An expert's point of view on a current event.

Israel’s Script Turns Sour

Hollywood used to portray Israelis as heroic and brave. Today, it's films about the brutality of the occupation that make it to the silver screen.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

For years, Paul Newman and his blue eyes shaped America's perception of Israel.

For years, Paul Newman and his blue eyes shaped America’s perception of Israel.

Newman starred in Exodus, a 1960 Hollywood blockbuster set in 1947, the final year of the British mandate in Palestine. The film depicts Ari Ben Canaan, played by Newman, as an idealized sabra hero-warrior — tough, brave, handsome, taciturn, and a lady-killer. Ben Canaan, a leader in the Haganah, the preeminent Jewish paramilitary organization of the time, fought with the British during World War II; but now he is fighting against their policy of limiting the immigration of Jewish refugees from the scorched remains of Hitler’s Europe. The film takes its name from the SS Exodus, a leaky boat packed with Holocaust survivors that the British ultimately sent back to Europe. It goes on to recount the story of the establishment of the State of Israel in a mythical narrative, entirely from the Zionist point of view.

A few years later, Kirk Douglas starred in Cast a Giant Shadow, a fictionalized account of Col. David "Mickey" Marcus, an assimilated Jewish-American who fought with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War Two, where he saw Dachau. Recruited by Haganah representatives in New York, Marcus agrees to train and command units of the nascent Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 War of Independence. Naturally, the blond, assimilated American Jew falls in love with an olive-skinned, raven-haired female Israeli warrior who knows how to handle a weapon. The film’s a classic, so I don’t suppose I’ll be guilty of spoiling the end by revealing that Marcus is killed. But of course he lives on as a legend, etc. 

Hollywood churned out one more film about heroic Israelis. Raid on Entebbe, released in 1977, stars Charles Bronson as the commander of an elite military unit tasked with rescuing Jewish and Israeli passengers on an Air France flight hijacked by terrorists. The film may have continued the tradition of the heroic sabra warrior, but stylistically it was a mediocre made-for-television production with a clunky script and wooden acting.

Since then, however, the image of the heroic Israeli valiantly fighting for survival has faded from the silver screen. Hollywood movies about Jews have focused on the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Israel’s domestic films — the stories that Israelis tell about themselves — have long been much more self-critical.

Starting from the 1960s, several Israeli films that cast a less than positive light on the Jewish state have been nominated for Oscars in the best foreign film category. Sallah Shabati, a 1964 film featuring Chaim Topol (who went on to star in Fiddler on the Roof), is a merciless sendup of some of Zionism’s most sacred cows. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir hated it. Avanti Popolo (1986) is an anti-war film that takes place in the Sinai in the aftermath of the 1967 war. In Beyond the Walls (1984), rival gangs of Jewish and Palestinian prisoners overcome their political differences when they agree to go on a hunger strike as a means of bringing attention to the corrupt behavior of an Israeli security officer.

This year, an Israeli movie and a Palestinian-Israeli co-production are vying for best foreign film. Both are documentaries and both are about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank — but they are told from very different perspectives. Five Broken Cameras, co-directed by Emad Burnat (a Palestinian) and Guy Davidi (an Israeli), shows the occupation through the eyes of Palestinians in the West Bank village of Bil’in — which, like several others, has been severed from its agricultural lands by the route of Israel’s security barrier. The narrative of the film focuses on the birth of Burnat’s youngest son, Gibreel, in 2005; over the next five years, the child learns to walk and talk against a background of unremitting violence.

There are the Friday afternoon protests, when unarmed villagers face down soldiers who shoot endless rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets; there are the nocturnal invasions of Israeli soldiers in noisy armored vehicles, come to search homes and arrest men and boys; the injury and death of close relatives; the arrival of aggressive, ideological settlers; and the continuing theft of his family’s land to accommodate the security barrier. I have visited Bil’in and witnessed some of the scenes depicted in the film with my own eyes, but still flinched on each of the three occasions I watched them replayed on a screen.

The Gatekeepers, directed by veteran filmmaker Dror Moreh, shows the occupation from the perspective of the hardened men tasked with hunting down Palestinian militants and maintaining the security of Israel’s civilian population. Moreh interviews all six living directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who describe with striking candor how they have been almost entirely engaged in pacifying the Palestinian population under Israeli military control since 1967. I write "almost" because they also had cause to arrest Jewish extremists who plotted to blow up the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, where the al-Aqsa Mosque is located — one of the holiest sites in Islam. Had they succeeded, says one of the former Shin Bet directors, Israel would have been attacked by every Muslim state in the world.


