At first blush, the connection between two films about the loss of faith in Zionism and one about whether jokes can ever be made about the Holocaust might seem tenuous at best. However, without the Holocaust there would be no Israel. Furthermore, the director of that film, who is Jewish like the other two, might have something else in common. Once you begin joking about concentration camps, doesn’t that remove the sanctity that the state of Israel rests on? When British Labourite Naz Shah posted an image on FB of Israel superimposed on the USA, it was soon revealed that it was lifted from Norman Finkelstein’s website. Commenting on the controversy whether this image suggested that Jews be “transported” from Israel as they were to concentration camps, Finkelstein laughed at the comparison. The image was nothing but a light-hearted joke:
These sorts of jokes are a commonplace in the U.S. So, we have this joke: Why doesn’t Israel become the 51st state? Answer: Because then, it would only have two senators. As crazy as the discourse on Israel is in America, at least we still have a sense of humour.
“The Settlers”, which opens at the Film Forum on Friday, March 3rd, is as the title implies a close look at the settlements in the West Bank that cropped up after the Israeli victory in the six-day war of 1967. The settlements continued to grow under both Labour and Likud governments, no matter world opinion—least of all, the USA’s demand that they cease. For an understanding of American foreign policy, it is important to understand that actions count a lot more than words. When Obama said that Bashar al-Assad must step down, the blood-stained dictator must have figured out that this carried about as much weight as calling for a return to the 1967 borders.
The film is a mixture of archival footage of Israeli expansion into the West Bank and interviews with mostly elderly leaders of the land grab, who show about as much reflection on the injury done to Palestinians as a wolf does after consuming a rabbit. Maybe the wolf experiences great pangs of conscience.
The documentary shows Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook making a fiery speech to his ultra-religious followers a few days after Israel has defeated the Arab armies. He likens it to a biblical miracle and a mandate for creating a Greater Israel based on the ancient Judea and Samaria kingdoms. Today’s followers of Kook are even more ambitious. They envision a state that is bordered by two rivers: the Nile to the West and the Euphrates to the East. With Donald Trump in the White House and with the Democratic Party equally deferential to Zionist expansionism, who can say what Israel will look like a decade from now?
Kook was the founder of Gush Emunim, the fanatical ultraright vanguard of the settlement movement. His father was Rabbi Abraham Kook, who was the first Hasidic rabbi to connect the ancient theological belief in the Messiah with the modern Zionist project. He was the head of a sub-sect within the Lubavitcher sect that unlike their rivals in the quietist Satmars has been a virtual wing of the Likud Party and an abettor to its worst crimes.
As it happens, the shadow of the Kook family looms large over 20th century Jewish history. Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, was the nephew of Abraham Kook and a leader of the Revisionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky and which bred Menachem Begin, who was Israel’s prime minister from 1977 to 1983 and a fanatical supporter of the settlements. To his credit, Bergson opposed the Zionist establishment during WWII, demanding that Jews be allowed into the USA without regard to the consequences of Zionist colonization. Even if Lenni Brenner remains one of Zionism’s sharpest critics, he respected Bergson’s efforts.
If Zvi Yehooda Kook provided the philosophical and political inspiration for the settlements, it was Rabbi Moshe Levinger who provided the muscle and the organizational skills. Shown strutting around with an Uzi or haranguing his followers to assault Arabs, Levenger led the Zionist incursion into Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, that is described in shocking detail in “The Settlers”. When Begin was prime minister, Levinger effectively became a pit bull unleashed by his master.
Director Shimon Dotan had unusual access to the elderly settlers who felt free to reveal their brazen disregard for Palestinian rights and their own self-justification based on biblical legends. A former Navy Seal in the IDF, Dotan moved to Canada in 1991 ostensibly for political reasons. When word got out that he was going to make a film about the settlements, the Internet became abuzz with stories about the plans of a “deep leftist” to make a film that might discredit them. While most of the film is devoted to allowing the settlers to hoist themselves on their own petards, there are several Israeli leftist academics who offer the sort of criticisms you might read in Haaretz. I was particularly impressed with Moshe Habertal, who is now a guest professor in the NYU Law School.
