Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 13, 2007

James’ Journey to Jerusalem

Filed under: Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Made in 2003 and now available on home video, the Israeli film “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” is a scathing portrait of class relations in Zionist society in general and the plight of undocumented workers in particular. The latter group flocked to Israel after the Intafada cut off the supply of Palestinian workers. But James, a devout Zulu Christian, is not one of them. He has instead been sent by his village on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Rather than finding a holy city, he encounters something much more like Sodom and Gomorrah. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz sees Israelis as grubby, Mammon-worshipping exploiters who debase themselves and anybody who comes into contact with them, including the saintly James.

After getting off the plane in Tel Aviv, James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) tells an immigration officer that he is there on a spiritual quest, which she dismisses as a ploy to illegally enter the country and then has him arrested. No matter how much he insists to the jailers that there has been a terrible mistake, they assume that he is just another “illegal.” Salvation arrives in the form of Shimi Shabati (Salim Dau, actually an Arab actor), who pays his bail. As it turns out, Shimi is a labor subcontractor who stops by the jail whenever he needs a fresh body.

James finds himself in the company of about a dozen other workers who, unlike him, did come to Israel to find a job. Shimi sends them out as day laborers and keeps them in conditions not much better than the jail. His foreman won’t allow them to watch television unless they come up with five shekels.

After protesting futilely to Shimi, James agrees to work for him until he can pay back the bail money that freed him from one jail and landed him in another. So set is he on seeing Jerusalem that he works harder and longer than any of his comrades. Time is of the essence. The sooner he pays off Shimi, the sooner his salvation.

He only takes a break from work to attend services at a local Church that has an African immigrant congregation. One of the great pleasures of this film is listening to the choir singing authentic Zulu hymns in the style that Ladysmith Black Mambazo popularized. In no time at all, James has become the favorite of the pastor who prevails upon him to make donations to the Church all out of proportion to his income. Even if these donations will delay his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the pastor assures him that they will get him into Heaven. Between the naked exploitation of Shimi the labor subcontractor and the pious exploitation of the pastor, there is not much to choose between.

After a few weeks, James is taken to a Tel Aviv shopping mall by Skomboze (Hugh Masebenza), a fellow Zulu who lives for the moment. Every penny he gets is spent on clothing or booze. Despite his piety, James also finds himself seduced by the consumer goods at the mall and buys new running shoes and a cell phone without hesitation.

In his rounds as a cleaning man to Shimi’s clients, including his elderly father, James discovers that the Israelis are always on the lookout for an honest, hardworking “Blackie.” With his connections at the Church and his trusty cell phone, James begins to run his own subcontracting business on the side. At one service, the pastor tells the congregation that he is there to attend to their spiritual needs, while James can be counted on to address their material needs.

The longer that James stays in the labor contracting business, the more he finds himself adapting to Israeli society. This means first of all not allowing anybody to take advantage of him. In Hebrew, this means being a “fayir”, or patsy. Evidently, the Israelis find undocumented workers to be the quintessential “fayir” after the Palestinians. This altogether Balzacian film leaves one with the impression that Israeli society is made up either of “fayirs” or those who screw them. This is not a holy land by any stretch of the imagination.

The subtext of the film is that the Zionist dream is dead. James personifies the original spirit of those Jews who came to the holy land in search of religious salvation and personal identity, but the dead end of such an approach in the long run. Israeli society drags down everybody who enters it, including the Jews who were its original sanctifiers. Coming as it does from an Israeli director, this bleak vision begins to suggest why young Israeli soldiers were reluctant to die in the recent war in Lebanon. They simply did not want to be “fayirs”.

1 Comment »

  1. “Fayir” correctly spelt and pronounced with an r, Frayer or Freyer or Frayir.

    Comment by Volvi — March 26, 2008 @ 12:17 am

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