To Die in Jerusalem
by Jef Burnham
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In 2002, an 18-year-old Palestinian girl named Ayat al-Akhras walked into a Jerusalem supermarket on a mission of martyrdom. The documentary To Die in Jerusalem opens with Israeli, Abigail Levy, attempting to reach Ayat’s family on the phone. Ayat’s explosion killed two Israelis: a 55-year-old security guard named Haim Smadar and 17-year-old Rachel Levy, daughter of Abigail.
The attack gained attention worldwide as a result of the startling similarities between the two girls. Aside from the fact that they were nearly the same age and just teenagers, the girls shared the same build, the same dark eyes and long, black hair. Their complexions were identical and their faces so incredibly similar that Ayat’s father gets them confused when looking at a side-by-side layout of the two.
Ayat’s family lived in a refugee camp in Palestine, having been displaced by the Israeli occupation. She was an intelligent girl, who was said to have loved peace. She had a fiancé and hoped to one day become a journalist. Although her message may have been heard around the world had she pursued journalism, Ayat determined instead to become a suicide bomber.
Why would an intelligent girl choose violence over peaceful discourse? We see the answer to this in those grieving for Ayat. A young girl attending a dance practice at Ayat’s school tells interviewers that her classmates are happy about Ayat’s martyrdom, though they miss her. Back home, crouched under a mourning tent, Ayat’s sister screams with terrifying sincerity that if Ayat took out 3 people, she would take out 30, “God willing.” This cycle of rage is perpetuated by the Palestinians’ belief that there is honor and courage in murdering innocent Israelis, though they do not phrase it that way. They call it “jihad.”
Ayat killed herself and two others, and no major changes resulted from this attack in the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Instead, her two brothers were imprisoned and her family home in the refugee camp was slated to be torn down as punishment.
Ayat’s parents accept her death as a justifiable reciprocity for the injustices done to their people by the Israelis, but Rachel’s family is not able to find the same solace. Rachel was not on a mission of suicide for Allah. She was simply buying groceries. Rachel’s little brother, Kobi, heartbreakingly displays a letter he wrote to his sister. Kobi is represented in the letter by a stick figure that says he wishes Rachel wasn’t dead. He explains to interviewers that he wrote the letter because he hoped that it would make either him or Rachel feel better.
The film focuses on Abigail Levy’s attempt to set up a meeting with Ayat’s mother, Um Samir. Her reasons for this meeting are not entirely clear to her at first. She ultimately decides that she needs to hear Um Samir say that her daughter was wrong—that Ayat’s actions are not what is needed to mend the situation with Israel. Though the two meet 4 ½ years after the bombing, Abigail finds herself standing up against so many years of collective Palestinian hatred. In this meeting we see that the tensions between the two peoples may someday prove to be insurmountable.
President Bush said of the situation, “When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying.” The quote perfectly sums up the situation in Israel and Palestine, but I can’t help but being reminded as an American that thanks in no small part to President Bush, we are facing a similar situation. For now, our friends and family will be killed by suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but how long before it hits our shores? How long before one of us hears that it was our daughter killed buying a gallon of milk?
Rachel’s brother, Kobi, says he wonders why terrorists exist, and there is no extricating politics from this matter. Terrorism exists because a group of men you’re apt never to meet poked the wrong snake with a stick. The problems may be big, but the solutions will have to start small, and that’s the subject of To Die in Jerusalem. If the mother of a suicide bomber and the mother of her victim can come together for peace without violence, there may just be hope for everyone else.
To Die in Jerusalem premieres Thursday, November 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film reviewer in Chicago.
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