Switched At Birth

The movie, ‘The Other Son,’ raises questions about identity and growing up in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fictional characters Joseph Silbers, on left, and Yacine Al-Bezaaz, on right, became friends after the reveal of a hospital mistake.

“If I died, would I be buried a Jew or an Arab?”

The sentiment may be morbid, but Lorraine Levy’s “The Other Son” attempts to tackle that question: What constitutes a person’s identity? When two young adults, Joseph Silbers and Yacine Al-Bezaaz, discover they were accidentally switched at birth following a bombing of their hospital, they must reconcile the fact that they were destined to live opposite lives. The fictional movie is set in 2008. Joseph has grown up in Tel Aviv, the son of a high-ranking IDF officer and physician, whereas Yacine has grown up in the West Bank, the son of a car mechanic. When the two realize who they really are — Joseph, a Palestinian and Yacine, an Israeli — they embark on a journey with their families to discover how they can live with these conflicting identities.

After the mix up is uncovered they visit each other and become good friends; Yacine even helps Joseph sell ice cream on the beach. Not everyone in the family warms up to the relationship — both Yacine’s and Joseph’s fathers struggle to reconcile the fact that their son really isn’t their own. Yacine’s brother, Bilal (a vocal opponent of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank) must find a way to cope with the fact that his younger brother could have grown up in upscale Tel Aviv and would soon be off to join the Israeli army.

“The Other Son” is a compelling movie that leaves many of the questions it poses unanswered. To that end, asking those questions seems to be the point of the movie. How does genetics determine a person’s identity? What happens when our perceptions of ourselves are the opposite of the truth? What happens to our priorities, our goals? While asking questions is good, the movie doesn’t make an effort to answer the broader question: What constitutes a person’s identity?

Ultimately, it seems that “The Other Son” answers that environment does not matter in the shaping of identity. Despite the fact that the two main characters have grown up in opposite ways, and have nearly opposite personalities, their essences have not been influenced by their upbringings. Yacine, the motivated son of a car mechanic, is an aspiring doctor and is studying in Paris; Joseph, the son of two professionals, is easy going and an aspiring musician.

A person’s identity is a random label ascribed to someone, according to events in “The Other Son.” If the hospital had not mixed up the two babies, Joseph and Yacine would have been raised in opposite ways: Yacine in Tel Aviv and Joseph in a West Bank village, their rightful homes. The hospital error leaves both families wondering: What would have happened if the switch had never occurred? How would Yacine’s and Joseph’s childhoods have differed? Would their aspirations be different? 

Despite the tremendous cultural differences, the two families find some common ground. They both speak French — Joseph’s mother is from Paris and Yacine recently returned from studying in France. The younger sisters in each family discover they own the same dolls and also become friends.

Theses similarities have nothing to do with a person’s identity: it is purely by chance that both families speak French, as is the fact that the sisters share similar interests. In the movie the terms, “Israeli” and “Palestinian,” are labels that have little to do with personality, nor do they define a person’s political opinion or career. We see Yacine and Joseph defy their labels and become unlikely friends in an effort to bridge the gap caused by an accident in a neonatal ward in Haifa.

All in all, “The Other Son” is a compelling and provocative movie that forces the viewer to ask questions and reflect on his or her own identity. For anyone interested in looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of two conflicting identities, told from the perspectives of two people whom I would consider my contemporaries: this movie is for you.

author's bio: 
  Amram Altzman is a senior at the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan.