Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. — Mohandas Gandhi
Human Rights . . . filmmaking . . . a vision of justice. Ronit Avni has fused these elements as founder and Executive Director of Just Vision, a non-profit organization that uses documentary film and educational tools to tell an otherwise untold story, disenfranchising outdated stereotypes and supporting and inspiring nonviolent peace initiatives. In short, Just Vision focuses on increasing the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working for nonviolent solutions to the conflict.
The daughter of a Canadian mother and Israeli father, Ronit grew up in Montreal among an expatriate Israeli community. “Many of my friends were Israeli or had Israeli parents. Eventually, my father moved back to Israel when I was a teenager, so I would go back and forth.” Ronit eventually studied Theatre Directing in Montreal and Political Science in the United States. “I went to Vassar and then got a job at a human rights organization. Basically, I wanted to fuse my passion for the arts with my political interests. I felt that documentary filmmaking and human rights advocacy would combine my interest areas, so I began looking for ways to bring together those two fields and came across a human rights group called WITNESS that was founded by the musician Peter Gabriel. At the time, it was a project of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now known as Human Rights First). The vision behind it was to equip human rights defenders around the world with video cameras, train them to document violations and work with them to deter abuses — to capture evidence for courts and tribunals and to mobilize their constituencies.”
Ronit had already laid the foundation for continuing her advocacy with WITNESS by previously interning and volunteering with two prominent Israeli human rights organizations: B’Tselem—The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel. She also mentions having bought her own camera at the time and training herself to use it. “I was eager to bring my creative and political interests together professionally. After I got a job at WITNESS, I began working with human rights advocates all over the world — primarily with groups in West Africa, the United States, and in the Middle East. So I was working in everyone else’s backyard. After September 11th, which took place a few blocks from our office, and after the collapse of the OSLO process, I felt that I needed to focus exclusively on my own backyard which was that bridge between North America, including the North American Jewish community, and the Israeli/Palestinian context. And so I embarked on a two year research process while I was still at WITNESS.”
As Ronit relates, that process involved interviewing four hundred and seventy-five Israelis and Palestinians engaged in nonviolent conflict resolution work based in Israel, the West Bank and Jerusalem. “For me it was consultative to understand what was going on — what people were thinking, what they needed, and what they were doing,” Ronit enumerates. “It was very informative and people were very generous with their time. This was during a period when many people and organizations didn’t have websites yet, so the feeling was one of invisibility, where the people that I met with felt that they tended to only know others in their own field. If you were a human rights advocate, you knew other human rights advocates. If you were an educator, you might know other educators engaging in this kind of work. But you didn’t know people beyond your field. And so there was this heightened sense of isolation and a sense that the world didn’t know about their work. They really wanted media attention and a way to connect to broader communities of support. So after that two year process, I felt that there was a gap to be filled. Although I loved my job at Witness and was very reluctant to leave, I felt that I could apply the skills I’d acquired there to this work which I was very passionate about. I then received a two-year fellowship from Joshua Venture that enabled me to take the risk to leave my job and to start to lay the groundwork for Just Vision.”
That foundational work, as Ronit describes, developed organically as those media experts resonating with the initiative entered the picture. “One person that came on board right away was an American journalist who had been working with Linda Gradstein from NPR, named Nahanni Rous. Because of her journalism work she had extensive contacts and began researching and interviewing. I also moved to Jerusalem and set up a small office there in 2003. Then, through a filmmaker friend, I got in touch with the first Palestinian female pilot, Joline Makhlouf, who had been helping her on a film she’d been working on . . . So very quickly our team grew. Soon thereafter, I saw Control Room, and really loved the handling of the multiple narratives featured in the film. I reached out to the director and asked her to recommend one of the four editors listed. She recommended Julia Bacha (Director of Budrus) who ended up coming on as our Media Director.”
