Tag Archives: Anti-Semitism

You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (2008) is a Judd ApatowAdam Sandler film:  as Roger Ebert so beautifully put it, “a mighty hymn of and to vulgarity.”  It is a slapstick romp about a crack Mossad operative whose secret wish is to “stop the killing” and become a hairdresser in New York.  Once there, he finds himself an outsider along with many Palestinians. They chase one another, in Keystone Cop fashion (but with more penis and hummus jokes) until the sets are destroyed and everyone is exhausted.  I think that about sums it up.

Commentary

I had to think a while about my comments on this film, because I hope that Sandler et al meant well.  There are many jokes making fun of Israelis, some of it pretty rough humor, and to give Sandler the benefit of the doubt, I hope that he thought that those jokes were in balance with the jokes at the expense of the Arab characters.  After all, the Zohan’s love interest is a Palestinian woman!

But there is no getting past the fact that while the film plays with Israeli stereotypes (tough guy, the accent, the attitude, the Sabra heart of sweetness) it trades on a nastier stereotype of Arabs and Palestinians:  the lust for Jewish blood and mindless hatred.  The humor about the Zohan springs from the tension between his tough-guy Mossad persona and his true hairdresser lover-boy identity.  The humor about the Arabs in this film does not come from any such tension:  the men are mostly Wile E. Coyote to Zohan’s RoadRunner, one-note idiots who repeatedly court disaster in hot comic pursuit of their quarry.  The more benign Palestinian male characters are merely dim.  This is racist stereotyping at its worst, because it is disguised as “all in good fun” while it sends the same old hateful messages.  Worse yet, it is aimed specifically at young men.

For those who are saying, “Whoa! Don’t you love Israel?” all I can say is, I dislike this film because I do love Israel.  I am a deeply committed Zionist.  I lived in Israel in 2002-3, during the Second Intifada.  I dislike this film because I think that racism like this hurts Israel, and damages the chances for peace, because it tells young American men that Palestinian men are subhuman.  I can point to Israeli films that take similar or even touchier subject matter and do so much better with it:  for example, watch The Band’s Visit.  It’s a wonderful, funny film that gets its comedy from the humanity of everyone in it.

For a contrast to a broad, sometimes vulgar comedy that tackles similar subject matter with much better results, take a look at The Infidel.  Everyone in that movie is a complicated human being, with complicated motives and dreams that lead them into a comical collision.  We all laugh together at the human condition:  much, much better.

As for the way women are pictured in this film, I will just say: feh.  I am very tired of Jewish filmmakers failing to work out their mommy issues — or going for the cheap laugh, which is worse — by dumping on women.  Sandler and Apatow, you can do better!

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The Infidel

The Infidel (2010) is a British comedy about Mahmud, a moderate Muslim whose life is thrown into chaos by two discoveries:  first, that his son wants to marry the daughter of a radical Islamic imam, and second, that he may in fact be a Jew. Nothing about that sounds funny, but in the midst of a train wreck of religion, politics, and identity, The Infidel finds gentle humor by exploring the absurdity of all bigotry. In that, it reminds me of the classic French comedy, The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973).

Mahmud is played by Omid Djalili, a British Iranian standup comedian and actor, who may be a familiar face to international audiences from his appearance in the 1999 James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough. Mahmud is a hapless fellow who does not ask much:  he would like to sit on the couch watching football and music videos by his favorite singer from the 80’s, Gary Page. However, as the patriarch of the family, he must deal with his deceased mother’s home and take care of his family.

Before we are ten minutes into the film, Mahmud’s life becomes complicated.  His son reveals to him that (1) he has found the woman he wants to marry and (2) her father is a radical cleric who must approve the marriage, and who is visiting England now. As if that were not bad enough, Mahmud finds records in his mother’s house leading him to believe that his biological parents were Jews.

His sense of self and security blown to smithereens as surely as by any bomb, Mahmud sets out to explore his Jewish identity with the help of Lenny, an American Jewish cab driver, played by Richard Schiff. He is Naomi to Mahmud’s Ruth, trying to teach him what it is to be a Jew. Meanwhile Mahmud is also trying to hold together a pious Islamic facade for the visiting imam, out of exasperated love for his son.

To say more would spoil the fun.  As a NY Times critic  wrote, this is not caustic stuff.   I enjoyed it because like the best humor, it laughs at and with everyone it portrays.

