Like It Did for South Africa, U.S. Film Industry Must Act on Palestinian Rights


This Oscar season, former nominee Emad Burnat says Hollywood must do more to end Israeli apartheid. <Photo Courtesy>.

By Emad Burnat

Bil’in, West Bank—On the evening of Dec. 10, the Israeli army kidnapped my 17-year-old nephew from our Palestinian village of Bil’in. It was a school night, and Abdel Khalik, a senior, had been preparing for his final exams. But instead of making it to class the next day, he has been held without trial, under military detention, joining the ranks of some 700 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 who face a similar fate each year.

For our small farming village in the West Bank and countless others like it, this is not a new story. Five years ago, my Oscar-nominated documentary, “5 Broken Cameras,” showed how Israel’s 50-year military occupation had made Palestinian lives into mere targets for settlers and the soldiers who defend them. Although the film unfolds through the eyes of my 10-year-old son Gibreel, whose first words were “army” and “wall,” the story of Bil’in is ultimately the story of all Palestinians.

Since U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, contradicting half a century of international consensus about the illegal occupation there, hundreds of Palestinians have been abducted by Israeli forces. Hundreds more have been injured, including by steel-coated rubber bullets fired at unarmed demonstrators. And thousands more have been trapped behind military checkpoints, unable to get to school or work in neighboring towns and villages.

These are not abstract numbers. Like Palestinian parents everywhere in the occupied territories, I must contend every day with the possibility that my own children, like their cousin next door, could be kidnapped on their way to school, the playground, or their friends’ homes. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, for example, released a video showing seven- and eight-year-old children crying hysterically as they were being dragged by armed Israeli soldiers to a military jeep.

When they saw scenes like that in my film, the Americans I met were horrified. Many said it had changed their perspective on the Palestinian struggle. And among those, many high profile voices—including actors, directors, and producers in Hollywood—promised to support us.

Some have. My friend Michael Moore, an early champion of the film, came to my defense when I was detained at LAX en route to the Oscars. The actor Mark Ruffalo has been outspoken about the human suffering caused by Israel’s successive wars on Gaza. Alia Shawkat recently tweeted that “Palestine will not be forgotten.” Their principled stand echoes that of many famous athletes, musicians, and even U.S. lawmakers who have spoken out against Israel’s occupation.

But I know that Americans, especially in Hollywood, can do more.

In the apartheid era, the film industry was at the vanguard of efforts to boycott the South African regime. Popular films like Cry Freedom helped raise awareness about the plight of black South Africans, casting such big-name actors as Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline. These cinematic portrayals were backed by bold advocacy, bringing out the best in Hollywood and foreshadowing later efforts to shed light on other social justice causes (Leonardo di Caprio’s Blood Diamond is a personal favorite).

These were not publicity stunts. The actors I met at the Oscars understand that, with fame, comes the opportunity to shape public perceptions on issues that matter. In Palestine, more than 10,000 children have been arrested, detained, interrogated, and sometimes tortured by an Israeli military that has too long enjoyed impunity and even lavish praise in Hollywood. It is time for that to change.

Like those struggling against apartheid before us, Palestinians don’t need celebrities to come to our rescue. But as we fight for our children and our rights, Hollywood’s vocal support—the kind I heard behind-the-scenes at the Oscars—will make the road to peace shorter and help bring children like Abdel Khalik home.


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