Tag Archives: State of Israel

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?

Ushpizin

200px-UshpizinUshpizin (2004) is a holiday story of faith and human foibles.  The production of the film involved an unusual partnership of ultra-Orthodox and secular filmmakers, making it an Israeli cinematic milestone.  It is a story about an impoverished couple in the Breslov Haredi community  in Jerusalem, who do not have even the money to celebrate Sukkot:  no sukkah, no money for food, no money even to pay their rent.  They take to heart Rabbi Nachman‘s saying that difficulties are a test of faith, so when things become difficult, they pray.

Abruptly, their fortunes change:  an abandoned sukkah becomes available, money arrives unexpectedly in an envelope under the door, and the husband spends a large amount of the money on a beautiful etrog (citron) which is a requirement for the holiday.  The more beautiful etrogim, he believes, make the conception of a child more likely.  Then, when all seems perfect, the ushpizin, the visitors, arrive.

Commentary

This film offers a rare visit inside the ultra-Orthodox world of the Breslov Haredim.  Critics point out that it is also a very uncritical look at that community, but there is something to be said for seeing people first on their own terms.  The story is worthy of Rabbi Nachman himself, revolving around the Jewish value of hospitality and the power of prayer.

The main character in the film, Moshe, (played by Shuli Rand) is a ba’al teshuva, a former secular Jew who has made a commitment to strict observance.  When his old life comes to visit, he is both tempted by the memories and horrified by the reality. His wife, Mali, (played by Michal Bat Sheva Rand) is determined to pass the test of heaven.  One of the more subtle aspects of the film is its examination of the delicate balances in a marriage:  how the couple support one another, and how they can also be thrown off balance by one another.

Questions

How far need one go to observe the mitzvah of hospitality?

Moshe learns that he should have asked more questions about the sukkah, yet the source of the money under the door is never questioned.  How are the two different, or are they different?

Mali is furious when she finds out where the visitors are from, and that Moshe accepted them anyway, trusting them to be alone with her.  Were you worried for Mali?  Do you think the visitors were truly dangerous?

Does God send tests?  Why?

Cast a Giant Shadow

MickeyMarcusCast a Giant Shadow (1966) is a fictionalized account of the story of David “Mickey” Marcus, a Jewish colonel in the U.S. Army who fought in the Israeli War of Independence. Before his involvement with the nascent State of Israel, he served in WWII in Europe, and was part of the occupation government in Berlin after the war.  Among other duties, he was involved in the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.  Marcus grew up in Brooklyn, received a nominal Jewish education, and attended West Point.

David Ben Gurion named him aluf [general] of the Israeli Defense Forces, the first person to hold that title since Biblical times.  Marcus’s advice and participation was critical to Israeli success in the war, and he is remembered with great fondness in Israel.  He is also the only soldier buried at West Point who died fighting under a foreign flag.

Marcus is played by Kirk Douglas, and his son, Michael Douglas, had his first film role as a jeep driver.  Yul Brynner (who looks eerily like Moshe Dayan), Topol, Angie Dickenson, and Frank Sinatra also appear in the film.  John Wayne plays an unnamed American general.

Commentary

Col. Mickey Marcus was one of the “Machal” fighters (the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Chutz La’aretz, “volunteers from outside Israel”).  This film tells his story, and along with it, gives one of the best screen depictions of some of the most famous aspects of the Israeli War of Independence.

Aside from a schlocky romance with a beautiful Israeli that Hollywood could not resist adding, the screenplay  is  largely in keeping with the only English-language biography of Marcus, Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman.   The rest of the story is fairly reliable, and the film was shot on location in many of the places where battles in the War of Independence were fought.  I recognized Latrun, and a particularly bad spot on the road to Jerusalem, as well as the famous “Burma Road.”  (These are all places you can visit in Israel today.)

Many of the details are accurate.    There were indeed busloads of refugees, many of them survivors of the death camps in Europe, who were handed guns at Latrun and sent in to fight.  Women served in combat and were among the truckdrivers who made up the convoys that traveled under fire carrying food and water to the Jews of Jerusalem.  The Israelis were so short on munitions that they resorted to many ruses to make the Arab armies believe they had more firepower than they really did.   The “Burma Road” really was that perilous, and it was cut by hand in record time.  As far as is known, Marcus did eventually die as portrayed in the film.

