When I was 10 or 11, my childhood sweetheart moved to Israel. As I was told much later, her parents that that they didn’t want her to marry a Gentile. I’m pretty sure there was more to it than that. (Her father was an eminent scholar who left a position at the University of California for another at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he taught for many years.) Abby wrote me letters for a year or so before our correspondence petered out, and while I don’t think I have them anymore, I recall them vividly: the exotic postage stamps, the return address on HaPalmach Street, her drawing of the Western Wall with explanatory notes on its history and the prayers religious Jews slip between its stones. (I can't help but wonder what Abby makes today of the confrontations at the wall between Jewish women who want to pray there and the ultra-Orthodox men who want to stop them.) This was only a few years after Israel’s conquest of the Old City of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War, and Abby’s letters described a country that was young and ancient at the same time, a land of vigor and idealism.
Abby could not have known about, or understood, the startling sequence of images we see in the remarkable new documentary “Israel: A Home Movie,” in which Eliav Lilti and Arik Bernstein artfully assemble film and video footage shot by ordinary Israelis over the tumultuous period from 1930 into the late '70s. We witness the powerful emotions of Israeli soldiers, weeping, praying and celebrating as they reach the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, which had been off limits to Jews during the years of Jordanian control, from 1948 to 1967. And then we see bulldozers, three days after Israel's historic victory, begin to demolish the adjacent Moroccan Quarter, which had been there for more than 750 years and included one of the last standing mosques from the time of Saladin, the great 12th-century sultan. (In fact, the Women of the Wall protests of 2013 take place on the former site of this historic Arab neighborhood.) Israel, as this movie captures in intimate detail, is a place where idealism collides head-on with harsh reality, over and over again.
You can definitely feel snatches of the Zionist popular fervor captured in my young friend’s letters in “Israel: A Home Movie.” It begins with washed-out, black-and-white images of European Jews arriving in what was then British-administered Palestine, and moves all the way to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty (a focus of considerable anxiety these days) and the cocaine-disco parties of 1970s Tel Aviv. Of course this intimate historical account, focused as much on wedding banquets and beach outings as on headline-making events, is told from only one side and never pretends otherwise. (Palestinian home movies would undoubtedly offer a different perspective.) But this is an ambivalent and often painful story, not a triumphalist or propagandistic one. It’s narrated in voice-over by ordinary people – either those who shot the footage or their descendants – who understand that their country has an problematic status in the world and a troubled history.
As an outsider who’s long been fascinated by Israel and its culture – in retrospect that clearly began with Abby's letters – I think the dual, paradoxical, self-searching quality of “Israel: A Home Movie” is entirely characteristic. Israel is a small country of big contradictions. Settlers came there, many fleeing the ashes of the Holocaust, and made the desert bloom, revived a vanished language and built a new society. It’s an inspirational tale of redemption and renewal, except for the part about the people who were already there and got kicked out. Viewed one way, Israel is a vibrant democracy, whose level of heated and vigorous internal debate makes American political life look like a puppet show for small children. (Actually, let me apologize: That’s insulting to puppeteers and small children.) Viewed another way, it’s a tightly wound mini-superpower that has drawn precisely the wrong lessons from the tragic history of the Jewish people, and enmeshed itself in a brutal and unstable military occupation that has destabilized not just the Middle East but the entire world.
One of the narrators of “Israel: A Home Movie” expresses no compassion for her one-time Arab neighbors, the ones we see struggling along the roads in 1948 on their way toward permanent exile: “We had to get them out. They were a bone in our throat.” Others wistfully remember a time when Jews and Arabs lived alongside each other, in relative harmony, under the British mandate. Two sisters continue a long-running argument about whether the demolition of a minaret in their village, after all the Muslims had left, was a criminal act. A man who filmed Israeli troops beating, mocking and abusing Egyptian POWs after the Six-Day War still feels obliged to explain why he did nothing about it. “You wouldn’t treat an animal that way,” he says. Other footage captures the early period of West Bank occupation, when attitudes on both sides were more pliable than they later became, and Israeli soldiers played soccer with Palestinian kids in the streets of Hebron.
Some Israeli leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu first and foremost among them, have profited from suggesting that there’s no need to reflect on any of this history, and that the only salient question is Israel’s “security,” defined in narrow, present-tense terms. No one of any political persuasion wants to get blown up on the bus on the way to work, and in that sense the Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians have only solidified the Israeli right’s hold on power, and accelerated the Swiss-cheese spread of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. But in the larger head-space of culture, Israeli writers and filmmakers have continued to raise fundamental questions about the nation’s history, psychology and destiny.
