Just 70 years into statehood, some 2,600 years after the first expulsion from their home followed by centuries of wandering in and out of places like Babylon, Cordoba, Warsaw, Berlin, Kiev, and Aleppo – made memorable (sadly) more for the crimes committed there than for the culture that once flourished there – the Jews of Israel are producing a stunningly self-critical cinema that wins worldwide praise both for its technical quality and its substantive courage.
Some examples of that output are the focus of David Remnick’s recent essay in The New Yorker, although its original title hints at another message: “Occupational Hazards,” to alert readers of news and commentary from the middle east, suggests we might be in for another round of hand-wringing or worse on a persistently vexing aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Note that the online version carried a different title: “How Do You Make a TV Show Set in the West Bank?” which more directly prepares readers for the analysis that follows, even if that analysis will slyly confound the post-1967 quagmire with the bigger question about Israel’s right to exist at all. I will get to these issues in a moment.
First, though, there is rich drama here. Zionism was, among other things, about providing a place for Jews to nurture their cultural, national, and religious traditions safe from intermittent persecution – threatened and executed – that had always been part of their reality. Light irony drumroll please: it seems, in the light of this cinematic productivity, that an important part of cultural renewal is being fulfilled.
A second and more significant irony is that the new Israeli cinema debunks once and for all the myth that, free of oppression, Jewish culture would somehow be impoverished. Now the Jews are relatively safe, at least from the traditional threats, and their culture is bursting – at home in Israel and in parts of the diaspora. But it gets even better. As David Ben-Gurion noted (paraphrasing from Hayim Nachman Bialik), when we have a Jewish state criminals will conduct their business in Hebrew. In other words, Jewish liberation will come with the problems that all modern nations endure. France has tax-evaders, Italy has Mafiosi, Russia has oligarchs… you see where this is going.
So, irony number three is that the made-for-TV films covered in Remnick’s essay are contemplations of some of the more unpleasant realities of the modern state’s birth and maturation. In a way, petty thieves and felons would have been a welcome relief in these films, which focus rather on questionable practices of Jews in the wake of the Six Day War. Since in Remnick’s view that period is marked by Israeli crimes caused by shortsightedness, arrogance, and gradual slide into the immorality that comes from military power, he might have mentioned that Bialik and Ben-Gurion had it right. B-G feared that territorial ambition would distract Jews from the real mission of Zionism, but it is safe to assume he would have understood the predicament depicted in these shows with more subtlety than Remnick, who seems to blame Israel alone for the whole mess.
If art is supposed to be attuned to its social context, then so too should art criticism. The history of the modern rebirth of the Jewish state in Palestine is a troubled one. Troubled not only by the hard earth and infested marshes that the returnees to Zion found, but perhaps even more so by the ideological, religious, and political tumult that began roughly with Theodor Herzl’s founding of the movement in 1897 and has persisted, unabated and at times with relentless ferocity, to this day. But it is hard to detect in Remnick’s review anything more than a grudging acknowledgement of the historical and contemporary realities of the Zionist project in which Israeli film and television is thriving. This lacuna undermines whatever cogent criticism of the art might follow.
At the risk of adding too much context, not only did the Jews in Israel overcome physical, political, and military obstacles to nation-building, their films and television shows affirm an essential condition of democracy: self-awareness, public exposure of mistakes, and full-throated criticism. Despite the improbability of the Zionist project, Israel has emerged strong enough to be self-critical in the healthiest sense.
To his credit, Remnick does point out that one of the first films to raise moral questions about the post-1967 occupation, Khirbet Khizeh, eventually became part of the Israeli public-school curriculum; but he doesn’t comment on how extraordinary this is, at least as compared with how other nations have dealt with problematic history. According to the Economist magazine, the French, for example, “have tended to confront their record under Nazi occupation with a mixture of denial, silence and myth. The second world war was not on the school curriculum until 1962. Textbooks scarcely mentioned the Holocaust. No French leader from de Gaulle to Mitterrand acknowledged the state’s part in deporting Jews to Nazi death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, prompting much soul-searching over collaboration, memory and guilt.” That Khirbet Khizeh became part of the curriculum in Israel warrants more than just a passing mention.
Indeed, the fact that Israeli film and TV is so rich in self-criticism is worthy of more discussion. As Remnick notes, it was just 50 years into statehood when Israel cinema produced a 22-part documentary, Tekuma, that “included reporting on massacres, discrimination, [and] expulsions…” Arik Sharon apparently tried to have it banned from state schools, though whether he succeeded is not clear. In any case, what’s more interesting than whether politicians try to prevent uncomfortable films from being aired is the fact that the films are made in the first place and that they attract so much attention, in Israel and out, and especially among Jews.