I recommend this film to get a sense of what was going on in Israel immediately before and after the Declaration of Independence in 1948.  Just keep in mind that it’s fictionalized history:  if you are curious about particular details, then a little bit of research is required.

Live and Become

L&BLive and Become (2005) [French title:  Va, vis et deviens] is a wrenching tale of exile and assimilation, both topics that resonate for Jews.  The twist, for Jewish viewers, is that the central character is an Ethiopian who at age 9 is pushed by his refugee Christian mother into a group of  Falashas, Ethiopian Jews who are rescued from Sudan by “Operation Moses.”  For the rest of the film, Schlomo (a name he is given by the Falasha woman who adopts him) has to hide his birth as a Christian while assimilating into a new Israeli Jewish identity.  The film follows his life until age 30. The film is not short (140 minutes) and is in Amharic, French, and Hebrew, with English subtitles.

Commentary

This film explores many topics, framed in the immigrant’s experience:  issues of identity, of racism, of perseverance, of family.  It is a valuable and moving film on many different levels.  What struck me, for our purposes here, is that it is the best window I’ve seen into the emotional process of becoming Jewish.

Schlomo’s conversion, if it is a conversion, is highly irregular:  he is adopted on impulse by a Jewish woman who has lost her son, just as she leaves a refugee camp with a group bound for Israel. Before she dies of TB, she hurriedly schools him in his new family’s history and warns him that he must keep the secret of his birth.

Schlomo (played by Moshe Agazai, Moshe Abebe, and Sirak M. Sabahat) does as he is told by his birth mother and his first adoptive mother:  he lies.  Out of the original lie, however, emerges something much more genuine:  Schlomo pursues a Jewish education, becomes knowledgable enough to best another young scholar in a competition, and becomes a patriotic Israeli.

So how might this connect to the American convert to Judaism?  There are echoes of the refugee experience for some new Jews:  there are losses (the old life, sometimes even the old family) there is prejudice to face (“you don’t look Jewish, you aren’t really one of us”),  and there is the struggle to assimilate into Jewish community, to learn not only the intellectual content but a million small things that every Jewish child (supposedly) knows: Chanukah songs and  jokes about matzah, for instance.  There are new foods to encounter:  gefilte fish and chopped liver, presented with pride by a Jewish cook, are an excruciating experience for some on the first taste.

Questions

There was no beit din, no brit milah, no mikveh:  but if Schlomo is not a Jew, what is he?  The Falasha rabbi with whom he forms a bond (played by Yitzhak Elgar) says that he had misgivings about the first adoption when it took place, but their conversation implies that he has come to see Schlomo as legitimately Jewish.  With his mention of the adoption and naming of Schlomo by Hana, whom he knew to be one of his Jews, he suggests that Schlomo perhaps did not need the intention to convert that would normally be asked of an adult.  Once he was living in Israel, if he pursued a proper conversion, he’d have been deported to the camp in Sudan (and presumably that would have been a death sentence for a child whose mother had disappeared.)  So is he Jewish?  And if not, what should happen?

The film also raises questions about the tension between Torah and the realities of a modern State.  How shall we reconcile the rules of the Law of Return with the commandment to love the stranger [Deuteronomy 10:19]?

Waltz with Bashir

BashirWaltz with Bashir (2008) is a powerful animated documentary about an Israeli veteran’s memories of the 1982 Lebanon War.   It is a highly personable and original work by filmmaker Ari Folman, who was a 19 year old infantry soldier in the war.  In a conversation with a friend, Ari realizes that he has little or no memory of his service in the war.  Then, the next night, he has a flashback of the war, but it makes no sense.  This sends him on a quest to remember what he did in the war and to come to terms with whatever it was.  The film is powerful and difficult to watch, much more realistic about the horrors and mundanities of war than a Hollywood film.  The animation gives the whole story a “fever dream” feel — just as Ari has trouble telling what is real, so does the viewer.  Also, by portraying the most horrible memories in animated drawings, they are made (barely) watchable.  The only live footage in the film comes at the end of the film; it is film from the BBC of the aftermath of the Sabra and Shatila camps after the massacre there.

