Hopeless in Jerusalem

"Promises," a documentary about children growing up in the middle of the Arab-Israeli conflict, reveals early lessons in hatred and a grim absence of optimism.

Published December 12, 2001 9:07PM (EST)

It's fortuitous timing, perhaps, that PBS is scheduled to air an award-winning documentary called "Promises" Thursday night on stations across the country. The film, which explores the points of view of seven children who live in and around Jerusalem, confirms what recent terrorist attacks and bombing campaigns in the Middle East seem to prove: Children who live in the midst of relentless conflict are learning early how to hate; and their experience of violence has obliterated any inklings of optimism they might be expected to have as young men and women.

Filmmakers Justine Shapiro, B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado tracked the children for four years, recording their evolving feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The result is a chilling portrait of hopelessness: The seven children haven't even hit high school yet, and already they are indoctrinated in hatred and self-righteousness. If they are, as the cliché goes, the future, the future looks very, very grim.

Filmmaker Goldberg, who was raised in Jerusalem, was not particularly surprised by the version of childhood that the documentary reveals. "Growing up in Jerusalem, I think I had a pretty normal childhood," he says, "but normal in the Middle East is always intertwined with war. Fighting breaks out, bombs blow up, people are killed."

Indeed, death is a defining element in the lives of the children featured in "Promises." Faraj, a fierce young Palestinian who lives in a refugee camp, lost one of his best friends in the intifada riots of the early 1990s: The boy threw a stone through a window and was shot by an Israeli soldier, he explains. Meanwhile, in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, 12-year-old Moishe tells how he lost a friend when the boy and his mother were shot by PLO terrorists. And Yarko and Daniel Solan, a pair of sweet-faced Israeli twins, banter casually about the bus line they take to downtown Jerusalem, which their neighbors avoid because it's regularly blown up by terrorists. "It only happens once a year," shrugs Daniel.

In talking about the reasons for these events, the children on both sides offer a simple, unwavering explanation. They have learned to fear and identify their enemies just as they have learned to read and write. With similar words and affect, they say that the land in question belongs to them, and that it's the other side that is causing all the trouble.

There's the winsome young Palestinian named Mahmoud, whose adorable face spews forth unforgiving propaganda: "I support Hamas and Hezbollah. They kill women and children, but they do it for their country. The more Jews we kill, the fewer there will be. Until they are almost gone." Meanwhile, cherubic Moishe reads a long passage from the Torah, and blurts out: "God promised us the land of Israel. The Arabs came and took it! I am surrounded by Arabs. If I could make my own future, all the Arabs would fly away. The Jews would stay and the Temple would be rebuilt."

"Promises" traces the roots of the childrens' hatred, showing lessons in Islamic schools where children draw vengeful pictures on the chalkboard, and repeat after their teacher: "Do Palestinians have freedom? No!" The film captures parents as they pass on bitterness and resentment in their kids as soon as they are able to walk. In one disturbing segment, young Faraj sneaks past an Israeli checkpoint to visit his grandmother's village. The family still has the 1942 deeds to the land, but the village was evacuated and destroyed by Israelis years ago. Grandma hands an ancient key to a long-gone home to Faraj and makes him promise to hand it down to his son and grandson, until the land is returned; Faraj dutifully kicks an Israeli star he finds scrawled on a rock.

The film also demonstrates the role of boundaries in the children's lives. They live surrounded by barbed wire and checkpoints, learning from an early age that the walls keep them safe. The only language the kids share is broken English. And even those who live in mixed quarters in Jerusalem have no friends from the other ethnicity.

"Promises" is not without an agenda, it seems, and occasionally veers into the maudlin, as documentaries about children are wont to do. Clearly, the filmmakers believe that the enforced separation of one group of children from the other eliminates the possibility of negotiated peace. They ultimately give in to a desire to bring the two sides together, and stage an introduction between the Israeli Solan twins and Faraj, followed by a extended "Look! Kids can speak the universal language of childhood" segment in which the boys play soccer all afternoon.

You can't blame the filmmakers for wanting to try to engender some kind of understanding between the kids they've met, but the rest of the documentary proves that this is a gesture with no hope of success. Ultimately, the filmmakers return to their roles as documentarians and end the film with a bleak picture of their subjects' reality. Consider the final words of Faraj, recorded two years after the soccer game: "I feel the world has changed for the worse. There's no peace. There are wars and catastrophes. One can't begin to imagine his future or solve his problems. One's plans for the future may never happen. Because the life we live doesn't allow us to accomplish our dreams."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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