‘Zionism Is a Humanist Movement, Not a Colonial One’: Prominent French-Tunisian Movie Producer Said Ben Saïd Reflects on Arabs, Jews and Islam
Last November, the Tunisian-born French movie producer Said Ben Saïd briefly found himself thrust into the center of the Arab world’s conflict with Israel as a result of his work with Nadav Lapid, an Israeli film director.
In an op-ed for the French daily Le Monde, Ben Saïd revealed that an invitation to preside over the jury of the 28th Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia had been curtly rescinded because of his cooperation with Lapid, as well as his participation on the judges panel at the 2017 Jerusalem Film Festival in Israel. That decision provided an opportunity for Ben Saïd to articulate some home truths.
“[I]t must be admitted that the Arab world is, in its majority, antisemitic,” Ben Saïd wrote at the time. “This hatred of Jews has redoubled in intensity and depth not because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but with the rise of a certain vision of Islam.”
Four months on, Ben Saïd, who was on a visit to New York, seemed unfazed that his critique of the widespread, socially acceptable antisemitism that has endured throughout the Arab world for more than a century had not become more commonplace.
“I’m talking as an Arab and as a Muslim, and that’s what I am,” Ben Saïd explained during an interview with The Algemeiner at his hotel in Manhattan’s Soho district. “But I am talking against a majority of people who do not think as I do. Those people who need to think completely differently about their relationship with Israel, they are the same people who are at present convinced that they are not antisemitic. They think they are merely anti-Zionists.”
Ben Saïd’s readiness to openly challenge antisemitism — particularly when it impacts artistic freedom in the form of the cultural boycott of Israel — was one key reason why he received the 2018 Pomegranate Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) during his stay in New York. As a producer who has embraced engagement instead of the boycott campaign, Ben Said is in good company with previous Jewish and Muslim recipients of the same prize – among them André Azoulay, the senior councilor to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Enrico Macias, the Algerian-born and internationally renowned singer, and Ema Shah, the popular Kuwaiti performer and advocate of Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
“Said Ben Saïd’s words and deeds are a provocative example of how to effectively counter such antisemitic extremism, as well as the creative power of art to connect diverse peoples,” Jason Guberman — executive director of the ASF — said in advance of the March 6 award ceremony.
During his acceptance speech at this year’s NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival, Ben Saïd quoted extensively from an exchange between Franz Kafka — the great mid-twentieth century writer (and Zionist) — and his fellow Czech intellectual, Gustav Janouch. “Jewish nationalism,” Kafka told Janouch, “is like a caravan which in the cold of a desert night is forced by outside pressures to form a powerful lager (encampment). The caravan doesn’t want to win a victory. It only wants to reach some secure and peaceful homeland of its own which will give the men and women of the caravan the possibility of a freely developing human existence.”
“I am really personally very touched by Franz Kafka’s definition of Zionism,” Ben Saïd remarked during our interview. As he expounded his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was clear that Kafka’s notion of Zionism as a dignified attempt to secure Jewish survival in a hostile world was his point of departure.
What was also clear was Ben Saïd’s emphatic rejection of the orthodoxies of both sides of the conflict. “I don’t think these people are antisemitic at all,” he said, in an answer to an invitation to speculate on the motives of Western artists who endorse the cultural boycott of Israel.
“I think we are talking about anti-Zionism and antisemitism, which are clearly two different ideologies, although over time, they tend to converge,” Ben Saïd continued. “I know many really sincere anti-Zionists. Most of them are Jews, either liberal or orthodox.”
In Ben Saïd’s view, the key intellectual challenge for the Arab world lies in its refusal to understand Zionism as a legitimate Jewish national awakening. “Today, people, especially in the Arab world, don’t know anything about Zionism’s history,” he said.
“They think that it’s a colonial movement, and it’s not,” he continued, going on to appraise Zionism as a “humanist movement,” as well as a “utopia” that emerged in France during the infamous Dreyfus trial at the close of the nineteenth century.
The BDS campaign, he said, was “not antisemitic in its motivations but became clearly antisemitic in its consequences.”
“Whatever we think of the Israeli government today, and the Israeli policy today, I think the Israeli people and the civil society in Israel are really doing their best to criticize that government,” Ben Saïd argued. “I don’t think that isolating Israel is the right thing to do politically. There are 22 Arab countries, 60 Islamic countries, and there is one Jewish country. Trying to isolate that country has had terrible consequences on the region — on Israel, because people are afraid, and when they are afraid they vote for extremists, and therefore on the whole Arab world.”
Highlighting what he believes is a grave absence of historical perspective among his fellow Arabs, Ben Saïd remarked, “If you see the history of the region since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by Israel, you will think that Israel is responsible for everything.”
But, he went on, “maybe if you look at the history since 1900, you will see how much the Arabs were responsible. And if you see the history since the nineteenth century, the Europeans were very much responsible as well. So the responsibility is shared by all the parts; I don’t think that you can say that Israel is completely responsible and the Arabs are only victims.”
That historical analysis was weighted with a demographic one as well. “There are maybe 8 million Jews in Israel, 15 million in the world, and it’s funny, because when I’m in Tunisia or somewhere like that, people tell me, ‘Are you out of your mind? There are maybe 200 million!'” Ben Saïd observed. “They believe that antisemitic image that the Jews are everywhere. So I thought, when you consider the number of antisemites in the world, there are certainly much more than 15 million — perhaps there are one hundred times more antisemites than there are Jews in the world. I always had sympathy because of that, because you have 8 million Jews surrounded by 400 million Arabs and 1.2 billion Muslims.”
Thus far, Ben Saïd has largely avoided the Middle East and its discontents during a career producing movies for leading directors like Brian De Palma, Paul Verhoeven and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. One of his ambitions, he said, was to produce a movie set immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when the early followers of Islam were bitterly divided over his succession. “It would be a historical movie about the succession, the first civil war in the Arab community,” Ben Saïd explained. “I would like to show how violent and divided the community was, with false prophets arising.”
Ben Saïd said that while his childhood in Tunisia was “very religious,” he eventually become an atheist (“or an agnostic, depending on the day,” he noted) after moving to France at the age of 18. In his view, Islam is first of all a civilization and a culture — and one to which Ben Saïd feels as intimately attached as he does to France. That, perhaps, explains why his long-term outlook is more optimistic than many of the other intellectuals and artists who have been targeted by anti-Zionist campaigns. While he does not play down the enormous political and cultural dilemmas posed by Europe’s growing Muslim population, drawn from all corners of the Islamic world, he firmly believes that Islam will one day be imbued with a “new vision” as a result of its sojourn in Europe.
“We are making a lot of discoveries about the Quran and how, historically, it came to be communicated from an oral to a written tradition,” Ben Saïd said.
“This process will take time, so for the future I am optimistic,” he concluded — before adding, with a wry smile, “but not in the near future.”