When Folman was asked why he made the film, he replied that in most Hollywood war films, people get the idea that either war is grand, or that war is horrible but the people fighting in them are heroes.  He said that if one adolescent would see the film and understand that he did not want to be anyone in that film, he had succeeded.

Commentary

One of the most amazing things about this film is that not only was it made in Israel by the man in the story, it received support from The New Israeli Foundation for Cinema & T.V. and the Israel Film Fund.   The film is a scathing indictment of  Israeli leadership during the war, and it says a great deal about freedom of speech in Israel that it was made and released in theaters there and abroad.

Some critics have said that it does not go far enough in taking responsibility for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.  My own feeling is that it is one soldier’s memories of his own participation in the war, terrible memories that he pursued with courage, and that it does not pretend to be anything more than one private’s point of view.

This movie is not for little children; it earns its R rating both for sex and for violence.

Exodus

exodusExodus (1960) is adapted from the blockbuster novel by Leon Uris. It is set in Cyprus and Palestine during the British Mandate period of 1947-48.  First it follows  the misadventures of a boatload of Jewish refugees from Europe whom the British imprison in Cyprus rather than allow them entry to Palestine, then it follows characters on that boat and their friends and lovers through the events leading up to Independence in 1948.

The movie was produced and directed by Otto Preminger, and it starred Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Ralph Richardson, Peter Lawford, Lee J. Cobb, and Sal Mineo.   One notable aspect of the movie is that it was filmed entirely on location in Cyprus and in Israel.  Paul Newman makes an odd-looking Israeli, but every scrap of the scenery is authentic.  Given that the real star of Exodus is the land itself, Eretz Israel, that is especially appropriate.

Other notable facts:  Otto Preminger hired Dalton Trumbo to adapt the screenplay from the novel, despite the fact that he was one of the people on the Hollywood blacklist.  This marked one of the first times a major director “broke” the blacklist.

Exodus won the Oscar for Best Music, and Sal Mineo received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Commentary

Exodus is another film that runs deep in the Jewish-American psyche; I have listed it as a must-see.  It is an excellent way to experience the narrative of the foundation of the State of Israel as many American and Israeli Zionists understand it.

It reflects a time when many Israelis were thoroughgoing socialists, when the “black hat” orthodox of Eastern Europe were believed to be dying out, when tourism in the area was unthinkable, when no one at all was talking about “Greater Israel.”    Europe was interested in getting rid of the few Jews who had survived the Holocaust, and because no one else wanted them either, they were living in DP (displaced persons) camps.  There were three groups of Jews in Palestine at this point, the “Old Yishuv” Jews who had been in the land all along (and who do not figure into this film at all),  the Sabras (Jews born in Israel, whose parents or grandparents had settled there from Europe) and the new immigrants, mostly survivors of the Holocaust, who managed to get into the country despite the British blockade.

The film was a huge undertaking, one of the most elaborate of its time, and it is impressive but flawed.   Uris’s novel is simply too massive for a film adaptation; both plot and characters are truncated to make them fit.  As history, it has obvious flaws (starting with the fact that nearly all the characters are fictional, and the fictional characters crowd out the historical ones.)  Why, then, is it a must-see?  It is because if you want to understand why so many Jews feel passionate about the need for Israel, this film is a good place to begin.  It is also a must-see because it is a way to see the Land itself.

Many of the events in the film really happened:  there was a ship Exodus.  The King David Hotel was indeed bombed by the Irgun.  There was a prison break from the fortress of Acre.  And of course, there was a War of Independence immediately after partition in 1948.

Just don’t be in a hurry:  Exodus is one LONG film, 212 minutes.  Make yourself and a friend some popcorn, and settle in for a long evening, because after it is done, you’ll want to talk.

Double Feature

Watch Exodus before or after watching Gentleman’s Agreement.  They are set in exactly the same time period, one in Europe and the Middle East, the other in the United States.    Keep in mind as you watch that the attitudes in Gentleman’s Agreement were the attitudes of the U.S. State Department as it participated in the U.N. discussions so critical to events in Exodus.