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Commentary

There are very few films that attempt to mine comedy from the hard stone of Jewish – Muslim relations.  The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob is more about French anti-Semitism; there are Muslim characters but they are secondary.  You Don’t Mess with the Zohan attempts this material but loses its way with anti-Arab nastiness.  The Band’s Visit  is an Israeli film with comic elements but it is a more complex film with more complicated characters.  The Infidel goes for broad humor and a big laugh; the ending is ridiculous but satisfying.

Mahmud is a sympathetic character: he is a sincere if not exactly devout Muslim, and he genuinely loves his wife and family.  Lenny is a bit of a stereotype, a cranky mostly-secular American Jew, but Schiff plays him with a gruff grace at the right moments.  The accomplishment of this film is that it is firmly grounded in the humanity of these guys and the people around them.  We laugh and groan at both of them, and feel that we know them a bit better.  In this 21st century of bitterness and war, that is an accomplishment.

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Parents should be aware that  the film does not contain much in the way of sex or violence, but there is a lot of foul language.

A Film Unfinished

A Film Unfinished (2010) (Hebrew title: שתיקת הארכיון Shtikat haArkhion) is a documentary about an unfinished Nazi film shot in the Warsaw ghetto in May, 1942, two months before its inhabitants were shipped to Treblinka to be murdered. While an edited version of the film (titled, Das Ghetto) has been known since it was discovered at the end of the war, in 1998 East German archivists found an additional reel of outtakes.

Israeli director Yael Hersonski uses the newly discovered 30 minutes of film along with interviews with survivors of the ghetto and one of the cameramen who worked on the fim to make sense of the original footage and to raise questions about film as evidence.  Where the original Nazi film appeared to show wealthy Jews ignoring beggars and stepping over dead bodies to enter restaurants and clubs, the outtakes show them being forced to participate in staged meals in a fake restaurant for the purpose of the propaganda film.  Starving Jews stare at the cameras while a cringing young woman is forced to pose with a beggar.

The filmmaker has done a sensitive job of showing us the power of the editor to shape the image we see on the screen, and to influence our understanding of that image.  The Nazi film footage creates a certain picture of Jewish life in the ghetto.  But we see the outtakes, and we watch survivors as they screen the film and react to it. Their reactions provide both a blunt commentary on the Nazi film itself (“We would have eaten a flower!”)  and a sense of the emotions that the actors in the film were forced to cover up.

There was a controversy about the marketing of this film.  It was given an R rating by the MPAA over the protests of the distributor.  It is not as graphic as some of the film footage on display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and the distributor felt that it did not merit the R. Parents considering watching the film with children should be aware that it contains images of starving people, of brutal behavior, and of dead bodies.

Commentary

Watching this documentary, I was struck by the difference between an image on film and reality.  It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words” but this documentary makes clear that we have to be critical when we look at images.  When we see a film, we often feel as if we have been witness to something real, when in fact we have merely been invited to witness the dream of the filmmaker about an event.

Jewish tradition is very suspicious of images, and cautious even about the evidence given by a single eye-witness. In that tradition, Hersonski has assembled several different witnesses to testify:  several survivors, and the cameraman Willy Wist.  Hersonski is herself a witness at a remove:  her grandmother was a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto.

This is a powerful film that provides insight into many different aspects of the Holocaust.  It also raises important questions about the manipulation of perception.

Questions for Discussion

  • The Nazis intended Das Ghetto to be a propaganda film.  What was the message they were trying to convey?
  • According to An Unfinished Film, what did the Nazis do to create a film with that message?  What had to be cut out of the raw footage? What else had to be done to manipulate the image?
  • What is the difference between a documentary and a propaganda film?  How can a critical viewer tell one from the other?
  • Did this documentary leave you with any unanswered questions?

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)  Sometimes it is only with the help of a great film critic that I can really see a film.  I have loved this film since the first time I saw it, sitting in a movie theater in the Loop in Chicago.  I was aware of loving the whiz-bang, thrill-a-minute ride.  I loved the characters, and I loved the fun of it.  But I could not say why it was a film I was happy to see again and again.  It’s just now, after reading Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review, that I realized this film had been singing to my Jewish soul.

Ebert was writing partly in answer to Pauline Kael’s characterization of the film as “impersonal,” inferior to Steven Spielberg’s work before and after.  He points out that this film is deeply personal for Spielberg, that it is a young Jewish boy’s fantasy of the revenge exacted from Nazis who seek to “steal the heritage of the Jews and use it for their own victory.”

OK, enough of me stealing from Roger Ebert.  Click the link to his review.  Read it.  He does a wonderful job of unpacking the reasons that this is a film with genuine Jewish content stuffed into every crevice of a crackerjack fun ride.