So Just Vision initially began as a core team of women –- Israeli, Palestinian, American and Brazilian. “Two of them have moved on to having children and building their families,” Ronit mentions, “but they are still consulting for us and working with us. I joke that we’re like the Mafia –- once you’re involved you can’t leave. We’ve developed really close relationships. There were years that were incredibly intense during the height of the Second Intifada. I felt we were like a little engine, and we were. We had no money. We had an idea and no track record at the time. But the idea was always to create media and to document the stories that you weren’t hearing on the nightly news.”
Just Vision emerged in response to the lack of media coverage of Palestinian and Israeli civilians working to end the occupation and the conflict. While violent extremism receives front-page exposure, courageous nonviolence leaders and peacebuilders are relegated to occasional human interest stories. Consequently, at Just Vision, we work to ensure that these Palestinian and Israeli civic leaders are not only taken seriously as partners in the quest for peace, but are also more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.
Of course, most nonviolent initiatives by their very nature don’t make it to prime time, where sensation and drama drive ratings. Yet, the fact remains that it’s essential to depict the other side of the story, where peaceful attempts at resolution, even if initially thwarted, give rise to possibilities for lasting change. The bottom line: Extremists get plenty of press. Stories need to be told that spotlight the peacemakers.
Ronit recognized the imbalance long ago, as well as the need to broaden the scope of the narrative. “You know, the thing that I really want to be clear about is that we’re not doing this to make people feel good about themselves. A lot of people just want to hear good stories so they can just relax and not do anything. That’s not why we do the work we do. We do it because the people who are working toward ending the occupation and the conflict are doing something really important. They need to be supported, and they need to be understood. We’re not saying that every initiative or every individual is equally effective or compelling, but we need to start from a place of knowledge and understanding. We need to try to remove the barriers toward engaging in nonviolence and conflict resolution work. I feel strongly and I’ve felt this from the beginning—and, in fact, the effects in Tunisia and in Egypt have only reinforced this for me—that any political agreement reached at the top will not hold without support from the bottom.”
And at the end of the day, as Ronit concludes, civil society is what leads. Eventually politicians come around, and they of course, have the power to make specific agreements, but the community-at-large is critical. “We’ve seen that with the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and so many other social movements historically, as well as those today around the world. So neglecting civil society is a major strategic mistake and also one that is going to have negative consequences in the future. That’s why Just Vision focuses exclusively on civil society and on grass roots . . . Those people who say ‘Enough is enough. I have to personally get involved in some way and do something.’ And sometimes it’s at great risk to themselves and to their families. Those are the people we don’t want to leave isolated. That’s why we try to tell their stories. We try to drive attention to them through print and broadcast media and also through social media. We create tools for educators, community leaders and faith leaders to use with their constituencies. We bring thought leaders to meet some of the people that we profile and also get them to see the stories that they may not be aware of. There’s a feedback loop. President Obama in his Cairo speech several years ago implored Palestinians to adopt nonviolence, and he cited examples from all over the world. He devoted an entire paragraph to it, but he didn’t cite a local example. He didn’t cite one because he didn’t know of one—not because a local example didn’t exist.”
Just Vision actually underscores those examples and brings them to light. “Because doing that has implications. It’s how policy gets formulated,” Ronit explains. “You know, we’re not an advocacy organization. We don’t prescribe policy, but the policymakers should not be in the dark about civil society initiatives that are moving in the direction of resolving the conflict or challenging the occupation.”
Have Just Vision’s films, Encounter Point and in particular, Budrus, made tangible impacts in promoting the idea that nonviolence is a powerful and viable avenue toward achieving a sustainable peace?
