The Ruins of Lifta (Daum & Rudavsky, 2016)

Lifta is described in this documentary’s press materials as “the only Palestinian village abandoned during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that has not been destoryed or repopulated by Jews.”

That’s a great hook, and if The Ruins of Lifta (★★★) never quite lives up to the promise of its premise, it is nevertheless a worthy documentary in the Personal Trauma, Peacemaking, and Reconciliation genre. (Did I just make up a category? I think I did.)

The documentary is at its best when it remains focused on the ruins as the symbol of a village and the time and traditions, now gone, that once thrived there. But the title is just the tiniest bit of a bait and switch. Co-director Menachem Daum (“an Orthodox Jew who grew up among Holocaust Survivors”), becomes the focal point, and the film is as much about his social awakening as it about the role Lifta played in that awakening.

ruins-of-lifta-1In fact, Lifta doesn’t really play a key role in Daum’s intellectual struggle with the Palestinian question. Early in the film he says that the “Holocaust had led me to overgeneralize about all Poles.” He wonders, consequently, if he has similarly overgeneralized about all Arabs. That question leads him to Lifta, but it is not as though the presence of the ghost village challenged or provoked thought in him prior to the point where he was already questioning the demonizing of all non-Jews.

It is probably impossible to understand and address the Palestenian question without understanding the impact that the Holocaust had on Jewish (or, really, Western pro-Zionist) thought. At a a certain point, though, the foregrounding of the Holocaust experience as being more important to understand than the 1948 Arab-Israeli war itself, stacks the political deck in Duam’s favor. At the very least, it makes the film about a noble victim who is heroically striving to empathize with another culture rather than about an objective observer hearing and adjudicating complex arguments on either side of the Israeli-Palestenian divide.

Don’t get me wrong, Daum is an incredibly admirable and sympathetic person. It’s just that being sympathetic because of what the Nazis did to one’s family or culture doesn’t automatically make one the best judge of how sympathetic the Palestinians are as a result of what happened to them. Everyone thinks his own suffering is worse than what happened to others. Yacoub, a Palestenian, argues that at least Jewish survivors of World War II were allowed to return to their homes, while Lifta residents were not. Duam counters by asserting that the Holocaust was evidence that the Jews needed their own homeland.

My point here is not that Yacoub is right and Duam is wrong, it’s that Duam is psychologically and politically invested in this argument. It’s hard, if not impossible, to be both moderator and participant in a debate. That’s probably why Bob Hercules’s Forgiving Dr. Mengele remains the gold standard in this genre. However sympathetic or admiring Hercules might be towards Eva Moses Kor, the separation of director and subject does allow him some distance to at least notice dissent towards Kor’s actions in the Jewish community and Kor’s own blind spots regarding whether or not Israeli treatment of (some) Palestenians undercuts the moral high ground carved out by her own response to the Shoah.

If that sounds like nitpicking, I’ll be happy to add that The Ruins of Lifta is strong and effective when Daum uses his interviews to paint a picture of life in the village before the war. Daum admits he has largely accepted the historical narrative that Jews and Arabs have never peacefully co-existed. But much like Terry George’s drama about the Armenian genocide, The Promise, the film is actually at its most subversive and provocative when it shows the multicultural peace that existed before the most recent round of religious and ethnic hatred. There are, of course, seeds of truth in the claim that some political and religious conflicts have origins in the remote past. But it is facile to assume that those conflicts have changed little or have been without periods of abatement throughout history. The documentary gets credit for admitting that some valley dwellers were against violence towards Jews and acknowledging the uncomfortable truth that in the wake of Israeli victory, Arabs who spoke out against violence were exiled just like everyone else.

Perhaps it had to be that way. Ultimately, Israel won the war, and this is a film from the victor’s point of view. That the victor can subsequently question his side’s decisions or methods is, to an extent, a luxury afforded by that victory. Perhaps subsequent generations can learn from that introspection. But from Reconstruction in the American South to the Treaty of Versailles in 20th-century Europe, the witness of history appears to be that military victory is inevitably followed by a period of vengeance and self-vindication.

The Ruins of Lifta is currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and opens at the Laemmle Theatres in Los Angeles on October 28. If you are outside of those areas, look for the DVD from First Run Features.

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