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.

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.

AFP/Getty Images


Circus Maximus

The upcoming Italian election has everything a casual observer could want. But Italians themselves might not be so lucky.

Even by Italian standards, the 2013 election -- taking place Feb. 24 and 25 -- has proved to be a weird one.

In January, former Italian prime minister and current candidate Silvio Berlusconi praised Benito Mussolini, Italy's dictator for some 20 years, saying that the racial laws of 1938, which barred Jews from universities and many jobs, "are the worst fault of Mussolini, who, in so many other aspects, did good." A few days later, Berlusconi questioned a young woman in front of a laughing crowd, asking, "Do you come? Only once? How many times do you come? With what sort of time intervals?"

Berlusconi's competitor Beppe Grillo, the comedian turned populist insurgent who's now enjoying up to 20 percent support, invited al Qaeda to bomb the Italian Parliament, flirted with neo-fascist groups, and chased public-television cameramen away from his meetings.

Meanwhile, Oscar Giannino, a former Republican turned leader of the new party, Fermare il Declino, had to abruptly quit his race when University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor Luigi Zingales, one of the party's founders, announced that Giannino's CV was a fabrication. Giannino falsely claimed that he got a master's degree in Chicago and a law degree in Rome. He even made up that, as a child, he had sung in the popular TV show Zecchino d'Oro.

Of course, many voters have come to expect this sort of thing out of Berlusconi, Grillo, and the colorful Giannino. More surprising has been the behavior of the incumbent. As a distinguished economist, college professor, and former European Union commissioner, Mario Monti once looked like what we really needed: an aloof gentleman, conservatively dressed, businesslike, soft spoken. Well, the political bug bit Monti badly. He toyed with a puppy on live television and publicly adopted him, even if the show had only rented the hapless dog from a kennel. Convinced that social media is the highway to contemporary politics, the once-detached Monti started his own Twitter account, @SenatoreMonti, surprising everybody with a barrage of teenagerish "WOW :) :)."

Given this behavior, it's not that surprising that Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the center-left Democratic Party, still enjoys a lead before the polls open on Feb. 24. He has avoided big missteps, running a very low-key campaign. In the early stages of the race, when Berlusconi and Monti together accounted for more than 120 hours of on-air news coverage, Bersani decided to reduce his own TV presence to just 20 hours. A few voices dissented among his staff, but he did not relent.

The pollsters agree that Bersani should get a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament. However, he is still fighting to get control of the Senate, which he needs in order to become prime minister. But a byzantine electoral law, devised in 2005 by Berlusconi's cronies to weaken stable cabinets, leaves all scenarios open. And as he has throughout his career, Berlusconi has bounced back, thanks to his knack for electoral promises. This year, he has proposed to scrap the unpopular real estate tax that Monti recently passed, conveniently ignoring the fact that his own party voted for it. That was then, this is now, and now Berlusconi needs votes; he's polling at around 25 percent. Votes aside, it would be impossible for most Italian cities to square their budgets without the tax -- and markets would be nervous if Italy were to yet again take the path of fiscal recklessness. The worst days of the eurocrisis seem to have ended with more than 100 billion euros in foreign investments recently returning to Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. This is money the job market badly needs, but it may soon run out if the election aftermath is messy.

Given the state of the electorate today, it's likely to be that way. Have a look at the charts produced by Tychobigdata, a big-data start-up linked to the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca: When Berlusconi launched his campaign against the tax, the conversation on Twitter focused on him, adding to the traditional media advantage that he, as owner of three television networks, has traditionally enjoyed. The fact that there were just as many tweets and Facebook postings blasting Berlusconi didn't matter. Once more, he dictated the Italian political conversation, controlling the dominant issues. But the regional charts show just how intense the political conversation is within the different areas of the country. Bersani is still working to be recognized as a political leader in the south; Monti is strong in Rome and the north, but he lacks a consistent base. Both Berlusconi and Grillo, however, appear as true national leaders, discussed all over Italy on the web.

Bersani's likely plan is to muster a majority in the Chamber of Deputies and -- should he fail to secure one in the Senate -- to propose a pact with Monti and his centrist allies. In private conversations, Bersani confirms he will propose the pact even if he has an overall majority. He acknowledges the Italian fiscal crisis is not over; analysts say that more than 13 billion euros may be needed to balance the budget in 2013. He also knows that Italy's powerful unions will protest any further public-spending cuts and that he needs the centrists to tame them.

At the same time, raising the fiscal pressure on taxes, which are already heavy -- at around a 46 percent rate for top-bracket individuals and businesses -- would kill growth. A moderate reformist, Bersani looks at French President François Hollande's political fate with apprehension: Hollande has failed so far to implement his electoral promises, and it took a military intervention in Mali to improve his approval ratings. Bersani does not have a military "wag-the-dog" option. He sees a slow course of reforms, focusing on jobs, the south, and boosting private consumption -- yet he will be resistant to any spending sprees. Not long ago, Europe's economic basket cases were the PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain. Now, in Europe, everybody worries about FISH -- France, Italy, Spain, and Holland -- the fear being that these economies will be crippled by high-spending Socialist governments.

The wildcard is Grillo. He's hoping for a weak cabinet, forcing a national unity pact of Bersani, Monti, and Berlusconi, which would leave him as the sole leader of the opposition. How will Grillo lead his troops -- all of them political debutants? In Sicily, where his 5 Stelle party now exercises power after local elections last fall, he has been mostly a naysayer. 5 Stelle successfully blocked the stationing of MUOS, a U.S. satellite system that would protect NATO's southeast flank in the Mediterranean and serve as a strategic asset in Syria -- over vague health concerns. He talks of Italy withdrawing from the eurozone, renegotiating all international agreements, and calling home troops from most peacekeeping missions. This could be political posture, but 5 Stelle is unpredictable. More than 100 of his Grillinis are expected to enter the Chamber of Deputies and Senate after the upcoming elections. The moderate left is already, cautiously, checking them out, hoping a few of them -- tired of Grillo's tirades -- will later join arms.

Should the election results match the latest polls, Italy's political dilemmas may not be over for a while. Bersani, even as a prime minister, should ponder why his Democratic Party is still failing to entice the middle-class vote in the productive, high-tech north. Monti should find a new, more nuanced balance between being a technocrat and a politician. Berlusconi has to decide what to do with the 25 percent of the votes he'll get -- play the spoiler or eventually find a true political heir? Even Grillo, after the raucous celebrations of his "Grillini" are over, will discover that running the world's sixth-largest economy and Europe's second industrial power is, after all, no laughing matter.