“Yes, absolutely,” Ronit confirms. “It’s happening on multiple levels. First of all, when we decided to make Budrus, we set out to put the village and the story on the map. We did a search on Google of all of the references to Budrus prior to the film production. Because the events of Budrus happened in 2003-2004 and we only started making the film in 2007, it’s very easy to look at the before and the after. Before, there were only a handful of activist websites that told the story of Budrus. But none of the major media outlets from Al Jazeera to the Israeli Press, from the NY Times to the BBC, knew the story. Some local press had gone to a few of the demonstrations but they never went back to find out what happened. But now if you were to do a search on Budrus, you would literally find thousands of references, including those from all of the top journalists and top media outlets . . . My favorite is seeing the story of Budrus mentioned without any reference to the film — where it’s now just part of the popular discourse.”
When the residents of Budrus learn that the Israeli army plans to build the Separation Barrier through their town, cutting them off from neighboring Palestinian villages and uprooting their precious olive groves, they decide to organize. Under the leadership of Ayed Morrar, Palestinian men of all political factions come together to wage an unarmed struggle to preserve their lands. Victory seems unlikely until Ayed’s 15-year-old daughter steps in to organize a female contingent that brings the women of Budrus to the front lines in a tense stand-off with the military.
Ronit also conveys another example of a village facing similar circumstances as those in Budrus — vying the placement of the Separation Barrier. “They showed the film in al-Wallajeh, and several days later when they had another demonstration, we were told that about four times as many people showed up. We also found out that after a screening in the actual village of Budrus, a march was held down to the places where they were slated to lose land, and the people planted trees to commemorate what had been done. When we showed the film to a woman’s group near the Bethlehem area that had never seen women play such a pivotal role, they were so moved that they asked to meet with the women of Budrus.” The documentary was also screened in a more unusual venue: a preparatory program that included about thirty young people who were about to enter the Israeli military. “One of them was going to be in the exact same unit that [squadron leader] Yasmine Levy was with in Budrus,” Ronit informs. “It raised some very important questions for her about what it was going to mean ethically, and what she might be faced with.”
Screenings of Budrus continue to spark both awareness and dialogue. “We don’t tell people what to do, but we want people to think,” Ronit states. “We want them to think about what constitutes a nonviolent movement and what an ethical response to a nonviolent movement would be. We also want them to think about the role of ordinary people. These are all questions that come up in the film.”
And what about the role of women? As conveyed in Budrus, fifteen-year-old Iltezam Morrar, daughter of the Palestinian leader of the village, questions why women are not involved in the protest. Once they are allowed to take part in the demonstrations, a palpable change occurs which definitely affects the process.
“Well it’s interesting,” Ronit relates, “Ayed Morrar, who is the Palestinian protagonist—the father that leads this movement in Budrus—said that the men in the village behaved differently when standing next to their wives, daughters and mothers, and that the soldiers also behaved differently. It seems there’s a kind of restraint, or at least, a relative restraint that could kick in around the presence of women. It doesn’t always kick in, but it has a greater probability of doing so than when men are just facing one another. But of course, we do see instances of Yasmine Levy beating some of the women with a baton. Yet, their presence was incredibly important, and there’s a very interesting rapport and dynamic that emerges between the women of the village and Yasmine. You can see it. But women are not playing a central role in some of the other villages that are engaging in similar kinds of demonstrations today. And none of them, to date, have had the success that Budrus has had. We can’t say it’s causal, but I think there is a correlation between women’s participation and a higher probability of a successful outcome. It’s not the only factor, but it’s certainly a factor.”
Ronit also addresses the fact that both Israeli and international activists played an important role in the protests held in Budrus. “The Israelis that came into the village recognized that they were going to be treated differently by the soldiers because they were Israeli. So that was a way to help lessen some of the violence—it would make the military think twice about using force. But it’s a very complicated dynamic. I think that the relationships built among the demonstrators were very strong. When we brought the film back to the village of Budrus, all the different political factions and the Israeli activists came to the screening and so did another seven hundred people. It’s only a fifteen hundred person village. So literally half the village came to watch the movie.”
