Oscar-Nominated Ajami Depicts Reality of Second-Class Citizenship for Arab Israelis

The Israeli Oscar-nominated film Ajami, named for the rough-and-tumble Jaffa neighborhood where it takes place, announces its approach early. The opening credits reveal two directors—one a Palestinian, the other an Israeli Jew, their names displayed in a trifecta of Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin scripts. The story that follows, unraveling like Rashomon in elliptical fragments that retell a series of events from different characters’ perspectives, gives full humanity and weight to every side of this multifaceted tragedy.

The fundamental conflict revolves not around religious differences or political vendettas, but a drug deal gone bad—a scenario played out every day around the world from New York to Rio de Janeiro. But to deny the particularity of Ajami’s story is to miss how deeply politics is enmeshed in the prosaic in Israel, how the conflict infiltrates the mundane details of everyday life, often in imperceptible ways.

The Arab director, Scandar Copti, has insisted on the specificity of the film’s depiction of Israeli Arabs as second-class citizens. He pulled it out of the Toronto Film Festival’s “City to City” program, which focused on Tel Aviv, because he objected to the official Israeli promotion of the film as an image of multicultural coexistence in Israel (the film was shown in the festival’s world cinema screenings). 

In an interview with Al Jazeera English, Copti said that Israel “tokenized Palestinians for their branding campaign,” to show that Israel gives equal opportunity to Arabs. But, he emphasized, “The idea of citizen is nonexistent for Palestinians living inside the Israeli state.”

Arab citizens of Israel consistently experience a lower standard of living, inferior education systems, shorter life expectancy and higher infant mortality due to inferior medical treatment. Copti said such conditions lead young Arab Israelis without role models outside the criminal element depicted in the film.

From a young Muslim Arab trying to escape the wrath of a Bedouin gang, to a Jewish police officer reeling from the disappearance of his younger brother, Ajami tells the stories of Muslims, Christians and Jews, Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel, and illegal Palestinian workers who sneak across the Green Line from the West Bank. All of their paths intersect in this area of Jaffa. It’s fitting that the root of the word “ajami” is Arabic for “stranger.”

Quietly Driven From Their Homes

But the ticking time bomb that sets this tale on its path of destruction is not strapped to anyone’s chest. There are no martyrs, no extreme ideologues and no religious zealots to be found in this movie. The deadly Macguffin that, perhaps, too tidily ties these messy threads of life together is a banal pocketwatch, found in the wrong hands at the wrong time, wound by an absent God and left to malfunction into self-destructive chaos.

The randomness of violence in Ajami is almost a respite from the clash of civilizations narrative we have come to expect of any story dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. God and religious practice seem almost an afterthought in this modern urban world where religious and cultural identities are indistinct, precluded by the realities of survival on these mean streets.

Christian Arab characters, whose religious difference become clear only very late in the story, are simultaneously defensive about their Palestinian credentials, but scornful of romance with Muslim Arabs. The Muslims are not observant—drinking and forsaking prayer, and the main Jewish characters’ only brush with overt religiosity comes in the search for the missing brother, who the family thinks may be hiding out in the ultra-orthodox Haredi community.

Ostensibly, Jewish characters don’t emerge as real adversaries to the Israeli Arabs that are at the center of the story until the last half of the film. The conflict is among Bedoins, Christians, and Muslim Arabs. But underlying this conflict is always “The Conflict,” the context that has created this marginalized slice of life where Arab Israelis tentatively coexist with a state that they can never call home.

The marginalization of Ajami’s underclass has further political ramifications considering recent real estate developments in the area. The reputation of the neighborhood as a drug-ridden gangland, as depicted in the film, has made the area ripe for gentrification and dispossession. Tami Sarfatti, a Jewish resident of Tel Aviv, sees the insidious expansion of her city into Jaffa.

“Quietly the Palestinian Arabs are being driven from their homes in the process of Jewifying and gentrifying the city of Jaffa,” said Sarfatti. “Two minutes away from the center of the liberal city of Tel Aviv there are religious Jews settling in the historic Arab heart of Ajami.”

In the last year, Tel Aviv developers have invested millions in a new waterfront park to be built along Jaffa’s harbor, with boutique hotels vying for beachfront properties. A conservative “hesder yeshiva,” an institution common in the settlements, where young Jewish men combine Bible studies with military service, was established in Ajami in 2009. And as recently as early February, authorities approved construction of a “Jewish only” housing project for the national-religious settlers group B’Emuna, (Hebrew for “with faith”). With real estate in Ajami becoming a new front line in the Arab-Israeli conflict, it seems it really does return to a universal theme: location, location, location.