PBS Film Review: 1913: Seeds of Conflict

The discovery of a film made in1913 entitled “Life of the Jews in Palestine” served as the stimulus for this PBS Special. Using cuts from the film, which show the earliest pictures of Jewish settlers, old photographs, and actors speaking the words of people living in Palestine in that era, Ben Loeterman, writer and director, and Rachel Clark, editor, composed their version of the origins of the conflict between the settlers and the local Arab population.

For insights Loeterman relied heavily on Amy Dockser Marcus, Wall Street Journal reporter and author of Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (2008) as well as other academics representing both Jewish and Arab viewpoints.

The film’s thesis is that before the influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Europe, which began late in the 19th century and increased in volume between 1904 and 1914, the various groups living in Palestine, including Arabs, Christians, and Jews, got along fine. They quote a Russian (Ashkenazi) Jew describing his brethren “as a people without a land” who viewed Palestine “as a land without a people.” This attitude the makers of Seeds of Conflict suggest inevitably led to conflict with the existing population including the Sephardic Jews who had lived in Palestine for centuries. The film identifies an incident in 1913 in which two men––one Jew and one Arab––lost their lives as the precipitating event from which future conflict arose.

While informative and professionally edited, the thesis of Seeds of Conflict rests on a wobbly foundation. The record shows the mainly Sephardic Jews living in the Palestine district of the Ottoman Empire (which extended from Damascus in the North to the Sinai Peninsula in the South and East into the Badia desert region) were barely tolerated. And while the attitudes of the settlers contributed to confrontations, the Arabs didn’t need much provocation. As a result, violent conflicts occurred prior to 1913 (See Anita Shapira, Land and Power, Oxford University Press, 1992, a volume which certainly was available to the makers of Seeds of Conflict) and if one has to choose a turning point, 1908 might have been a better choice as that was the year of the Young Turks Revolution which stimulated Arab nationalism in its wake.

The original film is described as Zionist propaganda by the makers of Seeds of Conflict, which is apt if you want to call any film made to persuade ‘propaganda.’ Seeds of Conflict is not propaganda, but it has a viewpoint. It blames the Zionists for upsetting the status quo. That much is accurate, but unexplained is the root of Arab hostility to Judaism.

The earliest wave of Jewish settlers hired Arabs to work on their farms and even used Arabs as guards to prevent other Arabs from stealing their crops. Later settlers included Arab fellahin in their socialist world-view seeing them as potential beneficiaries of the soon-to-arrive revolution. That Arabs weren’t happy that the settlers intended to recreate their homeland in what they saw as theirs is understandable. That violence was their chosen method of voicing that objection is not understandable or to be discounted. It remains a factor in today’s conflict.

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