Amos Gitai is a prize-winning Israeli filmmaker, known for making documentaries and feature films on the Middle East and Jewish-Arab conflict. Awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 2017, Amos Gitai was born in Haifa and nowadays divides his time between Paris and Haifa.
Do you worry about rising anti-Semitism in many European countries?
I am writing a project on a 16th century figure, Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi. This woman was born in Lisbon. Born Jewish, she was converted by force at the beginning of the 16th century. When Portugal accepted the dictat of the Spanish King because of a wedding between the monarchies of both States, in 1506 there was a very large pogrom in Lisbon.
“The Vatican did not authorize the Jews to own land…..the Jews would contaminate the earth.”
Mathieu Amalrich and his son Elias in the new film of Amos Gitai : “Tramway in Jerusalem”.
Doña Gracia managed to escape to Antwerp and she became a big collector of paintings. She and her brother-in-law dealt in the commerce of pepper and spices from India. Then she was persecuted in Antwerp and again she escaped, first to Ferrara in Italy and then to Venice. The ghetto of Venice, created in 1516, restricted the residence of Jews from anywhere in the city except this zone. They had to put a yellow badge on whenever they had to go out of the ghetto (That was not invented by the Nazis). The Vatican did not authorize the Jews to own land, because otherwise the Jews would contaminate the earth, so they had been consistently pushed by these decrees to do commerce. Our Doña Gracia arrived in Venice, and she became one of the biggest bankers of Venice.
This exceptional and modern woman was fearless. When the Pope gave the order to set the Jews of Ancona on fire, she organized an economic blockade on the ports of the Pope. Then she asked for a meeting with Suleiman the Magnificent during his last years. He accorded her a meeting and asked her: “What do you, the most sophisticated woman in Europe, want from me?” She answered: “I want to buy Tiberias, near the Sea of Galilee.” He says: “There are only mosquitoes there.” She says: “I want to create a Jewish State.” She managed to save twenty-five thousand Jews, who grew vineyards.
Thank you, but before this long and interesting answer of yours I asked you if you worry about growing anti-Semitism in Europe?
And I answered you in the good Jewish dialectical story telling fashion, that you always answer a question by another question.
What is the question?
The question is: Is the origin of antisemitism in Europe to a large extent religious? Generation after generation they incited against the Jews. There was also a fight about copyrights, taking the Old Testament, erasing its original authorship and integrating it into another religion. This caused generations of suffering, displacements, menaces and pogroms.
“I am much more concerned by the Israeli government’s policies and alliances than by Trump.”
Are you afraid that all this can come back, considering that there are right wing governments in power in several European countries nowadays, and not only in Europe?
This danger exists, and in its extreme version it is mixed up with an anti-European and anti-cosmopolitan embrace by local nationalists. That is why, before we started this conversation and you told me that Europe only exists in the mind of non-European people, I decided to tell you the story of Doña Gracia going from Lisbon to Antwerp, to Venice, to Istanbul, to Tiberias. She’s the perfect European cosmopolitan figure.
Are you going to make a film on her?
We are discussing it with several producers, Italian and British, who have the support of Rai 1 and a French group.
Who is going to be the actress?
Isabelle Huppert. The producer is Carlo Cresto-Dina and the French Jean-Baptiste Dupont.
What is your concern about Israel?
The problem is that the current Israeli government, with their arrogance and lack of any sincere effort to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict, help to increase these European tendencies led by extreme right wing and antisemitic leadership. They collaborate with the Hungarian government against Soros, because Soros supports some of the human rights organizations in Israel. Until recently they considered the ultra-right wing government in Poland a close ally of Israel, because Poland abstained from the U.N. resolutions on Jerusalem. Until in the last days it exploded in the face of the Netanyahu government, with a series of laws that Poland is issuing regarding the Holocaust and the denial of Polish participation in the Holocaust.
“Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination.” Copyright Christophe Raynaud de Lage.
“They will destroy the DNA of the Israelis which is so necessary for their survival.”
What is your position vis-a-vis the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?
I am much more concerned by the Israeli government’s policies and alliances than by Trump. The successive laws that limit freedom of speech, human rights, the liberty of artists to create works which are not in the consensus. Art should never be a consensual issue. As I have said many other times before, they will destroy the DNA of the Israelis which is so necessary for their survival.
Is Netanyahu going to last forever?
No one lasts forever, but a lot of harm was made already by using the tactics of incitement of religious against secular, Sephardi against Ashkenazi, Jews against Arabs. It helps politicians to get re-elected, but it does not help to create a common ground of a country which has so many different groups and minorities.
What are you working on now?
We are finishing the editing of “Tramway in Jerusalem”, a film with thirty six actors who took part in many of my films, “Kadosh”, “Kippur”, “Free Zone”, “Kedma” and others. We also have some new actors working with me for the first time, like Mathieu Amalric, Pippo Delbono and the musician Louis Sclavis. “Tramway in Jerusalem” is a microcosm which has all this variety of figures coexist.
Is it a metaphor for Israel?
Yes, maybe a utopian vision, where people can live side by side, being different, carrying out their daily lives, not necessarily being in agreement with each other but still, no oppression and no killing.
Paris, February 2018
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