1913: Seeds of Conflict opens quite dramatically, with the discovery of a previously lost film, footage from 1913 of newly created Jewish communities in Palestine. Freezing on one of the scenes of happy crowds, a voice asks off-screen “who’s that at the top of the frame?” and the camera zooms in to some figures in the edge of the shot. “I don’t know,” answers the archivist screening the film.

1913 is about these “unknown” people, presumably the natives of Palestine, and their interactions with the more extensively documented immigrant Jewish communities that came to the region.  You can watch the trailer for the film below.

Premiering tomorrow, Tuesday, June 30 at 9:00 pm on local PBS stations, the documentary 1913: Seeds of Conflict aims to educate viewers on “how the seeds of today’s Middle East conflict were sown in Palestine during the Ottoman Empire.”  Drawing on a team of experts and newly discovered sources from the Ottoman archives, the film is a critical examination of the history of Jewish immigration or “aliyah” to Palestine during the last several decades of Ottoman rule over the territory.

Though critical, it is not judgemental in tone. It tells the story of both sides of the burgeoning conflict- the established Muslim, Christian and Jewish Arabic-speaking Palestinian communities and the newly arrived Jewish immigrants from East and Central Europe.  Decidedly non-quaint, historical re-enactors speak the words of prominent members of both communities, literally giving voice to their concerns and motives.

Those who have only a peripheral interest in the subject may find the film somewhat dry, but 1913 is an important contribution to the conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, firmly contradicting many of the reductionist and sweeping statements (“They have been fighting for thousands of years”) about the origin of tensions. The film begins in 1880, before the major waves of European Jewish immigration started. It carefully sets out the Ottoman political context in which Palestine existed, the demographics of the region, and the history of the pogroms that drove millions of Jews from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.

The documentary’s primary focus is on disputes over the access, purchase, and use of land between immigrant settlers and native Palestinian communities. The basic premise is that legal and political disputes over land use rights and compensation, rather than existential battles over history or religion, sparked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Zionist project was, of course, central to the creation of these disputes over land. The film places the birth of Zionism and the propaganda it produced (including the 1913 film that we see at the opening) in the context of both rising nationalism and anti-Semitism in Europe. The film also explains how the Zionist philosophy, strongly influenced by socialism, alienated immigrants from the surrounding Palestinian community, including Sephardic Jews.

Tensions slowly build as the local Palestinian leadership tries to find ways to work with the reality of a growing European Jewish population while protecting the rights and needs of the Arabic speaking majority. As presented by the film, there are no hateful diatribes on either side, but reasoned and impassioned appeals to legal and political rights, as well as discussions about the effect of immigration on the local economy and even warnings by Zionist leaders not to disrespect the local population.

However, no amount of reasoned appeals by political and intellectual leaders could halt tensions on the ground. The ever expanding land-use by Jewish immigrants and creation of militias to guard their collective farms makes it all but inevitable that disputes between the communities would turn violent.

The film ends at the peak of dramatic tensions, leaving the viewer with violent images that foreshadow the decades of bloodshed to come. But again the documentary carefully crafts this haunting ending to emphasize that both Jews and Palestinians have suffered terribly. For the viewer, not versed in the history of the conflict, the ending may seem jarringly abrupt. There is a deliberate avoidance of any of the UN declarations, dates, and wars that are so central to most discussions of Israel’s creation. We are only given a glimpse of the struggles to come through a quick series of film clips.

The ending of 1913: Seeds of Conflict emphasizes the open-ended nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Deliberately denied a neat or hopeful wrap-up, the viewer is left to ruminate over how local tensions between two communities ballooned into an intractable and brutal, century-long regional struggle.

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