I was relieved and not at all disappointed last month when neither of the Israeli entries for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards came home with the prize. I felt badly that the two films representing Israel, “The Gatekeepers” and “5 Broken Cameras,” cinematically compelling as they were, took aim at the country’s alleged faults rather than its miraculous accomplishments, sending a skewed message around the world.
“The Gatekeepers” explores why the six living former heads of the Shin Bet are critical of Israeli policy, or lack of one, on the Palestinian front. The men are of different ages and personalities, but they agree that successive Israeli prime ministers approached the issue tactically rather than strategically, leaving the viewer with the impression that it is largely Israel’s fault that peace has not been achieved.
I thought of it as a full-length “trigger film,” an opening for subsequent conversation and debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in Israel, where it is known all too well. But I worried about the film’s impact on American and worldwide audiences who know little of the history and context of the issues seen and discussed on screen.
Even more so for “5 Broken Cameras,” directed by Emad Burnat, a Palestinian who offers a personal and activist take on the conflict showing alleged abuses by the Israeli army in the occupied territories. (Guy David, an Israeli, joined the project and co-directed the film.)
One can either applaud Israel for its level of democracy and cultural openness in presenting (and partially funding) these unflinching films, or cringe at witnessing two more examples of the Jewish state portrayed in a harsh light.
But even as that debate continues, I am hopeful that three documentary film projects, still in the works, will help balance Israel’s image with their inspiring stories of heroism and love of Zion.
‘Above And Beyond’
Nancy Spielberg, a New York-based producer, is at work on a full-length documentary called “Above And Beyond,” which tells how the Israeli Air Force came to be in 1948. It’s a remarkable, little-known story that highlights the commitment made by Jews from the diaspora in risking their lives for Israel’s survival.
A seven-minute clip, widely viewed on the Internet, features interviews with several American Jews, former World War II fighter pilots, now in their 80s and 90s, who recall being recruited in early 1948 to come and help the fledgling state defend itself against five Arab armies (www.playmountproductions.com).
Their plain-spoken explanations of why they left the safety of the U.S. to fly a few makeshift, untested airplanes made from spare parts, in the face of well-trained Arab squadrons, tanks and artillery, underscores a sense of Jewish peoplehood and shared destiny that transcends logic.
“Nothing was going to stop me,” recalled Navy airman Leon Frankel of North Dakota. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go.”
On May 29, 1948, with the Egyptian army on the march only 20 miles from Tel Aviv, the fliers from Machal, the volunteers from abroad, attacked and “stopped the Egyptians cold,” said Coleman Goldstein, one of the American airmen.
George Lichter of the Army Air Force noted: “I was born to be there at that moment in history to contribute to Israel’s survival.”
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, said the Machal forces, which I suspect most American Jews have never heard of, were “the diaspora’s most important contribution to the State of Israel.” And Yitzchak Rabin said simply, “They were all we had.”
Spielberg, whose brother Steven has become a legend in filmmaking, said she became aware of and intrigued by the story of the Machal forces on reading the 2011 obituary of Al Schwimmer, the New York aerospace engineer and pilot who helped smuggle war planes to Israel and recruit pilots during Israel’s War of Independence, forming the nucleus of the Israeli Air Force.
In 1950, after he returned to the U.S., he was convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts for his actions. He lost his voting rights and benefits and was fined $10,000.
Schwimmer was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2000, and received The Israel Prize in 2006.
Nancy Spielberg said she was moved by the story and felt that even most Israelis don’t know how their air force was born.
Though she said she has stayed out of the film business because, given her name, “the bar is so high,” she felt this story “has my name on it.” With her brother’s blessings, she set out to produce the film, which she hopes will be completed in about a year.
For the last five years Eric Halivni (formerly Weisberg) has been working on an ambitious effort to document on film firsthand accounts of the birth of the State of Israel, bringing a generation’s quiet heroism to life.
When I first interviewed him in the spring of 2008, the former New Yorker had left his job to singlehandedly launch Toldot Yisrael (the Generations of Israel), a nonprofit organization, hoping to conduct 1,000 video interviews with men and women who played a role in the effort to create a Jewish state.
But he came to New York to begin fundraising on the day the world learned Lehman Brothers went under. Given the economic climate, Halivni decided to change his priorities.
Rather than first raise funds and advertise the project, he used the money he had to start documenting the testimonies of national leaders, those who fought and everyday people who recalled the War of Independence and the early days of statehood.
“It’s a race against time,” says Halivni, who noted that the pool of possible interview candidates has diminished by more than half since he began the project. Though still essentially a one-man operation, Toldot Yisrael has managed to produce lengthy interviews with 630 people to date, the youngest of whom is 80 (www.toldotyisrael.org).
The material has been used in different formats. Together with the History Channel in Israel, Toldot Yisrael produced a series of 20 two-minute segments from the interview footage, which is being shown on Israeli television. There is also a series of films, about 15 minutes each, which tell a dramatic story. One recalls the lobbying effort behind the historic UN vote for statehood on Nov. 29, 1947; another features six men, now elderly, at the Kotel, telling how they violated British Mandate law in the 1940s to blow the shofar at Yom Kippur’s end, and then re-enacting their “crime”; and the most recent is of the tragic death of the “Lamed Hey,” the 35 young Israeli soldiers ambushed and killed in 1948 while trying to bring aid to the beleaguered community of Gush Etzion.
A major breakthrough for the project was the recently signed agreement securing a permanent home for Toldot Yisrael’s archives in Israel’s National Library.
Halivni believes the archives will be “a valuable resource for many movies, but it will also serve students, teachers, academics and the general public, and will change the way we study and understand the history of Israel’s founding.”
‘The Prime Ministers’
One of the best-received and most popular books about Israel in recent years is “The Prime Ministers,” a fly-on-the-wall recollection of major encounters between American and Israeli leaders from the 1960s to the early 1980s by former Israeli diplomat Yehuda Avner, who was on the scene as adviser and note-taker.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s documentary division, Moriah Films (winner of two Academy Awards for Best Documentary), is coming out with the first half of the two-part series based on the book this spring. Entitled “The Pioneers,” it is a 105-minute film focusing on the tenures of Levi Eshkol (1963-1969) and Golda Meir (1969-1974), and will have its New York premiere on May 8.
Part Two, on Yitzchak Rabin (1974-1977) and Avner’s hero, Menachem Begin (1977-1983), is scheduled to be completed in about six months.
“We were very loyal to the book, and we interviewed Avner for 35 hours,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center told me this week.
“Hopefully it will make up for a lot of the negativity” resulting from the release of “The Gatekeepers,” he said. “This film will make Jews and fans of Israel proud.”
The efforts of Nancy Spielberg, Eric Halivni and the Wiesenthal Center underscore the fact that the best way to defend Israel — and educate this and future generations — is to tell its story, through the authentic voice of those who were there.
It’s not a fairy tale. There were, and are, mistakes along the way. But the Jewish people’s transition in the 20th century from passive to active, from victim to participant and contributor, is a transformative and inspirational account worth telling, again and again.
The Jewish Week Forum will present A Conversation with Yehuda Avner, author of “The Prime Ministers,” on Thursday evening, April 18, at The Jewish Center in Manhattan. For ticket information, (212) 997-2906