communities.”
When veteran Palestinian Israeli filmmaker Mohammad Bakri, one of Zabar’s Facebook friends and really a close personal friend, challenged her about a film he thought portrayed an Arab “Uncle Tom”—and which she screened anyway—“I told him, ‘You want Arabs to look good. I want to show things as they are. If there are Uncle Toms, show it.’ We Jews are used to airing our dirty linen in public. Arabs can’t believe this! Arabs don’t want to make films about their lives—because invariably with any documentary you have to show the warts.
“Film is a great medium,” Zabar (above) declared in a recent breakfast conversation (not at Zabar’s). “In the arts you have the best chance of getting together. This part of the population will never be Jewish, and it has something to give. Arab culture, language, art, film, painting. Now Israel embraces the Sephardi. Now every family in Israel has hummus in the fridge. But it wasn’t like this in the 60s.
“Growing up an Arab in Israel is no fun,” she noted. And the lives of women in these villages can be especially difficult. “A very tender subject.” Zabar calls it. “There’s no public transportation, schools are not as good, and aren’t plugged into the wider Israeli society.” The villages have become “more traditional, more rigid. The more traditional in villages seem to live in a different country.” Films in this year’s Other Israel lineup probe this “tender subject.” Among them, “Desert Brides” and “Lady Kul El Arab.”
Zabar, trained as a lawyer, talks frankly (as she does about nearly everything) about a her law school course in feminist legal theory: “That’s where I learned the power of women’s stories.”