Fear and loathing in Jerusalem

Two documentaries explore the corrosive effects of conflict on Israeli society

<strong>The Battle

To mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, the BBC's Storyville strand screened three films by Israeli directors. On 14 May (9pm, 9.50pm), two were presented as a double bill: The Battle for Jerusalem by Liran Atzmor and My Israel by Yulie Cohen. To call this a tiring night's viewing is the understatement of the year. Afterwards, I felt as though I'd gone ten rounds with Madonna's personal trainer, though why I should find this surprising, I can't say.

Whatever your feelings about Israel, thinking about it, like visiting it, is nothing if not exhausting. I should know: I went to school there. The last time I went back, in 2005, I was involved in a row with the manager of my hotel within about 30 seconds of having walked in through the door. Ostensibly, this argument was about the noise in the room next door to my own. But in Israel, you can never quite tell. The backstory is always political. Loathing and suspicion are part of everyday discourse. People's tempers flare briefly but far too often, just like their cigarette lighters.

The Battle for Jerusalem was about a missing photograph album. In 1948, the Israelis lost Jerusalem's Old City to the Jordanians, a surrender that was photographed by John Phillips, who worked for Life and who was an admirer of the Zionist cause. His photographs told the world of Jewish refugees fleeing as their homes were looted by Palestinians; in one image, an Arab could be seen carrying the Torah scrolls from a synagogue.

What Phillips did not do was record what was happening elsewhere. In the hills outside Jerusalem, for example, Palestinians were leaving their villages, never to return.

Atzmor had tracked down the family of a man who did get this stuff on film, a Palestinian called Ali Zaarour. His son Zaki had carefully looked after an album of his work, moving it around the house for safekeeping like a "cat with her kittens" until, during the 1967 war, the Zaarours fled to Amman. When they finally returned to Jerusalem, just one thing had been taken from their home: this precious album.

I disbelieved Zaki's story at first. In the muddle of war, surely even the Israeli army wouldn't search a family's drawers in the hunt for potentially damning photographs? But no, he was telling the truth. Atzmor and his researchers found the album in the Israeli Military Archive, and it was finally returned to Zaki, though you sensed that it would give him no peace. However important a record of historical loss may be, it doesn't change the loss.

As he took a cab to the military archive, a Kafkaesque journey built around wearying checkpoints, Zaki described his life in Arab East Jerusalem: it's a prison, he said, only sometimes the door is ajar. Which leads me, neatly, to Yulie Cohen's film.

In 1978, Cohen was working as an El-Al stewardess. During a stopover in London, she and her fellow crew members were shot at by a Palestinian terrorist, Fahad Mihyi. Cohen was injured; a colleague died. Now, 30 years on, she had decided to help this man, still in a British prison, to get parole. She wrote to him, and felt he had changed, though for me it was telling that, while he eagerly replied to her letters, he refused to discuss the attack itself, or why he had carried it out.

Unfortunately, Cohen's film was fatally flawed. We never saw Mihyi, and his letters were enigmatic. He didn't get parole. So, she wandered down other blind alleys. There were her parents, secular fifth-generation Israelis who had fought in the war for independence, and whose silent perpetration of its founding myths she questioned. There was her "lost" brother, who had ceased contact with his family on becoming an Orthodox Jew.

I wanted to know more about the brother, but this story, too, petered out. Cohen told us that she had wanted to make a film about his conversion but he had refused to co-operate. Still, I cannot knock Cohen's motivation. Behind her film, like Atzmor's, you sensed the conviction that, whatever the occupation is doing to the Palestinians, it is also destroying Israel. In the end, this is probably the only argument that will ever change anything.

Pick of the week

The Duchess in Hull
19 May, 9pm, ITV1
Sarah Ferguson gives dieting tips to the Sargerson family.

Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go22 May, 10pm, BBC4
Kim Longinotto's moving film about a school for troubled children.

The Passions of Vaughan Williams
23 May, 8pm, BBC4
Gossipy documentary about the composer's hot-to-trot love life.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel