The Lemon Tree: A Palestinian Opinion

Recently, the AJDS hosted a screening of the Israeli Film ‘The Lemon tree’. We asked Maher Mughrabi, a local Palestinian, to make some comments about the film.
It is important that we hear voices such as Maher Mugrabi’s, to counter the view that there are not people ‘from the other side’ willing to talk and debate us.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen
It is appropriate that the film you have just seen begins with the old song that tells us that the lemon tree is very pretty and that the lemon flower is sweet, but the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat. Watching it for the second time I am caught again between the power of the acting and the artistic accomplishment the film represents and the bitter and unpalatable truths it can only partially illuminate.

I say “only partially” because this film is not a documentary, it is a dramatic fiction. For dramatic purposes Salma Zidane, the owner of the orchard played by Hiam Abbass, needs to be able to reach her precious trees occasionally and not be completely cut off from them, as for example the family of Hani and Monira Amer are in real life in their house – a house which has been declared a closed military zone – near the occupied West Bank village of Masha, a situation you can watch unfold far more prosaically in Carolina Rivas and Daoud Sarhandi’s documentary film The Colour of Olives.
Salma and her uncle Abu Hussam, who helps her harvest the lemons, need to reach the precincts of the Israeli High Court, albeit with the intervention of a secret service officer, and not be barred from reaching it by bureaucratic measures as is the case with Majid, the first case study in Tobias Kelly’s 2006 examination of Law, Violence and Sovereignty Among West Bank Palestinians, published by Cambridge University Press.
Eran Riklis’ film does of course do a fine job of showing us the interaction and motivation of its various engaging and flawed human characters, and the mixture of social, political and personal imperatives that each of them navigates. But here again I would argue that the dramatic requirement of the film – that human beings are foregrounded as agents of the narrative – hides part of the problem.
Before I talk about what is hidden, I should like to make a couple of points about what we do see. We see a woman brought to court because the shape her existence takes poses a security problem for a minister of the state of Israel. Of course we are meant to see here a contest between a security that is military and political and one that is economic, social and personal. I do not think it is an accident that the former is represented by a man and the latter by a woman, and that those who seek to soften the friction between the two are an immature man – the young soldier “Quickie” in the watchtower, struggling with his psychometric tests – and the wife of the minister, or to put it another way, the big man’s woman.
It is a matter of security that brings the landowner to court. But it is the ongoing dictate of security that voids her victory of meaning, by forcing her to keep her lemon trees pruned to a height where they are scarcely alive at all. It is, in every sense of the phrase, a fruitless victory.
Likewise, Mira Navon’s decision to defy her husband, helpfully named Israel, and the political-military realm and to insist upon solidarity at the social and personal level – her publicly expressed ambition to be a better neighbour – merely ends up distancing her from everyone.
The key to these troubling outcomes is a character whose name does not appear in the cast list: the High Court or Supreme Court of the state of Israel itself, or Bagatz as it is known colloquially by Israelis.
I know that for many Israelis and many of Israel’s supporters, the court is seen as something of a keeper of the flame of conscience and of constitutionality in an increasingly militarised and ideologically polarised political milieu, so that it can be expected to rule that the Jewish National Fund cannot discriminate against the state’s Arab citizens when it comes to the sale of land, and to reinstate Arab political parties at election time when the Knesset has ruled to exclude them on the grounds of their anti-Zionist character. It is also the court which ruled against the military when it began building its security barrier in the vicinity of the West Bank village of Bil’in, though the state has not yet acted upon its decision.
I would put it to you all that this image of the judiciary as the ‘good cop’ set against the ‘bad cops’ of the executive and legislature should not obscure the relationship between the two. Indeed, I think it is vital that it is grasped that through its presence and its decisions, the court ameliorates or normalises the abnormal, which is to say the occupation and all its consequences. To borrow a phrase from the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the court “re-casts the oppressive reality as democratic”.
But there is more. In the film, we saw how the court ‘stood up’ for Salma Zidane’s rights but at the same time acknowledged the overarching prerogatives of the state and its officers. In so doing, it emptied her rights of their substantive content.
Alina Korn, a real-life lecturer in criminology at Bar-Ilan University, tells us that in May 2004, during an eleven-day Israel Defence Forces incursion into the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip, 58 Palestinians were killed and 183 homes were destroyed, making more than 1,000 people who survived homeless.
At the time, the Bagatz ruled that houses could not be demolished except as part of ongoing fighting, ie. to ensure the security of troops in action. Far from protecting Palestinian homes, this ‘liberal’ ruling had the effect of prolonging the military’s operation so that ‘security’ objectives could be ‘legally’ achieved. Naturally, it is not the court’s place to rule on matters of peace and war.
Therefore what we see partially in the film and straightforwardly in cases such as the May 2004 raid on the Rafah camp and the recent evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied east Jerusalem is that for the court to practise its jurisdiction in a space of occupation is analogous to an accredited and qualified nurse or doctor practising in a place like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib; it gives a patina of legitimacy and oversight to that which is illegitimate and unregulated by definition.
If this is hard to swallow, you have my apologies – we are talking about lemons, after all. But the day must come when the court, rather than ruling for or against those Palestinians who are not enfranchised by the state, informs the state that it is not its place to rule at all, and that either international law or the law of those elected to represent those Palestinians must be applied and, more importantly, enforced. And what a film that would make.
Maher Mughrabi works for The Age newspaper and is a member of the Palestinian diaspora.Of course, it goes without saying that the views expressed below are his own and do not in any way reflect editorial policy at The Age.
August 23, 2009

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