The Attack begins on a night when the dream of co-existence between Palestinians and Israelis seems briefly within reach. A Tel Aviv doctor, Amin Jaafari (Ali Suleiman), is receiving a career-achievement award for his work as a surgeon. He’s the first Arab to receive the prize, though he jokes that, since there’s a bit of Arab in every Jew and vice versa, the distinction isn’t exactly accurate. It’s a naïve sentiment, but it rolls convincingly off the man’s tongue because, in that moment, having reached the top of his field in Israel and gained the full respect of his peers, he seems to perfectly represent such a union of identities. His triumph, however, is short-lived, as is the optimism about two nations’ future he briefly embodies: The next day, a suicide bombing rocks Tel Aviv and Amin’s wife, Siham (Reymond Amsalem), is brought into Amin’s hospital, her corpse bearing injuries that implicate her as the bomber.
Amin eventually travels to Nablus in the West Bank, where Siham was last seen, to find out what led her to commit such a horrific act. His search for closure and understanding isn’t compelling, though, as The Attack too often suffers from political simplicity. More than once, characters talk about the moment a terrorist is born as the moment when that person snapped, but Amin’s search for what caused such a rupture in Siham never uncovers any conclusive or satisfactory answer. Most likely it never could.
More interesting is the film’s articulation of how Amin’s initial status as an emblem of inter-religious understanding quickly dissolves following Siham’s attack. At first he denies all facts about his wife’s guilt and paranoia envelops him, both toward the Israelis, who he accuses of framing Siham, and toward the Palestinians, who he claims “brainwashed” her. And as Amin’s inner conflicts are exposed, they begin to reflect those of his country. When he visits the West Bank, he discovers that Siham’s intentions were well known there, even as they were completely hidden from him. His brother-in-law states that he’s “very proud” of Siham; his niece, asking about life in Tel Aviv, wonders what it’s like “living among them.” Back in Tel Aviv, Israelis begin viewing Amin with suspicion after the attack, cutting him off from his adopted home just as his alienation from his birthplace has become most accentuated.
Amin’s experience offers a simple but vivid expression of the persistence and intractability of divisions in Israeli society. In a similar vein, perhaps the most acute political observation that The Attack provides has come as a result of unfortunate real-world events surrounding the film. In May, the Arab League asked its 22 member nations to boycott The Attack, ostensibly because director Ziad Doueiri, who’s Lebanese, acted against a long-standing policy in his home country that forbids citizens from working in Israel. Doueiri has told the Los Angeles Times that he believes the reason for the boycott is more political: “They expect a film from the region to be extremely demonizing of Israel. And I didn’t do that.” But that reasoning, if it’s accurate, is equally perplexing because, while The Attack isn’t explicitly anti-Israel, it does show significant sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and even for Siham, though it never goes so far as to condone violence. The film is, in its messaging, very moderate, seemingly suited to appease (or anger) Israelis and Palestinians equally. That it would nevertheless draw such an extreme reaction from the Arab League only indicates how illusory the film’s opening scene really is and how, though the film falls short as an inquiry into the roots and causes of terrorism, Amin’s tenuous acceptance in both Israeli and Palestinian society highlights an equally crucial problem for both populations: that of simple, day-to-day co-existence.