Even those wary of national-character simplifications of human behavior must wonder why the Jews seem to thrive on self-deprecation. It’s all over their literature, in the tragedies and in the comedies (the best analysis of Jewish humor, which brims with mordant self-effacement, is Ruth Wisse’s No Joke). Maybe this isn’t surprising, given that Jews invented monotheism, arguably the most powerful of antidotes to human self-aggrandizement. Think you’re so great? You’re nothing compared to Elohim. The standards are high, and today’s Israeli film and television scene is just the latest manifestation: thanks to the producers and directors and actors in shows like Fauda, which Remnick spends much of his time discussing, Israel TV has become a purveyor of imagery and dialog meant to expose mistakes, imperfections, doubt, frustration, disappointment. This output should make other democracies respectful, if not downright envious; but we get no such comparative context from The New Yorker.
It is worth noting something about terminology. Referring to what is arguably the most amazing undertaking in millennia of Jewish and world history, the ingathering of exiles and their return to the land that was their civilization in biblical times, as a “project,” is remarkable – if not as another case of self-deprecation then certainly as an expression of humility. It is shorthand for acknowledgement that the process of bringing Jews home, though obviously admirable in so many ways (Israel ranks among the top countries in the world for generosity, for example), is also fraught with error, setback, unwanted suffering, potential “externalities,” and grief. Like other complex projects, Zionism can be understood as a work in progress, one that inevitably eludes an optimal solution but requires, rather, an openness to evaluation, criticism, retooling, and then more evaluation.
Unlike other projects, though, this one can never allow itself the existential contemplation. Think of this from the American perspective: maybe we should scrap the space program, maybe we should repeal the Affordable Care Act, maybe we should privatize public education – but America as a sovereign constitutional democracy? Now there is a dreamy project, and though our experiment has had its share of imperfections, the idea is permanent.
On the other hand, and in ways that are truly bewildering, discussions of Israel’s flaws often hint (at least) at the possibility that the whole damn project should be scrapped (Tony Judt’s infamous New York Review of Books article, in which he said that Israel is “an anachronism,” comes to mind). In the hands of more nuanced authors, for example Amos Oz or for that matter Jeffrey Goldberg and Leon Wieseltier, the existential question is approached differently: there is no doubt about the validity of the project, but rather deep (and loving) concern about its viability in the light of expansionist preferences of the Israeli nationalist and religious right. Remnick quotes one of the producers of Fauda, Avi Issacharoff, who ably makes the viability argument: “Either we’re ending the Zionist dream—ending our status as a Jewish democratic state—or we will become one state for two peoples. Sooner or later, the status quo will explode.” It’s a popular argument, but not without its critics, from left and right.
In any case, Remnick doesn’t overtly get into the existential questions, but discussion of the problems of the West Bank after the Six Day War (see, again, the revised title of the article) drift seamlessly into comments about what happened in 1948. Is it not mystifying that discussion of a territorial dispute that began in 1967 somehow veers into the question about whether the Jews had any right to their state in the first place? From this perhaps unintended slip, sensitive readers might wonder if Remnick’s errors camouflage deeper uncertainties.
Take, for example, his early throw-away acknowledgement of the “five invading Arab armies that had hoped to erase the fledgling Jewish state from the map,” which comes out sounding a bit resentful, almost as if Remnick means to say “darn, if only it wasn’t for that erasing thing the case against Israel would be so much easier…” Those pesky Jews, making it hard and confusing on their would-be erasers! Can’t we have a bit more about what was going on in Palestine circa 1945-49? Would it have been too much to insert a sentence about the rhetoric and reality of those invading armies and maybe another one about the physical and emotional condition of the Jews who fought back?
There are other instances of this kind of stylistic sleight of hand. For example, in describing the producers of Fauda, Remnick says they “consider themselves ‘pro-peace,’ pro-two-state-solution. But they are not far from the Israeli mainstream” (italics added). But? The Israeli mainstream isn’t in favor of peace and a two-state strategy? Where is the evidence for that?
