Oscar Nominations Under Fire in Israel

Many Israelis are upset with two of this year's Oscar nominations. Stephen Spielberg's Munich is being criticized for bias. But objections are greater to Paradise Now, the story of two Palestinian suicide bombers.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

At the 78th Annual Academy Awards tonight, two nominated movies that focus on the Middle East are under a cloud of controversy. In one case, there's a petition drive against the film. Paradise Now, which is up for Best Foreign Film and has already won a Golden Globe award, explores the life and motivations of Palestinian suicide bombers. And Steven Spielberg's drama Munich, about Israeli intelligence agents sent to hunt down and kill Palestinian terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Olympic Games, is nominated in five categories, including Best Picture.

Joining us now from Jerusalem to talk about them is NPR's Eric Westervelt. Eric, Paradise Now is the first movie from the Palestinian territories nominated for an Oscar. It was filmed on location in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. Tell us a little bit more about the movie and more about the protests against it.

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Well, it's a fictional tale of two lifelong Palestinian friends growing up in the West Bank who get recruited by religious extremists for a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv. And without giving too much away, a young woman tries to get these two to reconsider resorting to violence. Some critics have said it's a powerful look at both religious intimidation and extremism within Palestinian society and Palestinian life under occupation.

But some in Israel, especially family members of those killed in suicide bombings, say the film tries to justify and glorify terrorism. Yulsi Zoor(ph), whose son was killed in bus bombing three years ago, says the film quote "promotes terrorism and legitimizes the bombers." He's helped start an online petition that's gathered 30,000 plus signatures calling on the Motion Picture Academy to withdraw the Best Foreign Picture nomination.

HANSEN: The film's director, Hany Abu-Assad, is a Palestinian Israeli born in the Israeli city of Nazareth. And he's described the film as an instrument for promoting dialogue. What's his argument?

WESTERVELT: They argue the film doesn't try to justify violence but explore some of the motivations behind it. And as Abu-Assad, the director, put it, quote, "The bombers have a story and the Israeli audience has to see it."

HANSEN: Is Paradise Now being shown widely in Israel or the Palestinian territories?

WESTERVELT: No, not at all. The big movie theaters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have not shown Paradise Now. Only a few small art house theaters have screened it in a limited release. And on the Palestinian side, there's only one theater in the Palestinian territories and that briefly showed Paradise Now, but that's it.

HANSEN: Now, there's no online petition against Steven Spielberg's Munich, but what's the nature of the criticism against the movie in Israel?

WESTERVELT: Many Israeli critics have panned the filmed on artistic and political grounds, Liane. There's been some strong criticism as well from the intelligence community. Several retired former agents from Mossad, the Israel intelligence service, have said in local newspapers Spielberg got key aspects of the story wrong. And some of them objected to the idea that the agents, some of them anyway, were morally conflicted about their mission to kill terrorists.

A central complaint from many is that Spielberg portrays the operation to assassinate those behind the Munich murders as an act of vengeance and not, as the security services argue, a kind of forward-looking effort to pre-empt future attacks by taking out the leaders and organizers of terrorist cells. But supporters have said, Look, this is an open society and we should be able to explore the moral and ethical consequences of violence.

Spielberg himself recently told an Israeli newspaper, battling terrorism is often a series of hard choices between bad alternatives. You have to respond, he said, adding, but everything has a price.

HANSEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Eric, thanks a lot.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Liane.

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