Mo Amer has been a staple of stand up comedy for many years, frequently appearing with my friend and rabbinical colleague, Bob Alper, and he has appeared on HBO. The series is, by turns, funny and poignant, especially as it shows the travails and small triumphs of an immigrant family in the United States that is trying to do more than simply get by.
A large part of the plot revolves around the family’s story — refugees from Haifa after the 1948 War of Independence, ultimately finding themselves in Kuwait, from which they were evacuated and fled, once again, to Houston. This is a story about immigrants trying to make it in America, but more important, it is a story about refugees.
Yes — poignant, funny, sweet — and in a few places, deeply uncomfortable.
As in: the mother telling the family story, about how they had to flee Haifa because of “the Zionists.” As in the cute irony: the family’s immigration lawyer is a Jewish woman, whose identity Mo must obfuscate for his mother, saying simply that her last name is Polish.
Now, as you would expect, when I hear the onscreen remarks about the Zionists, I instantly insert my traditional cassette into my brain. (No one uses cassettes anymore, but you get the point).
I inwardly launch into my speech:
- The Arabs rejected the partition plan of 1947, that would have created a separate Palestinian state.
- The combined Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state right after its birth in May, 1948, seeking to strangle the “infant” in its crib, creating a war that the Israelis won against all possible military odds.
- Yes, there were atrocities against the Arabs, forced evacuations, killings.
- But, in fact, the Jews in Haifa begged their Arab neighbors to stay, rather than submit themselves to what would become their inevitable degradation.
- Arab governments themselves, even and especially those that were oil-rich, have done precious little to help Palestinian refugees.
If you have just read that, your eyes are probably beginning to glaze over. Because those are the standard historical arguments, the staples of hasbara, explanation and PR. Many Jews, and certainly their leaders, have rehearsed those arguments with great eloquence for the past fifty years.
So, yes: hearing “the Zionists” getting the blame for the plight of Mo’s family stung me. I am sure that it has stung many of the Jews who have watched “Mo.”
As it should.
Here is why — even I, a card-carrying Zionist and lover of Israel — will continue to watch “Mo.”
This show and its message is necessary.
“Really?!? You choose the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress to say this?!?”
Yes. Even I, as a fervent Zionist, must say this. Especially I, as a fervent Zionist, must say this.
On the one hand, there is history. Funny thing, that word “history.” Nowadays, we tend to use it to mean something or someone who is irrelevant. A person loses her job, and she is “history.”
We Jews have never entertained ourselves with that extravagance. For us, history is all important. In that sense, the historical facts that I delineated above are accurate.
But, that accurate listing of historical facts does not erase — in fact, it cannot erase — the fact that the Palestinians have their own stories that they carry with them, like the keys to their former houses in Jerusalem and Haifa and other places, and those painful stories are also true. It would be tasteless to refuse to hear them; even more tasteless, to hear those stories and negate them.
No less a Zionist hero than Yossi Klein Halevi writes this, in his crucial book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor:
As we Israelis celebrated our reclaimed sovereignty and achieved one success after another, your people exchanged homes and olive orchards for the scorched earth of refugee camps, where you raised children without hope, the unwanted outcasts of the Arab world. I mourn the lives wasted in the bitterness of exile, your despair against my joy. For many years we in Israel ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent.
Yes, history matters. But, this is not about history. This is not about reciting the facts. Neither is it about the cruel and sobering recognition that history is cruel, that no nation was born in a Woodstock-like act of kumbaya.
This is more about human relations. This is about empathy.
This is about hearing.
Both Jews and Palestinians must hear and honor each others’ stories. Even before there can be a two-state solution, there needs to be a two narrative solution. To hear each other’s stories, to internalize each other’s pain, to acknowledge each other’s dreams.
Jews need to hear Palestinian stories, and Palestinians need to hear Jewish stories. Jews need to hear about how Palestinians took the keys to their family homes in Jaffa and Haifa. Palestinians need to remember how Arabs slaughtered Jews in Iraq, how they forced Jews from their homes in Syria.
As we enter the season of repentance, we enter the season of the shofar, the ram’s horn that Jews blow to signal the call to repentance. The mitzvah that is connected with the shofar is lishmoa kol shofar, to hear the voice of the shofar. It is all about hearing the many voices that create this complicated story.
That is why I am doing speaking engagements with the most important Muslim thought leader in America today, Imam Abdullah Antepli, in a program that we call “The Imam and The Rabbi.” We ask hard questions of each other, but what we demonstrate above all else is that we have the sacred obligation to listen, and to hear.
So, yes: The historical references in “Mo” trouble me, and haunt me, but they do not scandalize me. I can live with the discomfort.
After all, between “Shtisel” (wherein, granted, the ultra-Orthodox hareidi characters are not Zionist) and “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” and other accessible Israeli offerings, the Jewish national narrative has gotten plenty of screen time.
Moreover: for those of us who believe that Palestinian national identity revolves solely on the negation of Israel and Zionism, this series will be an eye opener. The viewer actually sees what Palestinian cultural identity looks like in its own diaspora, its music and celebrations. I was especially moved by the family’s visit to their father’s grave, and the recitation of the Muslim prayer for the dead. I have been equally moved by the fact that Mo’s brother is autistic, and seeing how the family deals with that reality.
So, yes: Jews should watch “Mo.” Especially Israel-loving Jews.
You know why?
Because, by all measures, we are the most powerful and least vulnerable Jewish generation in history. Despite our biblical appellation, we are not the “children of Israel” anymore. We are grownups. We can hear this, and we can take this.
But, I end with the words of my teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, teaching at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in July:
“When we came home, there was another people that endured a catastrophe. We need to recognize their suffering and even to make restitution. But if the only way to make restitution is to dismantle the state of Israel, I am not interested.”
Neither am I.