Film examines early European Jewish immigration to Palestine

Religious Jews from the first aliyah in 1913.

Hour-long documentaries airing on PBS usually do not arrive with much pre-broadcast buzz. In the case of 1913: Seeds of Conflict, a new film from Emmy-winning Jewish filmmaker Ben Loeterman about the roots of Israeli-Arab tension, there has been some controversy attached.

“When we screened the film over a couple nights in Palm Beach, Fla.… the turnout was phenomenal but the reaction was very disdainful,” Loeterman tells The CJN. “I think [the film has] a certain shock value.”

That surprise for some Jewish audiences, he says, is how critically the film views the arrival of European Jewish immigrants in Palestine in the early 20th century.

The documentary, airing June 30 on PBS, explores the dawning of the difficult relationship between these Jewish migrants and Palestine’s then predominantly Arab population. 

During the First Aliyah, from 1882 to 1903, Jewish arrivals from Europe got into some disputes with Arab neighbours. The Second Aliyah shortly after exacerbated this tension further. 

Meanwhile, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire made both Jews and Arabs more interested in their own autonomy. 

“This film may challenge your comfort zone and I understand that,” Loeterman says. “I’m Jewish and it challenges my comfort zone a little bit.

“But we have to get over that. You’re not so progressive as you think until you grapple with some of the issues raised by this piece of history.”

Loeterman says that this slice of history is not well known because western scholarship on the Ottoman era is relatively new. It was only in 2005 when scholars from Europe and North America gained access to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul.

Scholars and professors who dug into these archives – some of whom are featured in 1913: Seeds of Conflict – found fascinating new details from the time period explored in the film. 

For instance, the documentary shows a Jerusalem coffee house in the early 20th century, which was a communal gathering space for Muslims, Jews and Christians in the holy city. 

This tapestry of religions living together in relative harmony came through in many of the uncovered writings and documents from the period.

“When we go to the Old City [in Jerusalem] as tourists, we think that the city was born in quarters,” Loeterman says. “In 1913, there wasn’t a quartered city. Everybody lived together and found ways to live together.”

1913: Seeds of Conflict also shows footage from Life of the Jews in Palestine, a 1913 film made by Noah Sokolovsky, which screened at the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna that year. 

It may be the first known film to show footage of the early days of the Zionist movement in action, and is thought to be the first Hebrew-language film ever made. 

Scholars of Ottoman life interviewed for 1913: Seeds of Conflict deem Sokolovsky’s documentary to be propaganda. In it, Jewish farmers plow land in the Galilee, but the Arab population is harder to find. 

“Maybe there are questions we should ask ourselves,” Loeterman says, “of the European Jews who moved into the neighbourhood not always with the best of manners.”

The filmmaker began working on 1913: Seeds of Conflict in 2011 and says he originally wanted to finish the doc to air in 2013, to mark 100 years since the titular seeds were sown. 

However, upon hearing that the Jerusalem Cinematheque was working on a high-definition version of Life of the Jews in Palestine, the director says he decided to wait until this updated footage was available for use. 

While Sokolovsky’s film was a seemingly innocent look at the dream to create a Jewish homeland, Loeterman’s doc is a sobering reminder of the difficulties that arose as a result of Zionist enterprise. 

Loeterman says that even though the conflict between Arabs and Jews has waged on for more than a century, it is a relatively new struggle in the history of the Middle East. 

“100 years is not that long,” he says. “100 years is not that impossible to fix. If the film makes one say… [Jews and Arabs] were actually getting along ok, maybe there can be ways to figure out how to get along again.”