A ‘Tiny House’ at Berlin’s film festival offered a safe space to talk about the Israel-Hamas war

World News

BERLIN (JR) — Two weeks ago, Shai Hoffman and Ahmad Dakhnous didn’t even know each other. Now the Israeli and Palestinian in Berlin have completed an audacious three-day experiment in trying to help their fellow Germans talk more constructively about the Israel-Hamas war.

Hoffman and Dakhnous brought a Tiny House — a one-room shed on wheels — to the Berlinale film festival this weekend and beckoned passersby: “Come in! Talk about Israel and Palestine!”

Like many other cultural events around the world, Berlin’s international film festival has been marked by protests against the Israel-Hamas war now in its fifth month. Some curators and artists associated with the festival have called for a ceasefire and demanded that the festival officially do so as well.

After a sold-out screening Saturday of the documentary “No Other Land,” about the Israeli military’s displacement of civilians in a West Bank Palestinian village, some audience members shouted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a statement criminalized in Germany because it is widely understood as calling for Israel’s destruction.

When another audience member praised the film, made by a team of Israelis and Palestinians, as an effort to “stop this cycle of horrible violence, which includes a horrible massacre of thousands of Jews by Hamas,” he, too, was shouted down.

The Tiny House, co-sponsored by the festival, offered a respite from the tensions. Sitting on Potsdamer Platz, where the Berlin Wall once divided east from west and where festival-goers rushed between screenings, the structure accommodated up to eight people at a time to discuss a conflict that no politicians have yet been able to resolve.

“A lot of people come here with a lot of questions and feelings,” said Dakhnous, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. “And they talk about it in the Tiny House.”

“My perception is that they’re very open to discuss things,” added Hoffmann, standing outside for a moment of air over the weekend.

The project is an extension of an educational initiative started by Hoffmann with German-Palestinian Jouanna Hassoun to discuss issues related to the Mideast conflict. Since Oct. 7, the two have been visiting public schools in Berlin to discuss current events with teenagers.

That initiative riffed on a different one that Hoffman cofounded in 2017 in which young Jews, Christians and Muslims traveled the country promoting democratic values from a bus outfitted as a coffee shop.

Shai Hoffman welcomes pedestrians into his Bus of Encounters in Frankfurt, Germany on Aug. 25, 2020. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

That experience made Hoffman optimistic that he and his partners could provide an alternative, even if only a few dozen square feet in footprint, to the tensions boiling in Germany.

The country is home to 5.5 million Muslims; about 100,000 are of Palestinian background. The Jewish population of more than 200,000 includes roughly 25,000 Israelis, one of the largest expatriate Israeli communities in the world. And as in many places, the Israel-Hamas war has triggered both an increase in antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7 as well as widespread anti-Israel demonstrations across Germany.

“We’re not politicians. We cannot solve it,” Dakhnous said. “But the role of the civil society is perhaps to create alternatives to the logic of destruction and militarism and violence.”

People who spent time in the house during the film festival came away with fresh ideas ranging from the practical to the far-fetched.

“My idea was if these little houses could be in Gaza, where they see an Israeli and Palestinian sit there and they maybe find a person, maybe a woman, maybe a grandmother who is charismatic and looking for a solution, and that in Israel [they could do the same] the same, that a solution one day can be found,” said psychologist Kay Helmich after emerging from the house.

“Before I came I thought the Germans should shut up and get out of the conflict because it is so heated,” Helmich told JR. “But the Palestinian organizer said the outside is needed so the Arab politicians, Europeans, Americans and Israelis should sit down, like in a fishbowl, and help to find a solution.”

The Tiny House to discuss Israel and Palestine stationed outside the Berlinale film festival could accommodate no more than eight people at a time. (Toby Axelrod)

Gonca Monypenny, a schoolteacher in Berlin, told JR she had solicited advice on bringing Jewish viewpoints into her classrooms.

“We have a huge Palestinian or Muslim group that are in solidarity with Palestinians, and basically no Jewish or Israeli people that we could invite, or at least try to change the perspective,” said Monypenny, who teaches about democracy and empowerment in a public school.

She brought her 8-year-old son along: “I said, let’s go and have a look and see what it’s about…[He] keeps telling me that ‘Everybody’s for Gaza, and I don’t know what to say. And I’m the only one who’s defending Israel.’”

Her son had his own takeaway from his time inside the Tiny House: “I find it pretty good that there are people who say, ‘Yeah, we want to talk about it,’” he said.

Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrain has been touting the benefits of Tiny House conversations. He told Hollywood Reporter that “dialogue is possible if we start with small groups [and] provide a space where certain arguments or certain emotions can be handled better than in a theater with 500 or 1,000 people.”

Some of the conversations will be preserved in a German-language podcast, “Talking about Israel and Palestine,” that Hoffman and Dakhnous are producing from inside the house. The first Berlinale episode, released Sunday, is a conversation with historian Gil Shohat, director of the Tel Aviv branch of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, the political think tank connected with Germany’s Left Party.

Outside the Tiny House, a small group waited patiently to join the conversation. On Monday evening, the house was removed, perhaps to return another time, in another place.

Hoffman and Dakhnous know they have little influence over the course of the war, which they both believe should end.

“The only thing we can do is to prevent that we as minorities in Germany, as a Muslim and as a Jew, are being divided,” said Hoffmann. “And the only way that we can bridge this division is to talk and to also to invite people to talk with us, as people that are involved in this war.”

The war “is not something that we can solve by creating a civic, societal project here,” Dakhnous said. But, he added, “This is not the goal. We can’t do this, but we can create a place to talk about it. And perhaps the only job …  for civic society to do is provide places for dialogue.”