In Separate Rooms, A Palestine-Israel Dialogue

In radical Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan’s new documentary, anti-Zionist activists and thinkers consider their shared future in a conversation that Sivan himself creates in the editing room. A split screen, his interviewees seated in plastic chairs against plain backgrounds in their own homes and elsewhere: Palestinians on the left, Israelis on the right. What can be in their shared future, given the violence and inequality of their shared past?

In radical Israeli filmmaker Eyal Sivan’s new documentary, anti-Zionist activists and thinkers consider their shared future in a conversation that Sivan himself creates in the editing room. A split screen, his interviewees seated in plastic chairs against plain backgrounds in their own homes and elsewhere: Palestinians on the left, Israelis on the right. What can be in their shared future, given the violence and inequality of their shared past?

If twenty years of ‘negotiations’ and a doubling of the settler population since the Oslo Accord have shown anything, it is that there will be no true Palestinian state separate from Israel. Moreover, says Sivan in this interview, the future state will be shared between them and the real struggle is to allow Palestinians an equal citizenship within it; will it be a sharing between equals or the grudging sharing of a superior doling out morsels to his inferiors?

Frank Barat: Why did you choose to call your film “Common State” and not “One State”?

Eyal Sivan: You hear talk about a two state solution, about a one-state solution, about a binational state solution. We take as our starting point a common state, a state in common. Its form as a state is yet to be defined: binational state, democratic state, secular state, unitary state…we will see what form it takes in the end.
But first let us think about this notion of something in “common.” There is an interesting link in the French language between two words that are frequently confused for one another but which are opposites: the word ‘partition’ and the word ‘sharing’ [partage].
Today most solutions under consideration, the consensual solution really, is a partition solution. The word ‘common’ reminds us to consider the idea of ‘sharing'[partage], which is the contrary of partition. Sharing here in the sense of how you share a meal, share a space; the concept of ‘common’ sneaks a sense of equality into the relationship.
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Thus the notion of a common state is not so much a solution as a starting point; a framework. The commons, a notion that comes from ‘communities,’ which of course also, for those who are not afraid of it, gives rise to ‘communism.’ Not in the statist sense, but rather communism in the sense of a way toward an equal sharing of the commons. This notion of the common felt far more fair to us than the notion of a ‘one state solution.’
Barat: Why ‘potential conversation?’
Because the movie stages a conversation that is not a real conversation. These are individual interviews that I conducted with both Palestinians and Israelis around the same themes, and then it was the editing that created the conversation between them.
Barat: Have you had a chance to show your film in Israel-Palestine?
Not really. The film was only shown once in Israel, and we invited all of those who participated in it to come and see it. There have been several projections in the occupied territories, but I quickly ran into difficulties trying to distribute it in Israel. The problem is that the film takes precisely the opposite tack as the way the winds are blowing these days: it tries to seek a consensual way of thinking. It looks at the problems from a different angle, and treats as a central problem what certain people posit as a solution: partition.
Barat: How are people reacting to your film in France?
Above all, people are surprised. Viewers are surprised to see Israelis and Palestinians using a completely different mode of expression: meaning they succeed in talking in another register, not in the usual registers of complaint, victimization, accusation. There is an effort to think in common, and that is what makes this film special.
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One element that surprises people is that the notion of one state is not treated as a hypothetical but as the present reality. There is already one state, and it is an undemocratic state, an apartheid state, a segregated single state. The real question we should ask ourselves is not how to make two states out of one, but how to make the unjust state we have now into an egalitarian one.
Barat: You live in France, where your position as an anti-Zionist Israeli has been even more problematic for you than if you were living in Israel. You have even been accused of being an ‘antisemitic Jew’ by [pundit philosopher]Alain Finkielkraut; have things calmed down now?
No, things have not calmed down. The war was won by the mouthpieces of Zionism in France, because they have succeeded in imposing self-censorship. Not censorship of others. Nowadays, French journalists and intellectuals are afraid of taking a position on the Israel-Palestine question because of the years of intellectual terror campaigns that have been carried out.
In my own case, I have returned to France after an exile in England: I behaved a bit like the French resistance during the [Nazi] occupation. I returned for family reasons, but I no longer have any professional activity in France anymore. It is perhaps the only country in Europe where I don’t teach.
I teach everywhere in Europe; I get invited everywhere except in France. I no longer have any public presence in France, and I suppose that in a certain way the fact that my movie is being shown here is a kind of return. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I do think that those who carry the banner of Zionism in France – and I underline that they are many outside France’s tiny Jewish community – they understand that they can’t keep reacting they way they were a decade ago [when Sivan’s previous movie caused an uproar], when they attacked everyone continuously.
Nowadays what they do is they ignore you. It is less than a week before my movie opens in French theaters, and I have had no interview requests in France. Very few journalists have showed up at the press screenings. I think that Zionism has overtaken France, and not because of the Israel-Palestine issue, but for reasons that are entirely French, specifically the enormous problem France has with its own colonial past.
Barat: At what point does your ‘conversation’ between Israelis and Palestinians become a kind of normalization, which is what the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is trying to keep from happening? Or alternatively, is it a form of participating in the future of a common state?
I am not afraid of the question of normalization versus boycott. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the BDS movement. I believe that our mode of action should nowadays be from the starting point of the BDS movement.
First, because the Palestinians have asked us to express our solidarity with them in this way. And because it is a movement that is led by Palestinian voices. It is time that we, those of us Israelis who consider ourselves progressives, learn to follow and accept a movement led by Palestinians. That is a good exercise in and of itself.
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As for normalization, that is when you act as if there was equality in a situation that is unequal. Or when you act as if the Palestinian and the Israeli both have equally valid points of view.
And that is not the case in the film. The potential conversation here is a conversation about an agreement that already exists among the participants; it is a shared reflection around a future common state. It is not a debate with opposing ideas. Of course, there are certain oppositions in the film, but these are not oppositions between Israelis and Palestinians; sometimes there are oppositions between Palestinians.
There is no normalization here; on the contrary, there is a sort of attempt at de-normalizing. At creating a new way of thinking, a struggle, a fight. We should not be afraid of the word struggle, a struggle in common, a common struggle for Palestinian emancipation, a common struggle for boycott, divestment and sanctions.
The struggle in common against colonization can never be a normalization, because it is a struggle to achieve equality. That is why I count myself among those who say that the end of the occupation-a necessary struggle-will not be the end of the conflict. It is only the precondition needed to start talking about the end of the conflict.

Frank Barat