The Truth Hurts

Avi Mograbi’s The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation

Israeli director Avi Mograbi’s 2021 documentary The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation is a wake-up call that his country slept through.

IDF service testimony.

As the film makes painfully clear, however, Israel has been pressing the snooze button for over half a century.

From the moment that Israeli leaders decided not to give back territory they unexpectedly won during the Six-Day War in 1967, the Jewish state has been faced with an impossible task.

How can Israel defend the values that supposedly set it apart from the rest of the Middle East without contradicting them every day in its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?

Mograbi’s career as a filmmaker is a testament to the persistence of those values, no matter how hypocritical Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories may be.

It would not have been possible for someone to produce films so consistently critical of government policy in any of Israel’s neighbours. Even in Iran, with its rich cinematic tradition, far more oblique work has landed its creators in prison.

The structure of The First 54 Years confronts this paradox head-on.

Interspersing talking-head interviews with soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza and documentary footage of the occupation with sequences in which Mograbi himself speaks directly to the camera, the film is constantly reminding us that Israelis have a freedom of expression that their Palestinian counterparts do not.

Upon its release, critics of The First 54 Years complained that the film only presents the Israeli perspective. But that is the meta-point that Mograbi is keen to hammer home.

Holding on to hostile territory is only possible when the occupying power ruthlessly consolidates its structural advantage.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank have historically been founded on hills that give both their residents and their defenders in the Israeli Defense Forces visual superiority over its Palestinian inhabitants.

The irony is savage.

By literally taking the hilltops, Jewish settlers have increasingly conceded the figurative high ground that Israel has always claimed as a would-be open society committed to the Enlightenment project.

When Avi Mograbi addresses the camera, he does so in the spirit of immanent critique, speaking cynically of occupation techniques as if he were producing a how-to guide.

Indeed, Mograbi periodically brandishes a notebook that stands in for the manual referenced in the title.

It is this matter-of-fact presentation that troubled some of the film’s critics most.

Just as Karl Marx’s Capital ended up perversely helping some businessmen to exploit their workers more efficiently, The First 54 Years, its detractors fear, has the potential to assist Israel in its divide-and-conquer approach to the West Bank and Gaza by making the techniques used there more self-conscious and therefore systematic.

As the carnage from Israel’s current invasion of Gaza mounts, however, this possibility becomes less and less likely.

In destroying Gaza’s infrastructure, killing tens of thousands of its inhabitants in the process, and reducing the rest of its population to internal refugees, Israel has effectively ended the occupation as The First 54 Years portrays it.

To be sure, another occupation will probably take its place. But it won’t be one that requires the techniques Mograbi outlines since they only make sense when Israel is still preserving the tension between outright domination and subtler forms of hegemony.

As a documentary, The First 54 Years stands out for Mograbi’s use of the aforementioned direct address – distantly related to the approach American filmmaker Michael Moore used to such good effect in films like Roger & Me and Bowling For Columbine – and the sheer extent of the testimony he marshals.

Avi Mograbi helped found Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO that makes it possible for soldiers and veterans to recount their experiences serving in the Occupied Territories in safety. That archive serves him extraordinarily well here.

Where The First 54 Years falls short – also akin to what happens in Michael Moore’s films – is in helping audiences perceive their own partisanship.

Someone not intimately versed in Israeli history, particularly the dispute over whether it is possible to have a democracy in which some people are more equal than others, might not understand just how forcefully the narrative it communicates goes against the grain.

A brief sequence early in the film testifies to the difficulty of producing history from conflicting stories.

Haaretz analyst Zvi Bar’el, who was deputy military governor of Hebron from 1971 to 1976, explains that when Israeli settlers wanted land in the West Bank, they simply took it. Then, an order would come from higher-ups in Israel to leave them be.

We then see black-and-white footage of structures in burning ruins, followed by people sorting through what remained afterwards.

The testimony of Yossi Schwartz follows. He describes how, in 1983, his unit of military trainees was sent to Hebron in the wake of the murder of Aharon Gross, a rabbinical student who was stabbed to death in the city’s downtown area.

Arriving in the middle of the night, Schwartz and his companions found that settlers had burned the Palestinian market to avenge Gross’s killing.

“Over the next few days, we kept busy enforcing a curfew, patrolling and enforcing the curfew on the local Palestinians. The settlers roamed freely.”

We then cut to another segment in which the filmmaker continues his analysis of the occupation.

Although the film doesn’t spell out the relationship between the spread of settlements, the murder of Aharon Gross, and the severe retaliation for his death, it’s not hard to infer that The First 54 Years wants us to perceive violence against settlers as a response to Israeli provocation.

If we apply this logic to the current war in Gaza, the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October could be seen in a similar light.

That’s the conclusion that many of Israel’s critics would like people around the world to reach in the hope that they might apply pressure to its financial and ideological enablers, the United States above all.

But this invariably leads to an intractable chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

For Israel’s defenders, the provocations of the occupation and the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands in 1948 are not the sources of the current conflict but from someplace farther downstream.

The Holocaust, the partition of the Ottoman Empire, the pogroms that swept Eastern Europe for centuries, the exclusion of Jews from most jobs and neighbourhoods before the French Revolution: all must be entered into the ledger of history when determining what constitutes a proportionate response to violence against Israelis.

The murder of Aharon Gross is a prime example. A website for the Jewish community of Hebron presents his story very differently than The First 54 Years.

It describes his stabbing in excruciating detail, then explains that he was taken to a Palestinian hospital by mistake, where the staff refused to treat him once they realised that he was a Jew.

Tellingly, the article doesn’t even refer to the majority population of Hebron as Palestinians. They are called “Arabs” instead, thereby depriving them of the specific identity that confers the right to continue living in the territory of the former British Mandate.

Whereas Aharon Gross’s story is amplified, turning him into a proper martyr, the events that followed his murder are described in an entirely different way than in Yossi Schwartz’s testimony:

The spot where he was stabbed was named Gross Square and a memorial was erected. The wholesale market which was used as a cover for the terrorists was temporarily shut down as a result of the murder and later reopened. The area was once home to the Jewish community of Hebron where a synagogue and other buildings once stood before being demolished by the Jordanians.  

The Israeli government imposed a curfew on the city in response to the murder, and accused the mayor and city council of incitement. Arab agitators staged riots in Hebron and in Jerusalem where one policeman and six Arabs were reported injured and about 40 Arabs were arrested.

Those of us who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people and are desperate for Israel to bring its campaign in Gaza to a halt are likely to read these two paragraphs as sheer propaganda.

But as the superheated debates that have been happening since 7 October make depressingly clear, persuading people who remain committed to Israel’s foundational mythology to perceive them that way is extraordinarily difficult.

At a time when Holocaust denialism is rapidly becoming the model for ideologically motivated “mistoriography” more generally, artfully assembled testimony of the sort presented in The Last 54 Years no longer packs the punch that it once did.

In the absence of an archive on which we can all agree, though, the construction and preservation of counter-archives is our best hope for preventing the erasure of structurally disadvantaged perspectives. The Last 54 Years is the benchmark for how to do this.

Screenshot courtesy of Les Films D’Ici. All rights reserved.