His deep, dark secret: He’s Arab, Muslim and serves in the IDF

New film looks at the tiniest of Israel’s minorities — Muslim Arabs who voluntarily enlist

A Muslim Israeli struggles with his identity after enlisting in the IDF in new documentary "Ameer Got a Gun." (Photo credit: Courtesy of Black Sheep Film Productions)
A Muslim Israeli struggles with his identity after enlisting in the IDF in new documentary "Ameer Got a Gun." (Photo credit: Courtesy of Black Sheep Film Productions)

Officially exempt from service in the military, Israel’s Arab citizens nevertheless enlist in small numbers each year. Often viewed with curiosity, if not outright suspicion, by Jewish soldiers, they frequently face similar skepticism from their fellow Arabs, who sometimes look at them as traitors.

In “Ameer Got His Gun,” director Naomi Levari tells the story of a young man from an uncharacteristically patriotic family in Sakhnin, a mostly Muslim town in the Lower Galilee. Because of a family tradition going back two generations, the title character’s father expects him to serve, even though it means cementing his future as something of an outcast. The documentary follows the conflicted young man through enlistment, basic training and his deployment as a border patrolman in Hebron. Ameer is a shy, agreeable kid, fond of music, kind to his mother and younger brothers. During the film, viewers watch as he nervously passes security screenings and looks for acceptance among his new peers, trying to navigate between two communities defined by their mutual distrust.

The recipient of a special mention at last year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, “Ameer Got His Gun” will screen Sunday and Tuesday in New York City, where it’s part of the lineup at the Other Israel Film Festival. Dedicated to programming about Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, the festival will also host the documentary’s director, Naomi Levari, a veteran of Israel’s TV industry.

Levari spoke with The Times of Israel about “Ameer Got His Gun,” touching on topics including minority rights, stern parents and how to improve relations between Arabs and Jews.

A transcript of the interview, edited for length and continuity, appears below.

Are the numbers of Muslim Arabs serving in the IDF today consistent with the past?

It usually stands in straight connection with what is happening politically. In times of peace, recruitment goes up; when there is tension, it goes down. Today, roughly, there are about 20 per year. I must emphasize that this does not include Bedouins, who are also Muslim. It is more customary for Bedouins to volunteer. However, they were not part of the society we wanted to explore in this film.

Bedouins signing up are less shunned by their community?

It is still controversial, but in a different way. The Muslim Arabs who are not Bedouin are more connected to the Palestinian struggle. The Bedouin are more nomads.

‘Listen, if he’s pro-Palestinian, he’s an enemy. If he’s pro-Israel, you call him crazy. What can he do?’

What about Christian Palestinians?

They sign up more frequently. I don’t have the precise number, but in [proportion] to their population, it is higher than the Muslim Palestinians. If you ask an Israeli [Jew], they’d say, “Oh, yes, I know some of the Christians serve,” but they’d be surprised to learn that there are some Muslims who do, too.

Since we’re going down the list, what about the Druze population?

It is mandatory for the Druze to join. However, in the last few years, they are starting to refuse. Slowly. They are starting to say that they wear the uniform for three years, yet when they done, they are still considered “the dirty Arab.” Back in the 1950s, there was an alliance with the Druze — a blood oath of sorts that they would stay loyal to Israel, and Israel would protect them. So Israel said, “You are not Arabs — you are Druze. You are something else.” Of course, the Druze are Arabs, and now some of them are coming forth to ask why they are being treated as second-class citizens.

Does the army perform any sort of active recruitment within the Arab community, or does it simply wait for someone like Ameer to sign up? At least from a public relations point of view, it would seem good to enlist more Arabs.

They do it among Bedouins. They don’t do it among the – for the sake of conversation, we’ll call them Palestinian Arabs [Arab citizens of Israel]. There’s a dual feeling because they don’t know if they can be trusted 100 percent. Each Muslim Arab who wants to join has to go through a thorough background check.

Ameer’s uncle looks back fondly on his time in the Army, but laments that he was ostracized for years upon his return, and that his bond with other soldiers dissolved. Do you think that this could change? It struck me as something Jewish Israelis could work on.

I don’t think it will change. I worked on this film for four years, and it was life-changing in that I learned so much about the people living next to me — things I didn’t learn in my entire lifetime. If people want to integrate the Arabs and the Jews, it has to start much earlier, not in the army. It has to start in the school system. You can’t say to someone at age 18, “Hey, you want to belong? OK, take a gun.” It has to start at age 6, and you say, “Here’s your Jewish classmate. Here’s your Arab teacher.” It can’t be two different systems and then, when they meet in the army, [they] forget that they were separated. That’s the situation we are in.

