Seeing grey in Israel

In Ireland, conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is portrayed as black and white issue.

Palestinian throws stone at Beitunia Nakba Day protest 370 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Palestinian throws stone at Beitunia Nakba Day protest 370 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Darren Whiteside)
Sheera sat across from me with a look on her face that could turn milk sour. Sheera was the first Israeli I'd ever met. We were in Frankfurt, both doing international artist residency programs. We'd become friends, and on breaks from working I would often go next door to her studio, armed with a copy of The Guardian.
We were both briefly back on the smokes – which I now blame on the stress of adapting to what can be a harshly humorless society. I would read to her the latest Guardian report about what the nasty Israelis had done that particular week. I wanted to get her views on the matter; I also wanted to hear her excuses.
It was a significant time for me to meet my first Israeli – my first Jew friend – and not only because of the irony of the country in which it happened.  I had just applied for funding to make an experimental documentary in Israel and Palestine, and I was awaiting a decision from The Irish Arts Council.
The title of my film proposal was Forty Shades of Grey. I wanted to investigate the forty shades of grey that I felt surely existed in between the definite black and white news reporting we were fed in Europe, particularly in Ireland.
My interest had been sparked by media reports on Operation Cast Lead. I posed in the striped scarf of the Palestinian Liberation Organization for an art show catalogue, in a gesture of solidarity. While I never had any notions of "Throwing The Jew Down The Well," I had definite opinions on Israeli foreign policy.
The Irish papers were full of stories of Israeli aggression everyday that summer; between flotillas and bombings it didn't look good. You can't polish a turd.
But I wanted to go and see for myself. I wanted to see just how nasty these Israeli's actually were. I wanted proof that I was right.
And so over a celebratory beer with the Jew in Germany, having just heard the news of the positive funding decision, I began to make plans.
Several months later, I arrived in Ben Gurion airport expecting all sorts of security checks. We were Irish, and we were filmmakers, therefore we were not to be trusted. Thankfully, we cleared security without the involvement of latex gloves or free prostate exams.
But suspicion followed us everywhere we went our first week in Israel. Once we told people we were Irish, it was harder to get interviews, and people were more reluctant to speak on camera. I understood why.
After the first week, we crossed over into the West Bank. Being Irish wasn't a problem on this side of the divide.  Everyone was our friend.  IRA graffiti adorned The Wall; tiny German flags were affixed to car number-plates. Bethlehem was Las Vegas for Jesus-freaks, with the neon crucifixes punctuated only by posters of martyrs.
I was confused by the constant Palestinian refrain of "non-violent resistance.” Why put up all the posters of martyrs, if you advocate non-violent resistance? I was supposed to understand all this somehow because I'm Irish. But even the IRA didn't blow themselves up, at least not on purpose.
I was also frustrated by the unquestioning attitude of foreign activists. Anything seemed acceptable in the name of the Palestinian cause. No questions asked. But would these middle-class war-tourists apply the same liberal attitude if the conflict was happening in their own country? If buses were exploding in their own home cities? If they weren't visiting on holidays in their summertime playground?
My opinions didn't change overnight. I spent seven weeks in the area, time divided equally between Israel and the West Bank. Then I spent several months trawling through hundreds of hours of the interviews we'd filmed. I'd spoken to everyone from religious settlers to Marxist Palestinians. Everybody had an opinion, and everybody was sure that their opinion was right.
But arriving home in Ireland I quickly realized there's only one opinion allowed – at least publicly. Attempting to justify Israel's position is just not acceptable here. Being anti-Israel has somehow become part of our national identity, the same way we are supposed to hate the English.
Like those pesky cigarettes, Israel has become the guilty pleasure. After writing a series of article in The Sunday Independent explaining my shift in political opinion, I received huge public abuse - which I expected.
What I did not expect was the significant volume of support from Irish people. All of it, however, came in private correspondence. It seems there are more Irish smokers out here in the pro-Israel shed than first expected. But they are all out here smoking on the sly – because they feel they have to.
Unfortunately attacks of the boycott-Israel brigade, The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have created an environment in Ireland that does not accept differences of opinion on the Israel issue. Their crusades are relentless; their tactics dirty.
They've attempted to brand me an Islamophobe because of a clip I released in advance of my film's premiere. The clip was about the Bedouin rape and torture camps in the Sinai peninsula. Filmed in Levinsky Gardens, an aid worker and two sub-Saharan refugees describe how as many as 50 percent of African women leave the Bedouin kidnap camps pregnant as a result of being systematically raped by the criminal Bedouin gang members.
But these Bedouins are Muslims. So therefore I'm an Islamophobe. That's just a small taste of their mode of attack.
This same boycott-brigade recently bullied the Irish band Dervish into canceling their planned Israeli concerts. Even though I think the brigade did you a favor, if you want to subject yourself to maudlin middle-aged fiddle-players – in my opinion, an appropriate collective punishment for any range of crimes– then that's your right.
And so the obvious accusations have been flying in, but unfortunately hot female Mossad agents driving Hummers full of Jew gold haven't yet arrived on my doorstep. Maybe they are lost on the bog roads, or have been intercepted by the boycott-brigade and sold off to buy more megaphones.
But I finish with one question. If the boycott-brigade ever contract tumors as a result of all their stress over things happening thousands of miles away, will they stick to their guns and boycott the widely acknowledged Israeli medical advances too?
The writer is the director of the film Forty Shades of Grey, which premieres in Dublin on May 31.