Michael Unterberg
A guy in Efrat

Jewish war stories

Remember Rambo? Back in the Reagan 80’s, Sylvester Stallone had a successful movie franchise based on watching his fictional cold warrior shoot communists. All four films were hits in the USA, and seemed to capture the spirit of their times.

In Israel they landed differently. While I won’t quote the language used, I clearly remember Israeli soldiers mocking the artificial movie machismo of those films.

Today, they probably would look silly in America as well. Over a decade and a half of wars in the Middle East have rendered Rambo style movies ridiculous. We’ve seen too many wounded warriors return home. The price they pay makes cheering at war itself seem wrong. And so, war movies, in general, no longer pack the patriotic punch that they used to. You can’t have John Wayne after Private Ryan. Similarly, in popular music, Over There rings hollow after Give Peace a Chance. This change in the Zeitgeist probably represents a healthy cultural maturation. Wars are necessary, even for democracies. But we can appreciate and thank the heroes who fight them without celebrating war itself.

Nations fight wars, and so they must tell stories about the wars that they fight. The way that they tell those stories tells a lot about them.

I wonder, how should the Jewish State tell its war stories? Centuries of diaspora had made this a moot question. In antiquity, we were a fiercely martial people. The needs of running a modern Nation/State mean that we have become so again, and the IDF is now one of the most powerful militaries on Earth. How we tell the stories about this will reflect who we are, and who we will become. So how should we tell those stories?

Jerusalem U now has a trilogy of films that offer a pathway to answering that question. The first was Beneath the Helmet. It tells individual stories of Israeli teens being inducted and trained by the IDF. It tells a very positive story of camaraderie, courage, growth and love. Young American students get real insight into a world that’s normally closed off to them. The film enlightens and inspires them.

Mekonen was the sequel to that film. It focuses on one of the soldiers from Beneath the Helmet, a young immigrant from Ethiopia. His story is a complicated one. The film goes into more detail about his family’s journey, even accompanying him to visit his father’s grave back in Ethiopia. It is a deeply moving story of pain, growth, commitment and sacrifice. Students see Israel through the eyes of African immigrants. The film moves and rouses their patriotism.

Now there is a third film. When the Smoke Clears is profoundly important. It is a brave and honest story, so painful and beautiful. It tells the story of brave soldiers, who were wounded in Israel’s battles against her enemies. In fighting to overcome their physical and emotional injuries, they display new kinds of courage and leadership. Banding together in the veterans’ organization, Brothers For Life, these soldiers still refuse to leave each other behind.

It is a film about love, courage, leadership, and fellowship. It is a deeply Jewish story about how to fix what’s broken, and build a better future. It’s a movie that will not only impact its viewers, but can potentially change them.

To be clear, it’s a difficult viewing experience. While it doesn’t contain graphic violence, it also doesn’t pull any punches. The depth of pain and suffering these men, and their loved ones, go through is overwhelming. Learning about Israel cannot only focus on the positive. That would be a dishonest presentation of the truly complicated story of Zionism. Needless to say, true education must be honest.

As the classic Israeli poem reminds us, The Silver Platter that Israel has been handed to us on is costly. That’s why we observe Yom HaZikaron the day before Yom Ha’Atzmaut. How can we celebrate the birth of the State with full hearts without the catharsis of honest mourning for the price we paid? When the Smoke Clears reminds us that while some pay the price by giving their lives, some spend their entire lives paying the price of their sacrifice.

The term “war casualties” refers to both dead and injured. I fear that all too often, we mourn the former and don’t appreciate the sacrifices of the latter. No viewer of When the Smoke Clears will ever commit that lapse of sensitivity again.

Viewers will see how truly heroic IDF soldiers are, in a way that they have rarely encountered. They will feel pain, joy, sympathy and inspiration. It’s a rare piece of art that can make us better people. It uses the film medium to its best, by educating in a profound and powerful way.

Frankly, it’s how Jews should tell our war stories. We must fight, we will win, and we will have to pay that price. And we will do it with Jewish love, Jewish hearts and Jewish values. There are those out there who will tell our students false stories of Israeli warriors. So Jerusalem U will show them the truth. That’s what real educators do.

Show your students this film.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Unterberg is an Israel Educator. He is a very proud father and grandfather, and lives in Efrat.
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