With Joseph Cedar’s gripping war drama “Beaufort,” Samuel Maoz’s memorably claustrophobic “Lebanon” and Ari Folman’s animated acid trip “Waltz With Bashir” -- three terrific movies in wildly divergent styles -- the Israel-Lebanon war of the 1980s became its own cinematic genre, one that seemed to capture the traumatic death of Israeli innocence and idealism. In the highly addictive Israeli TV series “Prisoners of War,” the basis for Showtime’s “Homeland,” the portrayal of Arab militants can often be crude and stereotypical. But Israeli society is also depicted as shallow, hypocritical and divorced from reality, and the show’s fatalistic narrative message can be grasped in its title – everyone in the Middle East, Arab or Israeli, is imprisoned in an endless cycle of violence.
Like “Israel: A Home Movie,” those works are Israel-centric, and spend little or no time trying to present a Palestinian or Arab perspective. One could say first of all that it’s up to the Arabs to tell their own stories, and many Arab writers, along with filmmakers like Hany Abu-Assad, Ziad Doueiri and Elia Suleiman, are doing so. In most cases, they do so in exile, because – as Doueiri found out with his recent film “The Attack,” which was shot in Israel -- Arab governing elites do not generally welcome the kind of public questioning and self-criticism that is routine in Israel. You could also say that Israel is a unique case, and that Israelis know it better than anyone. The country’s very existence is a global problem with no evident solution, but it’s also a nuclear-armed military power umbilically tconnected to America. For all the apocalyptic rhetoric drilled into the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees by the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel isn’t going anywhere.
In “The Gatekeepers,” the Oscar-nominated documentary by Dror Moreh, who was once an aide to right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, we see former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal secret police, saying virtually to a man that Israel’s policies in the Palestinian territories have been disastrous and self-defeating. Among them is Avraham Shalom, a legendary Yoda-like figure who was born in Vienna and saw Adolf Hitler speak there after the Anschluss, or German annexation of 1938. Shalom, who is presumed to be responsible for the deaths of numerous Palestinians, tells Moreh that the Israeli occupation is immoral, and has put Israeli soldiers in a similar position to the Nazi troops of occupied Europe. Not exactly the same, he clarifies. But similar.
I was thinking a lot about these kinds of stark contradictions, and the collision between idealism and reality, after meeting Dani Dayan, the Israeli settler leader who recently came to Salon’s New York offices for a conversation with me and news editor Alex Halperin. (You can read that interview here.) Dayan had read an essay I wrote in March about the apparent death of the “two-state solution,” and was clearly trying to come off as a liberal and humane person. He was genuinely sympathetic to the pain and difficulty of the Palestinian situation, he said. He abhorred the recent wave of violence by Jewish settlers against Arab civilians, and has urged the authorities to arrest and punish those responsible. He would like to set aside zero-sum political questions that have no realistic, near-term solution, and work with Palestinians toward improving conditions in the refugee camps, removing checkpoints and other travel restrictions, and eventually demolishing the “security barrier” that separates Israel proper from the West Bank.
I believe Dayan is sincere, and perhaps there's room for some social progress on those issues. But what he’s sincere about, of course, is stabilizing the bizarre status quo into the indefinite future. He might not put it this way, but he thinks Palestinians must give up their aspirations for political autonomy, and make the best of living in a subordinate semi-state that’s not quite a real country and is entirely dependent on Israel. When I called the Palestinian-American journalist and activist Ahmed Moor (who co-edited the anthology "After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine") and summarized Dayan’s argument, he laughed out loud. Moor and Dayan actually agree about at least one thing -- the two-state solution will never happen – although their visions of what will happen instead are diametrically opposed. (Moor envisions a one-person, one-vote nonsectarian democracy for the entire territory of present-day Israel and Palestine.)
“So Dani Dayan wants to remove the checkpoints and the wall?” Moor said. “Well, that’s great, so do I. Why don't we go further, and actually end the occupation! Look, let’s put this in an American context. In Mississippi in 1956, there was no wall and there were no checkpoints. Everyone could drive on the same roads. But would you describe that as a just or fair society, one that offered equal rights to all?”
Dayan would bitterly resent that comparison, I’m sure. As even a whitewashed version of history like “The Help” makes clear, the constricted and oppressive culture of the Jim Crow South has little in common with the wide-open political and artistic discourse of contemporary Israel. But we should remember that many whites who believed in segregation were not hateful Klansmen or George Wallace-style blowhards, but polite and even well-meaning people who clung to old-fashioned ideals of Southern gentility and convinced themselves that “separate but equal” societies offered blacks the chance to progress at their own pace. As Dayan pretty much admitted to us, he’s trying to find an escape hatch from the painful dilemma of Israeli history, offer his countrymen a way to feel better about themselves, and perhaps recapture the passionate idealism of the Zionist dream. But as an early settler in 1930s Palestine says several times in “Israel: A Home Movie,” it was always difficult and never idyllic. No matter how it sounded in the letters an 11-year-old girl wrote me, so many years ago.
"Israel: A Home Movie" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with other cities and home video to follow. "The Gatekeepers," "Beaufort," "Lebanon" and "Waltz With Bashir" are all available on home video. The TV series "Prisoners of War" is available free on Hulu.