I’ve been watching the new comedy series, “Mo,” on Netflix. It is autobiographical, based on the story of Palestinian-American comedian Mohammad Amer and his immigrant family in Houston.
Mo Amer has been a stand-up comedy staple for many years, frequently appearing with my friend and fellow rabbinic, Bob Alper, and has appeared on HBO. The series is both funny and heartwarming, especially as it shows the trials and tribulations of an immigrant family in the United States who are trying to do more than just get by.
Much of the plot revolves around the family’s story: refugees from Haifa after the 1948 War of Independence, eventually finding themselves in Kuwait, from where they were evacuated and fled, once again, to Houston. This is a story about immigrants trying to make it in America, but more importantly, it’s a story about refugees.
Yes, touching, funny, sweet, and in some places, deeply uncomfortable.
As in: the mother telling the story of the family, about how they had to flee Haifa because of “the Zionists”. As in the cute irony: the family’s immigration attorney is a Jewish woman, whose identity Mo must obfuscate her mother by simply saying that her last name is Polish.
Now, unsurprisingly, when I listen to the on-screen commentary about the Zionists, I instantly insert my traditional cassette into my brain. (No one uses cassettes anymore, but you get the point.)
I launch myself inwardly into my speech:
- The Arabs rejected the 1947 partition plan, which would have created a separate Palestinian state.
- The combined Arab armies invaded the nascent Jewish state just after its birth in May 1948, seeking to strangle the “baby” in its cradle, creating a war that the Israelis won against all possible military odds.
- Yes, there were atrocities against the Arabs, forced evacuations, massacres.
- But, in fact, the Jews of Haifa pleaded with their Arab neighbors to stay, rather than submit to what would become their inevitable degradation.
- The Arab governments themselves, even and especially those that were rich in oil, have done very little to help the Palestinian refugees.
If you just read that, your eyes are probably starting to mist up. Because those are the standard historical arguments, the basic elements of hasbara, explanation and public relations. Many Jews, and certainly their leaders, have rehearsed these arguments with great eloquence over the last fifty years.
So yes: hearing that “the Zionists” were blamed for Mo’s family’s plight hurt me. I’m sure it has hurt many of the Jews who have seen “Mo”.
as it should.
Here’s why, even I, a Zionist with a card and a 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 the story. Funny thing, that word “story.” Nowadays, we tend to use it to mean something or someone that is irrelevant. A person loses his job, and he is “history”.
We Jews have never entertained ourselves with such extravagance. For us, history is the most important thing. In that sense, the historical facts I outlined above are accurate.
But that precise list of historical facts does not erase, in fact cannot erase, the fact that the Palestinians have their own stories that they carry with them, like the keys to their old houses in Jerusalem and Haifa and other places, and those painful stories are also true. It would be in bad taste to refuse to listen to them; even more distasteful, to listen to those stories and deny 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 regained sovereignty and achieved success after success, your people traded homes and olive groves for the scorched earth of refugee camps, where they raised hopeless children, the unwanted outcasts of the Arab world. I lament the lives wasted in the bitterness of exile, your despair in the face of my joy. For many years in Israel we ignore them, we treat them as invisible, transparent.
Yes, history matters. But, this is not about history. This is not about reciting the facts. Nor is it the cruel and sobering acknowledgment that history is cruel, that no nation was born in a Woodstock-style kumbayá act.
This is more about human relationships. This is about empathy.
This is about listening.
Both Jews and Palestinians must listen to and honor each other’s stories. Even before there can be a two-state solution, there must be a two-narrative solution. Listen to the stories of others, internalize the pain of others, recognize the dreams of others.
Jews need to hear Palestinian stories and Palestinians need to hear Jewish stories. The Jews need to know how the Palestinians took the keys to their families’ houses in Jaffa and Haifa. The Palestinians must remember how the Arabs massacred the Jews in Iraq, how they forced the Jews from their homes in Syria.
As we enter the season of repentance, we enter the season of shofar, the ram’s horn that the Jews blow to signal the call to repentance. the mitzvah which is connected with shofar it is shofar lishmoa kol, to hear the voice of the shofar. It’s about listening to the many voices that create this complicated story.
That’s why I’m speaking with the foremost Muslim thought leader in America today, Imam Abdullah Antepli, on a show we call “The Imam and the Rabbi.” We ask each other tough questions, but what we prove above all else is that we have a sacred obligation to listen and listen.
So, yes: the historical references in “Mo” disturb and haunt me, but they don’t shock me. I can live with the discomfort.
After all, between “Shtisel” (in which, of course, the ultra-Orthodox hareidi characters are not Zionists) and “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” and other accessible Israeli offerings, the Jewish national narrative has had a lot of screen time.
Also: For those of us who believe that Palestinian national identity revolves solely around denial of Israel and Zionism, this series will be an eye opener. The viewer really sees what Palestinian cultural identity looks like in their own diaspora, their music and celebrations. He was especially moved by the family’s visit to his 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 to see how the family deals with that reality.
So yes: Jews should watch “Mo”. Especially Jewish lovers of Israel.
You know why?
Because, in every way, we are the most powerful and least vulnerable Jewish generation in history. Despite our biblical appellation, we are no longer the “children of Israel.” We are adults. We can hear this, and we can take this.
But I close with the words of my teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, teaching at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in July:
“When we got home, there was another town that suffered a catastrophe. We need to acknowledge their suffering and even make restitution. But if the only way to restitution is to dismantle the State of Israel, I’m not interested.”
neither do I