(photo credit: Deborah Danan)
With red hair shorn to the scalp, a tattooed forearm, freckled white skin and a pint of beer in front of him (albeit Goldstar, not Guinness), filmmaker Nicky Larkin looks every inch your stereotypical Irishman. Yet a close look at his tattoo reveals that there’s more to him than meets the eye: Etched in Cyrillic is the post-Holocaust mantra “Never Again.”
A self-described Zionist and affectionately referred to as “an honorary Jew” among his new Israeli friends, Larkin arrived in the country in March 2011 to shoot an experimental, non-narrative piece about Israel. Sparked by Operation Cast Lead and ensuing reports flooding the Irish media about Israel’s aggression, he was determined to see the situation for himself.
As with most people in Ireland, his sympathies lay heavily with the Palestinians – the ostensible underdog of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Yet during his trip, which took him to most of the West Bank and the rest of the country, his attitude and prevailing conceptions about Israel began to change.
Larkin’s only prior contact with Jews had been seeing hassidim board the train at the Golders Green Underground station when he lived in London as a fine arts student.
“The initial shock of arriving in Israel was seeing just how cosmopolitan, secular and tolerant a country it was,” he says.
He recalls a couple of incidents in which he came to see the conflict in a new light, marking a turning point in his intellectual journey.
The first was a mundane exchange with an IDF soldier. Larkin was in Hebron setting up his camera when an M16-wielding soldier on a rooftop yelled down to him, asking him what he was doing. Larkin explained that he was a filmmaker from Ireland, so naturally the conversation turned to a discussion about beer. As the beer banter volleyed between the two men, it occurred to Larkin for the first time that maybe the soldier didn’t actually want to be stationed up there.
“It was so surreal,” he says. “Suddenly we’re talking about beer and I’m thinking that in any other situation we could’ve been friends.”
On another occasion in the West Bank, he met with Hind Khoury, the PLO’s former delegate-general to France. After hearing countless Palestinians – Khoury included – persist in their praise of nonviolent resistance, he was shocked to discover that Khoury adamantly refused to condemn the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers.
“I kept pressing her on this [issue],” he recalls. “I said, ‘You’re telling me it’s okay for a 17-year-old to blow up another 17- year-old?’ She got very irate – she went mental at me. I kept thinking, this is madness.
You hear this mantra of ‘nonviolent resistance’ over and over, but you go into any [West Bank] town and on every available space there are all these pictures of martyrs with their names, birthdays and the place where they blew themselves up.”
He remembers sitting in a Tel Aviv café on the morning that Hamas fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus near Kibbutz Sa’ad, killing a child. That week also marked a dramatic rise in missiles launched from Gaza, and the subsequent IDF strikes there in an effort to quell the attacks.
“I didn’t know about the intensity of the rockets,” he says. “There was a sense of panic in Israel – a big, moral panic. I remember thinking that if I was sitting in Dublin or Belfast or London, I wouldn’t have heard about the rockets or the kid getting killed – I’d have only heard about the nasty Israelis going in and bombing the s*** out of the poor Gazans. And suddenly I saw it through Israeli eyes. That was a huge moment of clarity.”
Previously, he admits, he had bought into the Irish media’s skewed portrayal of the 2008-09 incursion into Gaza. Presenting little more than statistics, the reports seemed clear-cut: 1,200 Palestinians dead and only 13 Israelis.
“I was disgusted by what I read,” he says.
“It was painted as a massacre. I thought, this isn’t a fight, this is genocide.”
But after arriving in Israel, he soon became jaded by much of what he saw and heard. He found the Palestinian propaganda machine to be well-oiled, and it left him with a deep sense of cynicism.
“At first, I found it difficult to get Israelis to talk to me – they were cagey and didn’t trust us, probably because we were Irish. With the Palestinians, it was the opposite – they were queuing up to talk to me. Each one of them had a story, and they kept saying, ‘We’re all friends.’ I often found myself weeding through all the propaganda just to find out what was really going on.”
On one particular Friday, he and his crew were in Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood filming. Friday prayers had just finished in the mosque, and all the elders went home while the younger ones stayed. They donned checkered scarves and waited for Larkin to set his camera up before they began throwing rocks and running out in front of passing cars. He notes that the whole experience was laced with theatricality, and it soon became obvious that had he not been there to film, nothing would have happened.
“They were all around me, all riled up, then one of them caught my eye and asked me if I got it all [on video].”
The filmmaker has his own theories about why the Irish public is so willing to believe every negative word the Irish media print about Israel.
“My parents’ generation didn’t know anything about Israel,” he says. “Local news always sold more papers. But by the late ’90s, decades of war [with Britain] were over in Ireland, yet we were left with a whole generation of young Irish people itching for a fight. These were youths who had romantic left-wing notions about the cause. The Irish are born to fight, they have warrior blood in them. They knew that the IRA did business with the PLO, and many of them sympathized with the similarities they felt they shared with Palestinians, so they adopted it as a proxy cause. The Republican movement has hijacked the Palestinian movement.”
