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.