Director Naomi Levari says she was inspired to make "Ameer Got His Gun" by the deaths of five Israeli Muslims serving in the IDF. (Courtesy of Black Sheep Film Productions)
Director Naomi Levari says she was inspired to make “Ameer Got His Gun” by the deaths of five Israeli Muslims serving in the IDF. (Courtesy of Black Sheep Film Productions)

Arguably the most fascinating figure is Ameer’s father, who comes off a bit stern. There’s a scene in which Ameer calls him to report a minor success, and he’s bluntly told, “Well, that’s your job.” Has the family seen the film?

Yes. Before we locked the film, we showed it to the family. I needed to know if I portrayed them properly. Frankly, I was a little afraid, but their response was, “Yeah, that’s us! Great job.” That’s the father. He’s very stubborn. He thinks that civic duty is the way he’ll earn his civil rights, and he is very demanding on his son. He doesn’t think he should get a medal just for doing his job.

The most striking moment comes during the induction ceremony, when the soldiers and their families sing the national anthem. You can see Ameer’s father has a deep love for the country. Then you listen to the words, and there’s no way to deny that, on some level, it excludes him: “The Jewish soul yearns.”

This is the core of the film. The Jewish society of Israel expects everyone to stand and sing “Hatikva” and show this loyalty. I put this mirror up and say, “Hey, doesn’t this look strange to you?” The reaction from people after seeing the film is often, “This father is crazy. Why is he singing ‘Hatikva’?” And I say, “Listen, if he’s pro-Palestinian, he’s an enemy. If he’s pro-Israel, you call him crazy. What can he do?”

A few years ago, there was the push from [current foreign minister] Avigdor Lieberman, whose campaign was that if you are not loyal, you are not worthy of your citizenship. The subtext to the Arabs was that you have to sing “Hatikva” and stand at ceremonies, and what I try to ask in this film is if it is logical to ask an Arab to sing “The Jewish soul yearns.” I don’t know the answer.

In scenes from Ameer’s basic training, there are a lot of friendly jabs from his Jewish comrades, but also some borderline racist remarks. How much of that do you think was kidding around?

It’s a tough question. A number of ex-soldiers told me it doesn’t matter if you are Arab or Ethiopian or Russian — they will always make fun of you. I accept that. However, you must remember Ameer was all alone there, and it is different if you aren’t part of a group. I can only tell you his reaction -– he had a tough time. This was happening to him every day.

For the most part, he didn’t zing them back. He mainly smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

He also didn’t have the privilege to fight back. Some have asked, “Why didn’t he? He’s so naïve.” I think he was very smart not to. If he did, the whole basic training would have been a nightmare.

‘[Integration] has to start at age 6, and you say, Here’s your Jewish classmate. Here’s your Arab teacher.’

Where is Ameer today?

Still in the army, in Hebron. He has about four months left. Honestly, I don’t know how his future looks. I fear that it will be very similar to that of his uncle. He will be isolated from his Jewish friends, in Sakhnin, and probably have a day job in agriculture. I want to be careful what I say, but frankly, I’m not that positive that his experience will contribute to his future.

Perhaps the film might inspire some of his army contacts to keep in touch.

I don’t think so. Not out of racism, but it just wouldn’t feel natural. Especially this unit, which is from a particularly low socioeconomic group. Like I said, if there was contact from elementary school, it would be less of a stretch. Bluntly, what would they do with an Arab friend? They have no connection. They don’t know about his holidays. And in Ameer’s case, his Hebrew isn’t perfect. His interests are different. There’s only an artificial connection.

It may be a story to tell. “Oh, I served with an Arab. He was an OK guy.” That may, in some small way, be a good thing.

Exactly. They learn he doesn’t have horns. But if you remember, in the film, twice, someone says he’ll never come to [Ameer’s] city.

This is why I made the film, really. In 2004, there was a bomb at an IDF post near Gaza. Five soldiers were killed. I read the names and saw they were Arab names. The talkback comments on the Internet were all saying, “Oh, the Druze are our brothers in arms.” People thought they were Druze. But I didn’t recognize the names as being Druze, and I discovered they were Muslim Arabs. That’s when I first realized that Muslim Arabs volunteered. I had no knowledge of this. The next day, there was a member of parliament ranting about how the Arabs are all worms. That’s when the film was born — when I saw that these people were sacrificing their lives, and parliament is calling them worms. How is this possible that these two things are happening at once? Why would an Arab serve if this is how a member of the parliament addresses them?

That’s when I decided to make the film, and I started to search [for subjects]. Of course, it is almost impossible to search because they keep their service a secret. You have to go by rumors. I rooted around for three years, but no one wanted to expose themselves because that could put them in danger in their own community. Then I heard about this house in Sakhnin with the Israeli flag above it. I figured, if any family would talk, they would.

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