Budrus is a wonderful example of the power of the media to touch us in profound ways, challenge our preconceived notions and open our hearts and just maybe our minds. — Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan
The film, undoubtedly, created a lasting impact. Empowering communities . . . conveying the positive results of nonviolence . . . depicting women coming to the forefront. Ronit describes another compelling factor within the Israeli/Palestinian peace initiative which, when unleashed, thrives on its own momentum. “The relationships that get built defy stereotypes and defy expectations. They’re really deep relationships. It doesn’t mean now that they’ve had exposure to one another that they’re going to embrace – that every Palestinian is going to embrace every Israeli . . . But there are deep relations of trust that are being built among these constituencies. I think those bode extremely well for the future. For example, we had a screening in Gaza, and the young people there had never seen Israelis like the activists in the film. They were fascinated.”
Prolific and often seen as much more impactful, violent images sweep across movie screens and consume the front pages of newspapers and magazine covers. Since the media is such a powerful tool, it’s important to offer alternative depictions which are just as real, and certainly just as important, in order to balance our view of the conflict and the players, as well as the possibilities for resolution.
“I think that’s a big issue in the conflict in general,” Ronit states. “I think both Israelis and Palestinians need to be able to make distinctions because if you see each side as just a homogeneous group, then it’s so much easier to demonize. It’s so much easier to say ‘All Palestinians are terrorists, or all Israelis are soldiers and settlers who only understand violence,’ or whatever the caricature language is. That’s why it’s important to understand that there’s complexity within these societies, that there are different kinds of people. Not every Israeli is Baruch Goldstein. It’s really important to not only make distinctions but actually put your actions where your values are to make sure that the other side sees the difference.”
Recognizing the potent realities of Just Vision’s work, one can’t help but wonder how covering and documenting the ongoing conflict in Israel has affected Ronit personally, perhaps shifting some ideas she may have previously held.
“It’s hard to separate out the filmmaking from the day to day work,” Ronit admits, “because Just Vision’s work is not just about making films. We interview people in the field, and we conduct outreach on a continuing basis. So my interaction with Israeli and Palestinian culture and society is ongoing. I think that certainly I’ve grown over the years in terms of my involvement with Just Vision. I don’t have any romantic illusions about anyone. It’s messy. Movements are messy. Governments and populations are messy. There are no righteous or noble victims just by the virtue of being a victim. These are things that I knew but they’ve certainly been reinforced. Yet, I am constantly inspired by ordinary people who have everything to lose. They put their families, their lives, their reputations, their liberty on the line in order to change circumstances on the ground. So I’ve simultaneously seen some very ugly expressions of human behavior as well as some of the most courageous, empathic and generous expressions of it.”
Ronit also recognizes she has gained a deeper understanding about nonviolence and what it means. “I had not been exposed to the nonviolence movement that existed historically in Palestinian society before the Second Intifada. For example, I didn’t know about the incredible protests and marches or the strikes and sit-ins that took place during the First Intifada or that have been taking place since the ’20s and ’30s in Palestinian society. None of that history was something that I was aware of. I had seen the First Intifada through the lens of the Western media and through the Israeli press. I also didn’t grasp the extent to which ordinary Palestinians were sitting in Israeli prisons. I think my default assumption had been ‘Well, there must be a reason.’ Also, over the years, after seeing the arbitrary nature of how people get detained, how violence gets used and how decisions get made, that instinctive benefit of the doubt that I afforded one community and not the other while I was growing up is gone.”
Since films like Budrus have opened the aperture further, highlighting nonviolent leaders in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and recognizing the power of peaceful demonstrations, there’s been a promising breakthrough. Although there are still exceptions, Ronit notices a difference in how other journalists and documentarians are treating the problem.
“There’s been an improvement in terms of recognizing that these movements exist, and that they’re important,” Ronit asserts. “So I do think that there’s been a change. There’s no question. I mean the fact that people are referencing these movements is the biggest change, frankly.”
