Powerful 'Promises' to Mideast children

Some films thrust burning issues before the eyes of the world: "On the Beach" about nuclear war, "Silkwood" about cover-up of nuclear contamination, "Dead Man Walking" about capital punishment.

"Promises," the small masterpiece nominated for this year's Academy Award for best documentary, is on that exclusive list.

Behind the bloody headlines in the Middle East, Palestinian and Israeli children are growing up still receptive to reaching out to one another as human beings. "Promises" conveys their story, all the more powerful today as the glimmer of hope it captures has almost been extinguished.

It's fine for Americans to watch heart-tugging "Promises." But it should be mandatory viewing for every Israeli and Palestinian before they aim their loaded guns: The lives of these wonderful kids are in their sights.

The project of filmmakers B.Z. Goldberg and Justine Shapiro, "Promises" has a "cast" of seven young teenagers.

Faraj and Sanabel are from the Palestinian refugee camp Deheishe on the West Bank. Faraj carries the key to his grandparents' house razed after the 1948 war; Sanabel visits her father, held as a security prisoner in an Israeli prison.

The sensitive and vibrant Israeli twins Yarko and Daniel love volleyball and peace, but don't want to live and breathe the region's struggle day in, day out. There's Mahmoud, son of a coffee merchant in Jerusalem's Old City, whose "heart wants to burst" with sorrow as he watches thousands of Jews parading through the city on Jerusalem Day.

Shlomo is a student at an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem yeshiva who, at 13, wears a black fedora and suit, and talks with a wisdom beyond his years but a twinkle in his eye. Moishe, from a Jewish settlement on the West Bank, dreams of becoming the first religious Army chief of staff.

Mr. Goldberg, who grew up in Jerusalem, speaks fluent Arabic, and now lives in Berkeley, Calif., was the interviewer, friend, and big brother to the children. The youths, who live minutes – but also worlds apart – became increasingly curious about their counterparts. Some began to toy with the idea of meeting one another – as intriguing as playing with matches.

Finally, Faraj phoned the Israeli twins. In broken English, the excited boys broke the ice by talking about their common love of sports. When Faraj invited the brothers to his home in the refugee camp, they accepted. The exuberant twins were not nervous, but their Palestinian hosts were more sagacious, warning, "Don't speak Hebrew here."

Yet all was not laughter and good feeling. Mahmoud declared to Goldberg, "The more Jews we kill, the fewer there will be." His fingers intertwined with the director's, he could not accept his friend's Israeli background. "You are not an authentic Jew," Mahmoud insisted, unable to believe that someone he cared about could be an Israeli Jew.

Moishe, scanning feverishly through a Bible until he locates the spot justifying the Jews' theological claim to Israel, admitted: "If I could decide the future, I would make all the Arabs fly away."

Sanabel, performing a dance of Palestinian liberation, said wistfully she would like to meet more Israeli children: "Not all Israelis are guilty, not even the grown-ups."

But two years after their one and only hopeful meeting, a sober Faraj stared darkly into the camera, concluding: "Life won't let us accomplish our dreams."

When "Promises" was made, the peace process was budding. Now the "Promises" kids live among its shambles. Separated more than ever by bullets and enmity, they have no more contact. Goldberg, who still sees and talks to each one, ticks off the emotions they express in common: fear, anger, sadness.

Now in their midteens, they are becoming polarized like the embattled refugee camps and terror-targeted cities in which they live. Sanabel is still dancing, the twins still playing volleyball. Mahmoud and Moishe, ideological worlds apart, both love the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. But none leads a normal life. When Faraj's brother-in-law was killed this month, he heard about it first on TV.

THERE is talk about bringing some of the "Promises" kids to California for the Oscars ceremony on Sunday. If so, they will make the obligatory visit to Disneyland. There they can perhaps forget for a while that in real life, promises made to children can be broken.

At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1930, the winner for best picture was a pacifist film condemning the futility of war. At the time, the impact of "All Quiet on the Western Front" was huge, but the world all too quickly forgot its message. Let's hope "Promises" doesn't suffer a similar fate.

• Helen Schary Motro is an American lawyer living in Israel who writes a column for The Jerusalem Post.

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