Molly Stuart’s 75-minute documentary, Objector, kicks off the ninth annual Human Rights Film Festival in Toronto, which runs online from December 3-10.
Atalya Ben-Abba, a 19-year-old Israeli conscientious objector from Jerusalem, is at the center of this film, which begins six months before she’s due to be inducted into the army.
Atalya grew up thinking she would be a “fighter” on the front lines, but now she’s leaning the other way. Alona, her mother, was a soldier and believes Atalya might benefit from national service. “We have a mission to build a state and keep it safe,” she says.
Atalya’s brother, Amitai, believes she is under no obligation to serve. He received an exemption on the basis of a letter from a psychologist saying he suffered from anxiety. He has no regrets, saying it was the best decision of his life.
Orianna, Atalya’s older sister, disagrees with Amitai. “It’s not so simple,” says Orianna, who lives in Sderot, a town about a kilometer away from the Gaza Strip, a hotbed of anti-Israel hatred controlled by Hamas.
Avishai, Atalya’s father, fears she may be imprisoned should she refuse to be conscripted. Asa, her grandfather, is skeptical of her intentions. “Between us and the Arabs there will never be peace,” he says, implying that Israel must be capable of defending itself. Her uncle, Edor, delivers the same message.
Opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Atalya embarks on a series of short trips to the West Bank to gauge Palestinian opinion and enlarge her knowledge of the Palestinians.
In Jericho, an Arab town in the Jordan Valley, she meets Osama, a Palestinian who’s affiliated with the Combatants for Peace organization. “The Israeli government, the Israeli army, are destroying my home,” he says, adding that Israeli soldiers are inculcating hatred among Palestinians.
Atalya says she doesn’t want to be an “occupier,” whereupon Osama shows her Arab homes that have been demolished by Israel. She then meets a Palestinian farmer, who claims that Israel is pressuring him to leave his land. Disgusted by what she’s just seen, Atalya says the Palestinians don’t even have an army.
Three months before her induction into the army, Atalya and her brother visit another part of the Jordan Valley. They talk to a young Palestinian man who was attacked by a group of eight Jewish vigilantes.
Friends serving in the army have told Atalya they are doing “immoral things,” but she does not elaborate. In the following scene, Atalya attends a conscientious objectors’ meeting in Jerusalem sponsored by the Mesarvot Objector Network. Yet Atalya seems torn, fearing that refusal to join the army will brand her as a deviant and tear her away from Israeli society.
Continuing her forays into the West Bank, she visits the South Hebron Hills, where an Israeli army tractor demolishes a Palestinian house. The order is carried out after Jewish settlers from a nearby settlement complain of foul cooking odors. Atalya is distressed. “Of course they hate us,” she says, referring to the Palestinians. “Look at what we’re doing to them.”
“You can sort of understand why there are terrorists acts,” she goes on to say. “They’re cornered.”
By this juncture, Atalya appears to have made a final decision. “I have the power to refuse,” she says in reference to army service.
On the day she is due to be inducted, she appears at an army base. She realizes that her refusal to serve will not affect the status quo in the West Bank in the slightest, but feels she must stand up for her beliefs.
After being arrested and imprisoned, she asks to be classified as a conscientious objector, but her application is rejected. One hundred and ten days later, she’s released from prison, and Atalya becomes an anti-occupation activist. Her parents, having shared their daughter’s experience in civil disobedience, support her position.
Stuart’s film is anything but objective. She clearly endorses Atalya’s ideas and hails the courage of her convictions. But Stuart makes no attempt to analyze Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians, which is far more complex and complicated than she suggests. Yet, as a portrait of a principled Israeli woman who lives by her beliefs, Objector fills the bill.
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