Ronit also underscores how Budrus has helped in thwarting old narratives. “I think the narrative amongst the Israeli public has been Why don’t Palestinians adopt nonviolence? If they did, there would be peace. In Palestinian society the narrative has been Nonviolence doesn’t work. We’ve tried it. The American society narrative is Where is the Palestinian Gandhi? . . . This film challenges all of those assumptions. You’re seeing journalists pick up on those themes and write about them differently or reference and incorporate them into their arguments.”
And so another salient and controversial issue rears its head. Responsible journalism. Is it important for journalists and filmmakers to not only present “facts” but to use the force of media to benefit and not exacerbate the problem?
“I think that journalists have a responsibility to report on events and phenomena that are taking place in a particular region,” Ronit states, “and to try to do so dispassionately in general and get a complete picture of what’s going on to the best of their ability. But very often in this context, people default to the closest native speaker of whatever language the journalist speaks as opposed to the native language of the region, whether it’s Arabic or Hebrew. So that limits the pool of people that are featured. Also, it’s very hard to encapsulate these movements in a photograph or a headline. If you show a building that’s been bombed or a bus that’s exploded, it’s easy to make sense of that immediately. Whereas, if you see a picture of a group of people standing around, it takes a lot more work to really cover the story. And often, I think many journalists make the mistake of waiting for it to be a mass movement like what we saw in Tahrir Square (Cairo). They wait for it to get to that critical mass point before giving it coverage.”
Ronit also recognizes that smaller, less dramatic peace initiatives are staples in building a movement. “In fact, the building blocks are as important as the outcome. Those building blocks are critical – and often they’re small and disjointed in some way. Reporting on these stories requires a lot of patience, a lot of effort, and a desire to really understand the local dynamics. And I also think, along with budgets being slashed in terms of long-term reporting and the default, especially, to local English speakers, that there is a general bias against nonviolence. There’s a feeling that it’s not as newsworthy as violent actions.”
As Ronit indicates, there are a number of obstacles to having stories on peace activism see the light of day. She notes it can be frustrating when a local stabbing involving one militant actor warrants media attention while five hundred people at a nonviolent demonstration doesn’t receive coverage. “There’s a question of proportionality and scale that I think is often missing,” Ronit indicates. “So at Just Vision, we try to complement existing coverage. We don’t say that we have all of the stories. We’re not outfitted as a twenty-four hour news cycle type of organization. We’re there for the long haul. We work exclusively on this issue because we want that depth of knowledge and that scope of contact on the ground so we can really understand what’s happening.”
And that understanding provides a powerful framework for Just Vision’s goal and philosophy: To direct attention to Israeli and Palestinian nonviolence and peacebuilding efforts, working with and beyond traditional media. Top down leadership is clearly not enough; an end to the conflict will be rooted in the work of Israeli and Palestinian civilians.
“I think that we want these nonviolent leaders at the table,” Ronit elucidates. “By ‘at the table’ I mean being covered by journalists, paid attention to, taken seriously, taken into consideration on the diplomatic level and supported on the grassroots level. Those who are favoring a nonviolent approach — one which recognizes that the two peoples are here to stay — are the best hope we have for a stable future.”
The film, Budrus, highlights and gives voice to that recognition, inspiring hope in the most basic aspects of human understanding. Originally released in 2009, it makes its DVD debut on May 10, 2011. And the Budrus Outreach Campaign is on the move as well. “It’s been very positive. We have different staff members who engage in outreach in the United States, in Palestinian society, and in Israeli society,” Ronit states. “Fundamentally, no matter the specific audience, there are three core messages: unity across divides, the power of nonviolence, and the strategic importance of women’s involvement.”
By exposing us to nonviolent leaders and initiatives, Just Vision provides a more encompassing view of Israeli/Palestinian relations, one where human decency and fair treatment is given a chance for survival. Within these small grassroots movements, we can recognize the power of peaceful resistance, where individuals, armed only with passion and principle, can make a difference.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. — Mohandas Gandhi
All photos used by permission. Photo of Ayed Morrar by Aisha Mershani.