N.Y. film exhibition exemplifies modern art of deception

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As the world-renowned Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan prepared opened an exhibition of documentary films including several that critics charge are anti-Israel, Nuran Dib, a 10-year-old Palestinian girl, was shot in the face and killed recently while she stood outside her school in the southern Gaza strip.

Witnesses said that the shot came from a nearby Israeli military post, and Hamas militants responded to the girl’s death by firing mortars at nearby Jewish communities. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia called the killing a “war crime.”

The MoMA exhibition, set to open this week, is intended to highlight provocative global issues, according to its organizers. So it is not surprising that four of the offerings concern the Middle East. All of them, though, in the words of The New York Sun, “take a starkly anti-Israel stance.”

One film, “Forbidden to Wander,” depicts Israeli soldiers as a malevolent presence as it tells the tale of a young Arab American woman’s escape from an Israeli attack and her subsequent rescue by a Palestinian man; a second film, “Paradise Lost,” focuses on a female Palestinian Liberation Organization activist in the 1970s who, as, the film distributor explains, “became a role model for many young women”; a third, “Still Life,” according to MoMA, “reveal[s] the destructive effects of occupation”; and a fourth, “Detail,” presents the plight of a Palestinian family unable to transport a sick child to a hospital because of an Israeli roadblock.

Curiously, another of the films to be screened by MoMA, touches on Judaism, or, at least, on a Jewish religious rite: the mikvah, or ritual bath.

The film is entitled “Purity,” a reference to the spiritual effect that immersion in the mikvah provides. Both men and women use the mikvah, but it is an essential part of the lives of observant married women, as they immerse in the special bath upon the end of their menses before resuming physical intimacy with their husbands — which is suspended during their periods and for seven days thereafter.

As it happens, many Jewish women who are otherwise less than fully observant, including a number of self-described feminists, have embraced mikvah-observance in recent years. They claim that the monthly suspension of physical contact between husbands and wives helps their husbands regard them as partners in something more than a mere physical sense. What is more, they say, immersion in a mikvah touches something deep in their souls, providing a tangible expression of the renewal they viscerally feel each month. Despite its title, “Purity” offers a rather more jaundiced perspective.

The film features three women who voice resentment and disgust concerning their use of the mikvah. The filmmaker herself, who was raised in a secular family but married an Orthodox man, admits that she didn’t like Jewish marriage laws from the start. She found the separation period trying (understandable; few of life’s valuable things are attained with ease), and decided that the laws were only “an ancient myth” that contemporary Jews don’t need to be “dragging along” into the present.

As in the case of the MoMA films dealing with the Middle East, of course, there is an unshared “rest of the story” here. “Purity” does not offer the viewer any example of the vast majority of observant Jewish women, those who consider the laws relating to mikvah — while challenging — sublime and ennobling above all, and who (along with their husbands) consider their relationships with their spouses to be stronger, holier and more enriched as a result of their observance.

And that dearth — no less than the vacuum of any Israeli perspective among the political films — deeply misleads. Images are powerful tools for providing information, but equally powerful tools for spreading misinformation. One need only recall the photograph that appeared on the front page of The New York Times on Sept. 30, 2000, of a bloodied boy with an angry Israeli policeman standing over him, holding a club and shouting. The ostensible “Palestinian” youth in fact turned out to be a Jewish one (who had been beaten by a Palestinian), and the officer had been calling for assistance.

A few months earlier, another photograph, of an Arab boy killed while cowering alongside his father during a firefight, was made the virtual recruitment poster for the intifada. It took several years before professional investigations, including one underwritten by a German television station, yielded the near-certain conclusion that it was Palestinian fire — not Israeli, as had been regularly claimed — that killed the boy. Countless hearts and minds were poisoned by both falsehoods before the “rest of the story” in each case emerged. And many still refuse to relinquish their treasured lies.

What about Nuran Dib? Last week, the Israel Defense Forces consistently denied that any of its soldiers in the area had fired a weapon. As it happened, a day after Hamas’ “retaliation” for the girl’s death, the Palestinian Authority informed Israel that it had arrested a man who had been firing a gun in the area at the time, one of a group of Palestinians celebrating their return from Mecca.

When New Yorkers and the tourists who flock to the city from around the world visit MoMA this month, those who choose to view the documentary films about the Middle East or the one about mikvah will see only small and misleading parts of larger stories. But they are unlikely to realize that, which is both the filmmakers’ hope and a tragedy.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Rabbi Avi Shafran

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization