Israeli film and Zionism

The Gatekeepers seek to teach us seven main lessons: Israel has no strategy, only tactics; Israel has no morality.

gatekeepers 521 (photo credit: courtesy pr)
gatekeepers 521
(photo credit: courtesy pr)
Two Israeli documentary films were nominated this year for an Academy Award: The Gatekeepers by Dror Moreh and 5 Broken Cameras by Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat. The Gatekeepers is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of six former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). 5 Broken Cameras is about the struggle of the residents of Bil’in against the separation fence.
The Gatekeepers consists of seven sections, 5 Broken Cameras of five. The seven sections of The Gatekeepers seek to teach us seven main lessons: Israel has no strategy, only tactics; Israel has no morality; The definitions of “terrorist” and “freedom fighter” depend only on who is doing the defining; “Jewish terror” is much more dangerous than it is considered to be; Israel enjoys the suffering of the Palestinians; Under the pretext of defense needs, Israel uses far more force than necessary; Occupation corrupts Israel and makes it brutal and oppressive.
The five sections of 5 Broken Cameras seek to teach us the same lessons, more or less, through the image contained in its title: Its creator, Bil'in resident Emad Burnat, simply wanted to document the demonstrations against the separation fence of residents of his and nearby villages (reinforced by Israeli left-wing activists and anarchists and International Solidarity Movement activists from abroad) – but could not complete his job “regularly,” because his cameras were destroyed one after the other in clashes with IDF soldiers.
Although the two films are very different aesthetically, they are very similar ethically: both are one-sided and superficial, ignoring the broader historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and feed their viewer their message through blatant manipulations, kitsch, clichés, melodrama and pathos.
IT IS Israeli film, perhaps more than other areas of artistic endeavor, that reveals the depth of alienation toward Zionism and Judaism among Israeli media and art creators. Unlike Israeli literature and drama, which has been going through a gradual process of authentic de-Zionization during the ’70s, ‘80s and ’90s, Israeli cinema jumped, in the early ’80s in a sharp, artificial manner, from the attempt to reflect the problems of Zionism in implementing its lofty vision, to rejecting this whole vision as a useless object.
Although dramatic human and historical stories roll around every corner in Israel, Israeli cinema insists on focusing on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and always from the same angle. A state of ingathered exiles, so abundant in human, cultural and biographical variety, a gold mine of unique cinematic material, is diluted and reduced by Israeli cinema into four repeating motifs: Jews and Arabs make war without reason (the Catch 22 motif); an Arab and a Jewess or a Jew and an Arab woman make love with no chance (the Romeo and Juliet motif); Jews as tormented war criminals (the Crime and Punishment motif); the state of Israel as an inferno (the Apocalypse Now motif).
Unlike Western film cultures, in their exploitation of religious and national mythologies, Israeli filmmakers almost completely ignore their supreme cultural asset – the Bible. None of them has been interested in dramas like Noah’s Flood or the destruction of Sodom, or in heroes like King David or Jeremiah. They see filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa as models to imitate, but neglect to realize that Fellini was so able to express his criticism of Italian hedonism, Bergman his anguish at the severity of Nordic Christianity and Kurosawa his reflections on Japanese cruelty precisely because all three felt basic solidarity with their respective nations, and honored their heritages.
IT IS no coincidence that the creator of the highest quality cinema in Israel, the late Ephraim Kishon, was a devoted Zionist. He criticism stemmed from a deep sense of solidarity, and he mocked us out of love for us. As a new immigrant from Hungary and Holocaust survivor, although he insisted on expressing immigrants’ frustration that “Israeli culture” did not represent any original values or pluralism, but rather provincial patronage – he stressed that “every chapter about the negative side of this country is a paragraph of a praise song to its positive side” (From the introduction to his book: The Immigrants that Trouble our Lives).
When he wrote and directed Salah Shabati at the beginning of the ’60s (with no prior film experience) – describing the resourcefulness of a primitive immigrant from an oriental country against the unswayability and stupidity of the Ashkenazi establishment – he indeed focused on the painful encounter of the individual with the reality in the shadow of the Zionist redemption myth, but expressed this criticism acknowledging that after all, Israel is the best place for Jews to live.
In the introduction to his book Knitted Kippa and some pro-Israel Satires, he wrote: “We were able to produce drinking water from the sea, [it’s] just bathing in that’s still forbidden... It is a land that has overcome the Arab boycott, but not the teachers’ strike... This is the most advanced country in the Near East, thanks to the Arabs... This is a country whose existence is in constant danger, but whose residents get ulcers due to their upstairs neighbors. This is the only country I could live in, this is my country.”
When his satirical work won international success (he directed the first Israeli film nominated for an Oscar and the first Israeli film to win a Golden Globe) – he harnessed his reputation to protect Israel’s positions in the foreign media and voluntarily served as “a national propagandist.”
But the more he succeeded worldwide as “a representative Zionist” the less sympathy he got in media and art circles in Israel. In 1988, when the musical version of Salah Shabati directed by him at Habima theater was a huge success among the public, almost all art amd culture critics in Israel smeared his work.
The author is the editor of The Jerusalem Post, Ivrit.