Israeli officials, while simultaneously demanding recognition from newly-elected Hamas, are lobbying for recognition of Palestine to be denied. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is mired in a naming dilemma of international proportions. Why all the controversy? As Shakespeare’s Romeo once asked: "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet."
The Palestinian film, Paradise Now, has received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. On the Academy’s website, the film’s country listing reads "Palestine". Following intense lobbying, when the nominations were televised, the film was announced as from the "Palestinian Authority". In a 12 February Reuters article, an unnamed Israeli diplomat admitted that both the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles and several American Jewish groups were lobbying for the name change. So Oscar has plunged, gleaming golden head first, into politics.
This is not Oscar’s first encounter with the name Palestine. In October 2002, Humbert Balsan, the producer of the award-winning Palestinian film, Divine Intervention, asked the Academy if he could submit it for best foreign language picture. The reported response was that Palestine was not a country recognised by the Academy. As a result, Balsan did not submit the film. At the time, observers noted that the Academy regularly made exceptions for other countries that are not member states of the United Nations, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan.
One can only surmise that the Academy’s about-face on the listing for Paradise Now, is the result of the openly acknowledged pressure to replace "Palestine" with the "Palestinian Authority." Imagine a film from Iraq being listed from the "Transitional Iraqi Government" or Brokeback Mountain from the "Bush Administration." Films submitted to the Academy are not representatives of governments; they are the work of artists representing a people and a culture.
Paradise Now, by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, shot in Nablus and filmed in Arabic, was submitted by Palestine — a country in exile, with a thriving culture, and a people that exceed 3.5 million in the occupied West Bank and Gaza alone. Israeli governments have engaged the Palestinians in a peace process for 13 years, which must implicitly end in statehood. It is revealing that the mere mention of the future state’s name in the non- political arena of art and film is so irksome to Israelis that their diplomats spend time trying to erase it.
Israel has in fact never recognised the existence of Palestine. Since the founding of the State of Israel, its objective has been to deny Palestinian existence. Former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir was straightforward: "there is no such thing as a Palestinian people." Israeli general Moshe Dayan also recognised the importance of names. He spoke of the deliberate destruction of Palestinian villages: "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don’t blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist .The Arab villages are not there either… There is not one single place that did not have a former Arab population." ( Haaretz, April 4, 1969).
Paradise Now, represents the triumph of art in the face of persistent attempts of annihilation, from the territorial to the cultural. Israeli officials are attempting to undercut even that moment of success. The bid to disappear Palestine from the Academy Awards ceremony, watched by nearly a billion people worldwide, is not merely a scuffle over accuracy. It is yet another example of Israel’s ritual denial of Palestinian existence.
* The writer is a co-founder of the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) and lives in Seattle, Washington.