At Last, Some Decent Israeli Films

Film-makers emerge who don't care to please the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish crowd.


The Israeli film industry as a whole leaves little to the imagination and much to disappoint. It is dominated by political ideologues of a distinctly leftist slant who tend to see their country through the eyes of its enemies, favoring the Palestinian narrative, claiming to understand the policies and grievances of the surrounding Muslim nations, relentlessly critical of the army, the settlers and the so-called religious Right, and basking parasitically in the approval of the liberal elites who give out the international prizes and citations.

An excellent example of such opportunistic practices is provided by Ran Edelist who directed a documentary entitled Ruach Shaked about an Israeli reconnaissance unit operating in the Sinai during the Six Day War. The film claims that the unit had killed 250 Egyptian prisoners of war, a revelation which caused a media firestorm and led to members of the Egyptian parliament calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and the suspension of diplomatic relations with Israel. Edelist has admitted that errors were made with regard to voice-over commentary and wrongly juxtaposed archival footage—in point of fact, the enemy casualties were actually fedayeen trying to infiltrate into Israel and no POWs were executed. Such films, however, are pre-screened and it is hard to believe that such obtrusive blunders were overlooked, yet Edelist and Ittay Landsburg Nevo, head of the left-leaning Israel Broadcasting Authority, defended the production whose pejorative effect on the political scene could have been predicted with even the most rudimentary foresight.

Similarly, Israel’s cable TV Channel 8 and the Jerusalem Cinematheque have been willing to fund anti-Zionist filmmaker Eyal Sivan, a typical self-abnegating Jew who managed to avoid his military service, was a speaker at “Israeli Apartheid Week” in London in 2007, and signed a public document condemning “the brutality and cruelty of Israeli policy” during the summer 2006 war with Hizbullah. Israel’s Channel 2’s Keshet franchise has frequently aired the docudramas of Motti Lerner, who plays fast and loose with the historical truth and believes, according to a paper he delivered at Brandeis University, that Israeli society is diseased, suffering from an “inability…to empathize with the Palestinians.” Along the same lines, Shimon Dotan’s documentary, Hot House, funded chiefly by Israel’s New Foundation for Film and Television, sympathetically profiles female terrorist Ahlam Tamini who murdered fifteen people, eight of them children, in the bombing of the Sbarro pizzeria on August 9, 2001. Yet, speaking for the Palestinians, Dotan comments: “We owe them empathy.”

Then we have Ari Folman’s recent Waltz with Bashir, the recipient of many awards and critical accolades. Although an improvement over the general run of Israeli-bashing films, it nevertheless magnifies the strength and firepower of the enemy while appearing to stress the comparative weakness and fear of the IDF. Its effect is to demoralize. Israeli soldiers are portrayed as a cohort of flakes, freaks, wimps and anxiety-ridden semi-losers who have trouble reconciling the importance of their mission with the courage and resolution required of them—indeed, the central character is so traumatized he cannot even remember the operation and travels about interviewing his former comrades to fill in the yawning blank. And the entire context of the march into Lebanon, the reason it was deemed necessary by the Israeli high command, the years of indiscriminate shelling, incursions and kidnappings suffered by Israelis in the north of the country, is conveniently forgotten not only by the protagonist but by the director as well.

Israeli cineaste Hannah Brown, puffing what she calls Israel’s smash hit decade, revels in the acclaim flowing from the politically correct international festivals and derides individuals skeptical of this trend as right-wing “party poopers.” Regrettably, this doesn’t change the fact that “most directors are on the Left,” as she graciously allows, and that their partisan colors show through their productions. Any film by the widely celebrated, tediously pedantic and unfailingly depressing left-winger Amos Gitai renders this obvious. As Seth Frantzman points out, Israeli directors tend to make films about a Jewish woman falling for a Palestinian suicide bomber (Dror Zahavi’s For My Father) or a Jewish woman falling in love with an Arab who murders her brother (Keren Yedaya’s Jaffa). What is the message of such films? Frantzman asks, and replies: “That Israelis should ‘love the other’ to the extent that they love murderers.” That seems to be about right.