If Remnick’s tone is passively aggressive, his handling of the available evidence is aggressively passé. Consider the reference to Benny Morris and the other so-called new historians (Avi Shlaim and Simha Flapan), who “marshalled the nerve and the documentary evidence required to shatter the myth that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs had all voluntarily ‘abandoned’ their cities and villages.” Morris was a leader in this revisionist movement, for sure. But did Remnick forget or not know that Morris later revised his revisionism? Anyone who writes about the new historians should have read or listened to the more recent Morris and be aware of the rebuttals by serious scholars — Efraim Karsh, Asher Susser, Anita Shapira, to name a few. Maybe those new historians challenged the “myth,” but the only thing they shattered was their credibility as scholars. By the way, New Yorker readers deserve to know that Shlaim is a polemicist working outside the traditions of academic scholarship and that Flapan has been dead for 30 years so it’s hard to know where he would stand today.
As to whether that story of the partition and subsequent war of independence is a myth (and again, isn’t this article supposed to be about the occupation of the West Bank that began after 1967?), closer attention to the relevant data would have been helpful. The conventional rhetoric about those “hundreds of thousands of refugees” is like much conventional rhetoric – unsubstantiated by the evidence. First, the count varies depending on the data source; second there is argument in the field about how many left voluntarily, how many were expelled, and who was primarily responsible. It’s a complicated story, but recently-opened archival evidence, in the hands of good researchers, upends the so-called myth-busting that Remnick seems enamored of. Including such references would have alerted readers to the possibility that today’s myths are considerably less reliable than yesterday’s. And again, some comparative context would be helpful: as the distinguished historian, Anita Shapira, wrote in her recent history of Israel, “In the context of time, Israeli policy on the refugee issue was not considered out of the ordinary…Fixing the Poland-Germany border along the Oder-Neisse River mandated the expulsion of some eight million Germans to the west…”
For my part, I would like to believe that Remnick understands the permanency of the Zionist project and actually admires it. But there is something creepy in this article, in which the author, perhaps unknowingly, allows errors of tone and substance to creep in and disable what would otherwise have opened a stimulating discussion of contemporary Israeli film and television. I am reminded of Joseph Schumpeter’s comment about ideology: it “enters on the very ground floor, into the pre-analytical cognitive act…” Shumpeter was a great economic historian and philosopher of science (also an antisemite, but that’s for another day), and pushed back against arguments that values and beliefs have no place in science. His subtler point was that prior conceptions inevitably shape our choice of what to analyze and how, and that extra care must be taken to ensure that the intuitions that guide us, explicitly or tacitly, not be allowed to supplant or substitute for evidence.
Good journalists, like good scientists, aspire to objectivity, their personal values and dispositions notwithstanding. Remnick should have been more attentive to his own priors, which may or may not include some doubt about the wisdom or necessity of the Zionist rebirth or, in a milder version, questions about whether the benefits of a Jewish state justify its cost. Instead, readers come away with a distorted picture of the situation depicted by the TV shows reviewed, and Remnick has missed a chance to allow a dispassionate review of the evidence to challenge his own pre-analytical intuitions.
So what is it about The New Yorker? On Israel and the Jews more generally, its editors seem willing to suspend their typically high editorial standards and wander dangerously close to the anti-evidentiary norms that have infected much of the fashionably progressive press. For example, they provided primo space to an excerpt from Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, which is fine; except that it was from the chapter that excoriated the Jews for what happened in Lydda, and the chapters it didn’t include were the ones in which Shavit articulated some of the best and most loving reminders of the brilliance of the Zionist idea along with evidence of some of its most astounding successes. On the Lydda story, by the way, Shavit’s rendering, and in particular his insistence on the word “massacre” to describe what happened there, has since been tamed considerably by scholars who know how to find and interpret hard data (Martin Kramer, Alon Kadish, Avraham Sela, Shapira). Was The New Yorker’s choice of what to include and what to omit entirely random? Or were the editors upholding some kind of tradition? Remember, Hannah Arendt got famous there too, for her insidious scolding of the Jews for allowing Eichmann to persecute and murder them. It’s a more egregious example, in my view, than the Shavit episode or Remnick’s piece, but similar in the way that hurtful nonsense is later put to rest by serious and painstaking scholarship, whether by the likes of Terence DesPres and Yehuda Bauer, or more recently, by Peter Hayes.
Since I have been complaining about lack of comparative context, let me say that Remnick’s analysis is especially disappointing compared to his other fine work. He has offered astute and enlightened thinking on some of the toughest issues of the day, most recently in the aftermath of November 2016, so it’s sad that for this topic he has let his standards slip. Yes, there’s no question that Israel made mistakes, and some Israelis have been bad people. It’s important for the people and the project to be held accountable, but accountability that rests on shaky or erroneous or incomplete information, neglects complexities of history and context, overlooks available data and scholarship, and seems incapable of any affection, is counterproductive. The New Yorker can obviously do better.