Commentary

Serious Holocaust education is important and vital if we are not to forget.  However, anyone who has actually sat through all 9 1/2 hours of Shoah will tell you that getting a Holocaust education is heart-breaking and soul-wrenching.  If, after you have done your serious study, you find that you need an antidote, something to lift the heart a bit, Raiders of the Lost Ark might be just the ticket.

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg

The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) is a documentary telling the story of Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg.  Writer and director Aviva Kempner used interviews with Greenberg during the last year of his life, interviews with friends and family, as well as extensive archival footage and stills to tell the story.  She also used interviews with fans to great effect.

It’s a baseball story, of course, and there is plenty for a fan to enjoy.  Greenberg was a genuine star, a Hall of Famer who in 1938 came close to breaking Babe Ruth‘s home run record.  Greenberg is still the record holder for RBI’s (runs batted in) in a single season by a right-handed batter (1938).  Strictly as a sports biography, this is a rich and satisfying little film.

Commentary

Kempner delved into the wider significance of Greenberg’s career as the first American Jewish sports superstar.  Even though he was personally not a “religious” Jew, his Jewish identity was an important symbol for many fans, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  The film details the anti-Semitism he faced, and the adoration of many Jewish fans.  It goes into some detail over his famous decision in 1934 to stay away from a World Series game held on Yom Kippur, instead attending synagogue services.

This big, tall, handsome Jewish sports star played for the Tigers in the city of Detroit, home base for prominent American anti-Semites Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.  Greenberg began his career just as the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Europe became German policy. His presence and play flew in the face of anti-Semitic stereotypes.  Kempner used clips from other films like Gentleman’s Agreement to illustrate the atmosphere in America at the time.

Questions for discussion:

1.  Hank Greenberg believed he had responsibilities as a role model for young fans, and as a Jew in the public eye.  Do you think that a public figure has such  responsibilities?  Does every Jew in the public eye need to represent “the Jews”?  Why or why not?

2.  Many things about professional sports have changed since Greenberg’s day, and some things have not changed at all.  Ballplayers can become “free agents” and make much more money than they used to.  What other things are different about pro sports then and now?  What’s the same?

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh

Blessed is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh is an engaging portrait of a gifted young woman who sacrificed everything for her people.  It’s hard to believe that this is the first documentary about her life. It’s almost harder to believe that Hollywood hasn’t made any kind of film about the life of Hannah Senesh, given its mixture of drama and pathos.

Senesh was a poet and diarist, a young Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in the 1930’s, only to return home to Hungary in 1944 as a Haganah volunteer to the British Royal Air Force. She and her small group parachuted into Europe, hoping to assist stranded British airmen and the Jews of Hungary. Their timing was terrible: days after they arrived at the Hungarian border, Germany occupied the country. Senesh was captured by Hungarian police and turned over to the Gestapo, who tortured and executed her in November of 1944.

In a twist that was certainly stranger than fiction, Hannah’s mother was imprisoned with her in Budapest for a time.  The Gestapo was determined to force Hannah to give them radio codes that would allow them to send misinformation to the partisans and to the British.  They arrested Mrs. Senesh and threatened to torture her to get her daughter to talk.  Amazingly, Mrs. Senesh managed to survive the war (nearly all of Hungarian Jewry was murdered) and she appears in the film.

Synagogue-goers in the U.S. may be familiar with Senesh’s poem, Eli, Eli [My God, My God] set to a melody by David Zahavi.

Filmmaker Roberta Grossman waves together photographs, interviews, archival footage and dramatic reenactments to tell Hannah’s story.  Scholars give just enough historical background for the viewer to understand exactly what this young woman was up against.

Commentary

The experience of Hungarian Jews was different from that of most of the Jews of Europe, in that as an ally to Germany, Hungary was not under the control of the Nazis until late in the war.  Suddenly, in 1944, all of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up and sent to the death camps:  in the space of a few months, most of the community was destroyed.  Part of the power of this film is that it gives a very good picture of middle class Jewish Hungarian life before the war, as well as the darkest days of 1944.

It also conveys a particular kind of Zionist story, the story of a young Hungarian woman who immigrates to Palestine out of passion for the Jewish people and the Zionist project.  Had she not become a parachutist, Senesh would likely be a retired farmer in Israel, telling stories about her life on Kibbutz Sdot Yam.

This film is gentle enough for middle-schoolers to watch, but retains an emotional punch.  The mother-daughter relationship is presented with remarkably little sentimentality.  I got the sense of two strong Jewish women who, under extreme pressure, found they were stronger than they knew.

