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Israel, Why (1973)
"Pourquoi Israel" (original title)

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Schmuel Birger ...
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Gad Granach ...
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October 1973 (USA)  »

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Sephirot of the ten directions
2 April 2013 | by (Greece) – See all my reviews

What is the Jewish reality? How is it unreal, different than normal, and what does it mean for the people? This is at the center of this three- hour documentary on the state of Israel by the filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose biggest call to fame is apparently the later Shoah. He travels the country with his camera hoping more to amass rich and diverse contrasts than any easy set of answers. The film, made just before the Yom Kippur war, so when elation over the Six-Days was still running high, is loosely a series of interviews, with Lanzmann probing from all angles, visiting the rich and poor, prisons, construction sites, kibbutz.

So what does the accordionist who was a member of the Communist Youth in 1933 Berlin have in common with intellectual German Jews, bankers and lawyers? Marxist kibbutz youth with the blue-collar dock workers of Haifa?

How do the busload of complacent American Jews visiting from Boston partake of the same identity, the same reality as some of the first settlers of the Negev who made the desert bloom, then in their 70's?

A few notes. You'll decide whether Lanzmann's decision to not give voice to Palestinians is omission or statement, especially resonant now that you know of Israeli efforts to isolate Palestinians behind walls. However, put that aside and this is an illuminating work on Israeli soul. You may note as connecting tissue the fact that all the people interviewed feel Jewish. The direct link of how deeply this is felt to how deeply it is opposed in the area and elsewhere.

And yet, this instinctively felt 'Jewishness' emerges as not a single thing. Usually lost in polarizing talks of the Israeli-Arab conflict, Israelis are as diverse as their neighbors, even more so at the time. Religion, the Holocaust, the army, all three are shown to be strong social adhesives of identity—Lanzmann would make separate films on the last two.

Why this hits deep is that you don't have political and historical 'experts' spouting analysis, this fluidity of identity is laid bare as part of actual life, in the stories of people.

I am fascinated by the broader implications of the question of how we structure reality and self. Is it this or not this? Is there mechanism? I have been charting this through films, our best tool for structuring reality.

My favorite bit here which I think explains a broader cycle is the following: an airplane is shown to dock in Tel Aviv, and out comes a fresh batch of Jewish immigrants to bolster the still young nation-state, these ones from Russia, from Georgia and Lithuania, some of whom don't even speak the language and whose only connection to their new home is that they identify as Jews. It is startling to see the face of a steppe- hardened old Russian, it's so evident he is from another faraway world.

Jews in Russia, but suddenly Russians in Israel.

As a matter of fact, Jews had a tenuous presence in Palestine up until the late 19th century, one of many tribal minorities. They had a rich history of dislocation, from Judea to Spain and Russia and so on. We can actually see, in the film, how diverse they grew to be in exile, contrast the Boston Jews with the Russians, the Germans with the Arab Jews. I know of no other film that offers this profound view of a people.

The connecting tissue is the same as what compelled the return; tied to persecution, it was the story of a promised land, a place most knew as only part of the story of who they are. The journeys of those early pioneers are in a way mirrored in some of the stories of later settlers recounted here. So how revealing when you find out that Zionist planners lied and manipulated to entice settlers?

So, fluid self. A fictional story as anchor mapping reality to come.

Its power? It made the desert bloom. When the Jews started coming back, there was no Tel Aviv waiting for them, it was all built from scratch on sand dunes. There was, in fact, a whole slate of part-travelogue, part-advertisement films made in early 1930's Palestine to encourage settlement there, shown abroad, which I hope to write about in future posts.


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