He berates his fellow Irishmen for buying into one-dimensional perceptions of the Israeli-Arab conflict. “They’re confused about who the underdog is. They don’t realize just because you’re pro- Palestine doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be anti-Israel.”
Larkin celebrates the fact that Israel is the one place in the world where one can champion both Zionist ideology and a left-wing stance.
“I don’t like to categorize myself – I’m left-wing on most things and rightwing on others – but I firmly believe the Jews have a right to a homeland,” he says. “And I believe that that can only exist if there is a Jewish majority.”
When asked to explain his tattoo, he shrugs offhandedly. “I was going to get it in Hebrew, but then thought that might be a bad idea. But it’s not just about Jews, it’s relevant to everyone. Wiping out half a nation cannot happen again. The thing that fascinates me is that it’s so recent, yet we let it happen – this blows my mind.”
IN MARCH 2012, one year after his first visit to Israel, the Sunday Independent ran an op-ed column he authored, titled “Israel is a refuge, but a refuge under siege.” The opening line reads, “I used to hate Israel. I used to think the Left was always right. Not anymore.
Now I loathe Palestinian terrorists.”
With over a million readers, the Independent is easily Ireland’s most widely read paper, and according to the filmmaker, his article went viral within a matter of days, drawing 12,000 shares on social media networks.
In the article, he takes Ireland’s BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement to task. He condemns the boycott of Israeli products in Irish supermarkets, saying that it also harms Palestinian farmers. He roundly attacks activists who claim to be proponents of free speech, yet who automatically shoot down any comments defending Israel.
The article’s controversy was enough to unleash a litany of venom toward Larkin – especially from his peers in the art world. For a couple of months following its publication, he was depressed and was afraid even to open his email.
The abuse he received included death threats and accusations of having Palestinian children’s blood on his hands.
Then came the Dublin premiere of his documentary on Israel, Forty Shades of Grey. (He claims to have had the title two years before the publication of the similarly titled blockbuster novel Fifty Shades of Grey. He chose it as a play on the words of an Irish moniker, “Forty Shades of Green,” intended to invoke the notion that there are far more than two sides to every conflict.) The outrage continued with the release of the film, which has since been screened in universities and film festivals around the world.
The Irish Arts Council funded the documentary, but Larkin claims it was only because he applied for funds by touting a pro-Palestinian approach.
“Since I ‘came out’ [as being pro-Israel], they don’t want to fund me anymore,” he says. “The film shocked them. I’m the only one who got cut off [from funding].”
However, despite the overwhelming condemnation, he concedes that he also received a lot of support.
“People did say that they respected what I was doing. The problem is, it was mostly on a private level, in emails and the like. It makes me sad that people are scared to go public with it, but the bullies at the [Palestinian] solidarity campaign have created an atmosphere where you can’t show support of Israel – they even have a Web page monitoring my movements!” Still, there were a few triumphs in the public sphere, and he does believe that things are changing. The owner of a pub in Dublin read his article and subsequently changed his own mind about the Jewish state, to the extent that he hung an Israeli flag outside his pub in honor of Israel’s Independence Day.
“Seeing the Irish flag outside the pub with the Israeli flag next to it was the proudest moment of my life,” Larkin says. “People are slowly changing their minds. I was the first to stick my neck out and present fresh information. I think I contributed to changing the discourse in Ireland. That’s not to say everyone in Ireland is going to become a Zionist, but at least people are thinking about things rather than just accepting everything they hear.”
When asked how his parents reacted to all the fuss that his article and film generated, he shakes his head and laughs.
“They think it’s very funny,” he says.
“They said, ‘Oh, look at the little lad in the paper causing all the trouble.’ They framed the article just because it caused such a controversy.”
His message to the art community is to urge artists to be open-minded enough to challenge their preconceptions and allow for a change of heart if the case warrants it. He further encourages critics of Israel to visit the country before making up their minds one way or the other.
And just where does he think Israel is headed? “The majority of the Palestinians – at least those in the West Bank – want recognition; they want a state, and they want peace,” he says. “Ninety percent of the people on both sides of the wall want peace.”
And where, in his eyes, do the challenges lie? “I think settlement building is a major problem. It has to stop – it’s pissing everyone off. But the main problem as I see it is Hamas. At least Fatah recognizes Israel’s right to exist. If you’re truly pro-Palestinian, you’ve got to understand that Hamas has to go. You don’t have to be friends, but you don’t have to kill each other, either.”
Asked if he is hopeful that the sides will reach reconciliation in the near future, he flashes a mischievous smirk.
“Well, if we’re going to compare the Irish to the Palestinians, then you’re all f***ed. It took us 800 years before we got peace – you guys have a long way to go till you reach that. So yeah, not so optimistic.”