Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: High Ground

I live in a neighborhood, which is a dividing line between charedi/ultra-Orthodox Jews and Modern Orthodox Jews. Oftentimes, I encounter charedi Jews who are hitchhiking, or “tremping” as they say in the Hebrew vernacular, and I pick them up. When I shared this with a friend, he asked why I gave them a ride since many charedi Jews do not recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel and do not serve in the Israeli army, I told him that the one charedi Jew to whom I give a ride only represents himself and I have no idea what his life philosophy is. If I only operate with the notion that the one who looks different always thinks differently from me and is the enemy, then there can never be a rapprochement between the various sectors of Israeli society.

Respecting and understanding differences is the subtext of High Ground, which describes an incident in Australian history in which the First Nations People, the Aboriginals, are brutally attacked by the established colonial power. The colonials view the blacks as wild tribesmen who randomly attack white men and women. They forget the atrocities they have inflicted on the natives, and do not understand the retaliatory motives of the blacks. The natives want retribution for the brutality committed by the colonials.

The story begins as Travis, a former sniper in World War I, is now serving as a policeman in northern Australia in 1919. His task is to capture two fugitives, but his mission goes awry when one of his men opens fire prematurely. In the crossfire of the confrontation between police and fugitives, an Aboriginal tribe is massacred, leaving almost no survivors. Travis is disgusted with the outcome, but fortunately is able to rescue one child whose family was killed. He gives the child to missionaries to raise.

The narrative then moves twelve years forward when Travis is recruited to hunt down Baywara, an Aboriginal warrior whose “wild army” kills cattle, sets fire to homes, and attacks new settlers. Travis recruits the child he saved, Gutjuk, as a tracker. But can they trust one another? Moreover, Travis still feels guilt for the sins of the past and yearns for redemption, yet his fellow officers are bent on revenge. The success of Travis’s mission depends on people willing to overcome past prejudice and see things from the aspect of eternity, not from present hatred and adversity.

Rabbi David Clyman writes about the importance of overcoming past prejudice and respecting differences in order to build a peaceful world. To establish healthy relationships, “we need to be open-minded to different approaches.” He discusses the Hebrew word for respect, which is Kavod: “Kavod comes from the family of words that mean heavy. I respect the person who is heavy, who carries weight. A heavy object is something that I’ve got to deal with. If it’s light, I just kick it out of the way. Respecting the other means that I view him or her as being substantial — their opinion is something I must grapple with. I can’t simply dismiss them with a wave of the hand. Respecting the other’s view gives me the opportunity to explore an alternative path. It might be a road-less-traveled. It might also be the better way to go.”

High Ground is not an easy film to watch. There is violence, brutality, and failure to understand opposing perspectives. However, it presents a powerful life lesson about how to deal with people who are different from you. Labeling them and considering them less than human does not help. Once we see the humanity in those who are different, we begin our personal path to redemption and healthy moral thinking.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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