But mostly their job has been — and continues to be — to monitor and control the Palestinian population. They describe learning to speak fluent Palestinian Arabic and memorizing the layout of every single village in the West Bank and Gaza, conveying the suffocating sense that no Palestinian civilian ever has freedom of movement or privacy. They coldly describe summary executions and targeted assassinations that took the lives of many innocent bystanders.

Remorse? There is no room for remorse here, they say. But when Moreh confronts them with the fact that their policies have only perpetuated a cycle of violent retaliation, with no end in sight, they blink. And they acknowledge — remarkably, with no hesitation — that they have been engaged in short-term tactics with no long-term strategy. 

"We are winning the battle and losing the war," says Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000.

"We have made the lives of the Palestinians unbearable," says Carmi Gillon, his predecessor.

"The future is gray and bleak," says Avraham Shalom, who headed the Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986.

"We have become a Shin Bet state," confirms Yuval Diskin, who retired from the Shin Bet in 2011 – i.e., a state that is ruled by its internal security service rather than governed by its elected representatives.

Forget looking for a leader with vision — these men present a grim picture of an Israeli state without leadership of any kind. They are tough, humorless, professional paranoiacs who have committed many evil deeds, but they talk like peaceniks. The only way to resolve this conflict is to sit down and negotiate, they agree. And yes, that includes talking to Hamas.

Dror Moreh is forthright about having made this film in order to spark a conversation in Israel that would lead to positive change. A patriot and a liberal, he is terribly worried about his country’s future. "I’m not interested in people who look away from their reflection in a cracked, rusty mirror because they don’t like what they see," he told me during an interview in New York. "I’m interested in the people who can look unflinchingly at their reflection, even if they don’t like it."

The Gatekeepers was released in Israel in January. It was widely reviewed and drew audiences into cinemas around the country for sold out screenings. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has not seen the film and has no intention of doing so, the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles hosted a reception for Moreh. Consul General David Siegel has embraced the film as evidence that Israel is a vibrant democracy that supports a diversity of opinion, even if it is highly critical of the state’s institutions and government.

The path of Five Broken Cameras, however, was far more difficult. Davidi said, during an interview conducted in New York, that none of the commercial cinemas in Tel Aviv would screen it; instead, the film found a home at the Cinematheque, the local art house cinema. For the most part, local critics ignored the film. But then it won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, and laudatory reviews from major newspapers like the New York Times poured in.

And then came the Oscar nod. The nomination led to an unseemly competition for credit, with both the Israeli and Palestinian media claiming it as their own. But Davidi announced this week that not only did he not want the film to be perceived as representing the State of Israel, but that he was a supporter of BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions), the civil society movement that advocates an economic and cultural boycott of Israel. At that, the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles backed away from the film.

A third documentary portraying the devastating moral and physical repercussions of the occupation has been released in the past 18 months. The Law in These Parts, which was directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, is a series of striking interviews with former judges in Israel’s military courts, where Palestinians are tried and convicted at a rate of 99 percent for offenses ranging from suspected association with a militant organization or stone throwing to military action. The retired judges acknowledge that they knew torture had been used to extract confessions from the men and boys they sent to jail. And they readily take credit for policies that provided a legal veneer to the confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land for Jewish settlements. Again, they show no remorse.

This is not the first time Israeli directors have turned out a crop of thematically unified films grappling with controversial aspects of their country’s recent history. The trilogy of films about the occupation comes about five years after a trilogy of films about Israel’s 1982 invasion and 18-year occupation of Lebanon. Waltz With Bashir, Beaufort, and Lebanon are all powerful films told through the eyes of the men who fought there, all of whom seem to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Waltz and Beaufort were both nominated for Oscars in the foreign film category, though neither won. They are similar in theme to the crop of Hollywood films about the American soldier’s experience in the Vietnam War — films like The Deerhunter and Born on the Fourth of July.

There is little evidence of the sabra hero-warrior in any of these films. Paul Newman is dead in more ways than one. But with one exception, all of them are about the effect of the occupation, or the effect of serving in a misguided war, on Israelis and Israeli society. Only Five Broken Cameras forces the viewer to see the occupation through the eyes of Palestinians — not masked men carrying Kalashnikovs, but women and children and unarmed men who just want to pick their olives and be left in peace.

For Israelis, this means identifying, at least a little bit, with people they have been conditioned to think of as terrorists and enemies. Maybe that’s why the commercial cinemas in Tel Aviv shied away from the film. And perhaps that is why so few liberal Israelis have expressed opposition to the security barrier, even as they continue to advocate, at least in theory, a negotiated two-state solution: It is easier to ignore the people on the other side if you can’t see them.

Lisa Goldman is a policy analyst at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor for +972 magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @lisang.

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