This is an excellent film for learning about Zionism and about the Holocaust. Large events in history are much more comprehensible when we view them through the lens of a particular life.  Hannah Senesh’s life is such a lens, and more.

Munich

Munich (2005) is a fictionalized account of real events following the brutal murder of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Olympics.   Prime Minister Golda Meir authorized the assasination of 11 surviving men who had been involved in the murders, members of the Black September militant group.  Secret squads of  agents were assembled for the task.   The film, which producer/director Steven Spielberg describes as “historical fiction” simplifies the account considerably, telling the story of the assasinations mostly from the point of view of the leader of one of the squads, Avner, played by Eric Bana.  The film received good reviews and was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner & Eric Roth), Best Film Editing (Michael Kahn) and Best Original Score (Composed by John Williams).

The screenplay is based on the book,  Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team by journalist George Jonas, which in turn was based on the story of Yuval Aviv, who claims to have been a Mossad agent.

The film begins as a conventional thriller but moves steadily into an examination of questions about justice, revenge, and the human costs of each.  Each of the men on the squad is changed by his experiences carrying out the orders.  Several of them eventually question the morality of the orders.  The film also includes several discussions Avner has concerning the nature of home and family:  with his fellows, with a young Palestinian leader about his own age, and with the father of the mysterious French informant who sells them the whereabouts of their quarry.

There were two sets of controversy surrounding the film’s content.  Some critics, including Zionist organizations and Leon Weiseltier of the New Republic, felt that the film erred in presenting terrorism and anti-terrorism as morally equivalent activities.  Other critics wrote that no such equivalency was made, rather that the film raises the issue of the toll that this sort of activity exacts on the individuals who carry it out and on the nation that sponsors it.

Other critics have argued that the film did not depict the events accurately enough, leaving out essential parts of the true story such as the Lillehammer Affair (in which an innocent man was assassinated in a case of mistaken identity.)  Israeli sources have suggested that the film’s depiction of the questioning and soul-searching of the agents is mere fiction and seriously misleading.

Note:  this film is extremely violent and not suitable for children or the sensitive.

Commentary

The film raises some of the complex questions that  bedevil the subject of a proper response to terrorism.  Tthe rabbis of old were very clear that the lex talonis (“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”) was not to be taken literally, and that justice is something that happens in a court, not by private revenge.   Civilized people seek justice under the law rather than revenge.  However, in 1972 the Israeli leaders believed that it was essential to retaliate for the murders of its athletes because the rest of the world seemed uninterested in pursuing justice in this case.  The Games continued, and in many parts of Europe, the Black Septemberists were portrayed as heroes, not as murderers.

I remember vividly watching the events of Munich unfold on our family TV when I was a teenager.  I recall being shocked that the Games simply continued after a mass murder, and that the Germans, indeed the world, seemed to feel that since many of the terrorists were dead, there was nothing for the police to do. I confess that I was glad later when I learned that the Israeli government decided to take action, although this film makes me wonder at the methods and the cost.   I believe it is important both to ask this sort of question and to remind myself, and my reader, that this film is a work of fiction.  The truth is I do not know how truthfully it depicts the decisions and actions of the real people.  It is useful for theoretical speculation, but it is not useful for passing judgment either on Golda Meir or, for that matter, on Yuval Aviv, the man upon whom the fictional character Avner is supposedly based.  For that, we need facts, not fiction.

At the end of the film, Avner says to Ephraim, his Mossad handler, “What did we accomplish?” pointing out that everyone they killed had been replaced by someone even more brutal.  Ephraim, played by Geoffrey Rush, gives a reply indicating that he thinks Avner’s question is naive. The question is left in the viewer’s lap:  is this necessary?  Is it right?  Is it really the best option?

One of the more interesting aspects of the film, to me, is the question raised by one of Avner’s team:  why didn’t they capture those guys, take them back to Israel, and put them on trial like Eichmann?  In Golda Meir’s speech early in the film there is a suggestion that the proper response to terror is more terror:  scare them so they won’t do this again.  Another reason given early in the film is that it is much easier to kill them than to kidnap them.

Has anyone ever come up with a truly effective response to terrorism, one that does not simply breed more terrorists?

Questions for Discussion

1.  Has a work of fiction ever shaped your understanding of a historical event?  Is it responsible for a filmmaker or novelist to “fictionalize” an account of a historical event?  Does the artist have any responsibility to let viewers  know which parts of the film or novel are fiction?  Does the viewer or reader have any responsibility to search out the facts?

2.  What do you think the Israeli government should have done in response to the murder of the Olympic team?  Why?

3.  What is the difference between justice and revenge?  Which term would you use to describe the events in this film?