Amos Gitai: Sparking Powerful Compassion in the Face of Extremism

by Amin El Gamal

One of the things that has always drawn me to the arts is its ability to elicit compassion. My parents are Muslim immigrants from Egypt and even though we didn’t really have anything to do with Israel or Palestine, the intense hate that fueled the conflict affected our lives on a daily basis. 

I was in elementary school in Palo Alto when the Oslo Accords were signed. My best friend was a Jewish kid named Adam and we starred in all the elementary school plays together. Both of us would hear hateful things about each other from the outside world and we would share them: “Arabs are worse than dogs” or “Jews cannot be trusted” or “You two should be enemies.” But those words lost their power on us because we had compassion for one another, partially from the stories we would tell on stage. We were impervious to the pull of extremist vitriol. 

Amos Gitai

Israeli architect-turned-filmmaker Amos Gitai knows a thing or two about art’s potential to spark powerful compassion in the face of extremism. His 1980 documentary Bayit (The House), about Israelis and Palestinians that occupied the same Jerusalem house at different times, was censored. Two years later, his film Field Diary, which showed images of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, resulted in a temporary exile.

His latest work, a theatrical production called Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination, will make its West Coast premiere at the Ford on July 23, presented in association with the Skirball Cultural Center and the Lincoln Center Festival. 

In case you’re not familiar with Rabin, here’s a quick summary… Yitzhak Rabin was the president of the Israeli Labour Party, which strove to invest more in education and infrastructure, and to reduce financing for Israeli colonies on Palestinian land. He was elected prime minister in 1992 and in 1993 signed the Oslo Accords with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat. Both men won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work, which outlined a peace process that would phase out Israeli military presence in the West Bank and establish the "right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” The Accords were met with an intense “hate campaign” led by Israeli’s right and far-right parties (including Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu). This culminated in the assassination of Rabin by an Israeli extremist in 1995.

The piece marks Gitai’s third exploration of Rabin’s murder – he recently helmed a multimedia installation at the MAXXI in Rome on the same subject and his film, Rabin, The Last Day, investigated the political circumstances around the assassination (the Skirball is screening the film, with Gitai in attendance, on July 20). He calls the triad “a deeply political act.” 

Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination
Einat Weizman and Sarah Adler in Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination

The stage piece finds two women reading from Rabin’s widow Leah’s memoirs, and includes projected archival footage related to the event and live music. Gitai has described the show’s style as “lullaby or fairy tale,” showing how the killing was "both a personal tragedy and an unprecedented historic disaster for the country.” Gitai hopes that revisiting this moment in history “can lead to change.”

Indeed, in a moment when extremism seems to be gaining prominence all over the world, Gitai’s exploration of hate has resonance beyond the conflict in Israel.

"Whipping up hate has become a good way of getting elected all over the world right now when you look at Donald Trump in the United States, and what is happening in Europe, Israel and the Middle East,” Gitai recently told Al-Monitor

So given the current political climate, what is the role of the artist?

"For me, the best tribute an artist can give to his own culture is to do critical work,” said Gitai. “The assassination of Rabin twenty years ago marks a turning point in the contemporary history of Israel. And we still live the consequences of this brutal act. In this context, the problem of the artist, the filmmaker, the writer is: what to do when living next to a volcano? What artistic form can one propose?”

Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination will take place on Sunday, July 23 at 8:30 PM. The screening of Rabin, the Last Day will take place at the Skirball Cultural Center on Thursday, July 20 at 8:00 PM. Tickets and info here.