One wonders if Dotan and Habertal have ever been willing to grapple with the reality that is hinted at in this very powerful film but never articulated—namely the inexorable dynamic that leads Israel to create settlements beyond the 1967 borders in a lebensraum type permanent aggression against Arab peoples. That dynamic existed from the birth of the state despite its socialist pretensions. Someday an Israeli might make a film based on that premise but in the meantime, “The Settlers” will accelerate that process.
(“The Settlers” is on a double feature with “Ben Gurion: Epilogue” that I had a brief look at. It will be of less interest but might help to give you some insights into labor Zionism, a tendency that has about as much traction in Israel as Democratic Party liberalism has in the USA.)
“P.S. Jerusalem” is a virtual companion piece to “The Settlers” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Theaters in New York on March 17. Directed by Danae Elon, the daughter of the late Amos Elon, it resembles a home movie that is distinguished by the honesty of the director and the willingness of her family to take part in what amounts to a much realer version of the sort of reality TV you can see on the Bravo Network, famous (or infamous) for shows like “Housewives of New Jersey” that has family members airing their feuds in front of millions of viewers.
Elon’s film is much less “dramatic” than the staged reality of Bravo’s shows but much rawer because the feelings expressed by Danae Elon and her husband Philippe—an Algerian Jew—could never be written in advance.
In 2010, Elon was living in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons when she decided to move back to Jerusalem, where she grew up. Pregnant at the time with her third son, who would be born in Israel and named after his grandfather, she felt irresistibly drawn to the “Jewish homeland” even though her father—a long time journalist at the liberal Haaretz and author of many books—had emigrated in disgust. In a 2002 article for the New York Review of Books titled “Israel and the Palestinians” that hews closely to the narrative of Dotan’s documentary, Elon ends on a note of despair:
The vast settlement project after 1967, aside from being grossly unjust, has been self-defeating and politically ruinous. “We’ve fed the heart on fantasies,/the heart’s grown brutal on the fare,” as William B. Yeats put it almost a century ago in a similar dead-end situation in Ireland. The settlement project has not provided more security but less. It may yet, I tremble at the thought, lead to results far more terrible than those we are now witnessing.
His daughter came to Israel with the same trepidations with her film is focused on exposing Jerusalem’s inequalities. She trains her cameras on Palestinians being expelled from their homes, rallies against the expulsions and the profanity-laced and often physical attacks by the sorts of people profiled in Dotan’s film.
It is a bit difficult to understand why anybody with her convictions would want to return to Israel knowing full well that it was no longer the labor Zionist fantasy her own father had abandoned. I even wonder if she went there with the prospects of making a film that would likely have dystopian undercurrents.
For the three years she was there, her husband did the best he could to fit in but not knowing Hebrew and being unable to find work as a photographer made that difficult. Towards the end, he became fed up. In a profoundly dramatic scene, he tells Danae that she has to decide between having a husband or living in Israel. Her yearnings for Jewish identity clash with his desire to live in a society that is not so cruel and racist. It took quite a bit of courage for the two to reveal the conflict that was tearing them apart.
Finally, there is “The Last Laugh” that opens on Friday, also at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. This is a documentary that examines the question of whether you can joke about the holocaust but more generally taboos in comedy.
With a survivor named Renee Firestone at the heart of the film passing judgement on the efforts of various comics to extract such humor (largely unsuccessfully), the consensus is if you are going to make such jokes they’d better be very good. One commentator makes a shrewd observation: if you are going to use the holocaust as the basis for a serious film or play, that is just as true. As someone who has seen one too many treacly holocaust films, I can attest to that.
The film has lined up a virtual who’s who of comics who have either tried to make comedy out of the holocaust or Nazis. At one point, Mel Brooks, one of the interviewees, admits that is one thing to make jokes about the Nazis in a film like “The Producers” but he could never find humor in Auschwitz. In recent years, that taboo has been broken as well. The film shows a segment from the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode when Larry David inadvertently invites a “survivor” to meet a friend of his father who was also a survivor. The man turns out to be a contestant in the reality TV show called “Survivor” where people compete on a desert island or some other rugged outpost in stunts such as foot races in an obstacle course. He tells the old man that he had it rougher than him on the show since he had to wear flip-flops while competing.
Although the film is focused on the holocaust, it is much more about the art of comedy. Listening to people like Sarah Silverman, Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner and his father Mel discussing jokes analytically and soberly would be worth the price of admission since god knows that there is hardly anything to laugh at in films nowadays.