Slipping in Palestine

Why does Hollywood place the battle of David and Goliath... in Palestine?

tommy lee jones 63 (photo credit: )
tommy lee jones 63
(photo credit: )
Having dumped the kids at my in-laws, my wife and I walked into a nearby movie theater prepared to see a matinee - any matinee. That turned out to be In The Valley of Elah, the latest production by Oscar-winning writer/director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash), and as it happens, one of the year's biggest flops, to be released on DVD in a few weeks. Queuing up to purchase our tickets, I could think of two good reasons to see the flick. One was Susan Sarandon or, more precisely, lingering adolescent Sarandonian nostalgia, stemming from a 1978 screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the old New Yorker Theater at Broadway and 88th Street. The more compelling reason, however, was curiosity over the movie's title, which refers to a Bible-mentioned valley in Israel and appealed to my Jewish sensibility. Rocky Horror was Sarandon's defining moment, and, in my opinion, everything that followed sagged in comparison, not to mention her one-dimensional and neutered role in Elah. Leaving Sarandon aside, and ignoring the leathery-faced Tommy Lee Jones, who plays her husband, the plot - about a career military man and his wife who works with a detective to uncover the truth behind their son's disappearance - wasn't half bad. This leaves us with the second reason for seeing the film - the title. The Valley of Elah was where, 3,000 years ago, the Philistines trotted out Goliath, the infamous and fearful giant, to confront, but ultimately be felled by the diminutive David, future king of Israel, who finished him off with a single slingshot to the forehead. It's all in the Book of Samuel. In the film, the valley is mentioned only once, in a scene in which Jones's character recounts the biblical tale to a friend's son (never mind who or what). Monstrous cup of diet coke in one hand, fistful of popcorn in the other, I watched as Jones blithely informs the boy that the valley in question is located somewhere called… Palestine. Jolted, I sat up in my seat, knocking my jumbo-sized tub of popcorn over into my wife's lap. In the darkness of that Manhattan theater I spun around to detect some reaction in the audience, but none was discernible. Agitated, I found it difficult to watch the rest of the film. Why allow one innocuous word to ruin my well-earned cinematic respite? Historicity. Elah is in a region invariably referred to in deep antiquity as Judah, Israel or Canaan. So why, I wondered, did Paul Haggis find it necessary to replace any of those three perfectly good names with Palestine, a word that wouldn't be invented until 125 CE - 11 centuries after the confrontation at Elah? When we got home, I reached for a Bible, turning to chapter 17 in the first Book of Samuel: "Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and they were gathered together at Socoh, which belongeth to Judah… And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched in the vale of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines." Judah... Israel... vale of Elah. But no Palestine. So I asked myself once more, why Palestine? Suspecting politically motivated subliminal propaganda, I spent hours plowing through the movie reviews of three dozen of America's major dailies, weeklies and Web sites. Of the entire lot, only Robert Poehler, writing in Variety, seems to have noticed the reference to Palestine, obliquely correcting the film by noting the "Israeli location of the biblical battle." But the single journalist to confront the issue was Phyllis Chesler, who smelled conspiracy. Writing in, the outraged Chesler demanded to know "How much Saudi money went into this reference to Palestine in a movie meant for mass consumption?" She cited this as only one of many similar references embedded in other recent movies, pointing to suicide-bombers-as-good-guys in Paradise, keffiyeh-clad tyranny resisters in Children of Men, and Syriana's Saudi-like prince about to liberate humanity, only to be blown up by the CIA. Moreover, Haggis has never hidden his politics, identifying himself as member of the far Left in The Progressive and delivering speeches at rallies sponsored by "Act Now to Stop War & End Racism" (ANSWER), which is notoriously anti-American and anti-Israel. And then there is his recent appointment as creative mentor of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Still, Chesler's plausible interpretation and the other pieces of evidence were circumstantial. So I decided to venture into an e-mail exchange with Haggis, in which I asked him: "Why Palestine?" To my pleasant surprise, he quickly responded, claiming that "According to Biblical scholars (the Valley of Elah) was in ancient Palestine." Begging the question of which "biblical scholars," I countered with a succinct history lesson on the location of the valley, and the origin of the word Palestine: "Understand that in today's heated political discourse, describing a place as if it was in 'Palestine' when in fact it was in ancient Israel could be taken as a major political statement." Haggis gamely replied with a mea culpa: "Then our research was just plain wrong. Nothing other than that." So while a Saudi-financed Hollywood conspiracy may not exist - ignorance abounds among reviewers and writers alike - outspoken Hollywood lefties, Haggis included, (and even Sarandon) have internalized certain ideological orthodoxies which they take as givens. For so many of them it's an article of faith that America is bad, and that the Jews of Israel are interlopers who displaced an ancient Palestinian people - when, in fact, the reverse is true. Haggis was once quoted as saying that he likes "to write about things about which I have no answers." Here's hoping he doesn't make it a habit. The writer is a New York-based author and research analyst. He is now writing a graphic novel about life and loss on the Lower East Side.