Fortunately, there are some notable film-makers who are more concerned with telling the truth than with making a reputation for themselves by catering to the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish crowd. Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit is a fine companion piece to Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water and Gidi Dar’s Ushpizin, all superbly directed films with fascinating characters, a non-ideological theme and a credible story about evolving relationships that bring people closer together rather than set them apart in resentment and intransigence. These are beautifully composed and warm-hearted movies that affirm Israeli life, for all  its warts, avoiding both sentimentality and the lurid, selective episoding of the mainstream mishpoca.

Now comes a new film that joins the Reform Cinemagogue of refreshing, untendentious and largely non-sectarian productions, altering the jaundiced tone and acerbic flavor of their majoritarian predecessors. The Lemon Tree, directed by Eran Riklis, already famed for The Syrian Bride, is a sensitive, bittersweet look at the Israeli/Palestinian imbroglio which tries to be reasonably fair to both sides in the conflict. The story turns upon the status of a lemon grove owned by Salma Zidane, a Palestinian widow whose family has tended the lemon trees for generations. Her peace and modest prosperity is shattered when the just-appointed Israeli Defense Minister, Israel Navon, and his wife Mira move into their new home on the Green Line, which abuts directly on the widow’s property.

The issue is security, for the lemon grove furnishes perfect cover for Palestinian terrorists who might be planning to attack the minister’s home. At the same time, the widow’s livelihood is equally at stake. The minister oversees the construction of a fence between the two properties, preventing the widow from tending to her trees, which begin to wither from lack of water. He then orders the lemon grove razed—a scenario based on a similar, real-life situation involving former Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. The emblem, of course, is unmistakable. The clash between the widow and the minister, between two homes, two narratives and two necessities, is obviously Riklis’ allegory of the Israeli/Palestinian standoff and of the “wall,” both physical and psychological, which divides them.

Plainly, the Israelis are not given a free pass. The minister is self-righteous, loud and aggressive, relishing his recent appointment, enjoying the perquisites of authority, and deaf to the legitimate needs of his Palestinian neighbor. The soldier who guards the Minister’s home is a good-natured idiot, who reflects rather poorly on the IDF. The Israeli military lawyer is a bully. To Riklis’ credit, however, the Palestinians are not depicted as romantic innocents who can do no wrong, or as the world’s chosen Na’vi struggling to regain their illusory Pandora. We are afforded a glimpse behind the politically-generated image. The widow has a brief affair with the young lawyer she has hired to represent her as her case moves through the Israeli justice system. For this breach of “honor” she is threatened by the local clan chieftain with certain unspecified but clearly menacing consequences. This is still a primitive and misogynous society, as we are meant to see, caged in tribal preconceptions. The lawyer is a sympathetic figure but eventually succumbs to the allure of PR glory for having won a partial legal victory—the fence will remain but only half the orchard will be cut down—exchanging his disheveled attire for a shiny new suit, his unprepossessing office for an upscale address, a commitment for a career, and his unpretentious self for the heroic persona of defender of “the people.” He is on the make, like most of the Palestinian nomenklatura.

The film’s intentions are noble but, if it has a weakness, it concerns precisely the controversial nature of the fence, or “wall,” which, in the political and military framework of the hostility between two peoples, is the direct result of the Palestinian intifadas. The Minister may be a rather disagreeable figure, obstreperous and peremptory, but he surely does not deserve his wife’s growing estrangement over the raising of the fence and her decision to leave the marriage. The fence is meant to protect her too, despite her vicarious identification with the beleaguered widow. More importantly, the fence that Navon has ordered built, aka the “separation barrier” condemned by much of the world, and the partial lopping of the orchard, are not the product of personal caprice or of a policy of invasive sequestration. It is Salma’s own people who have made it inevitable, indeed who may be said to have built the fence on their own initiative by unleashing a campaign of terror against Israeli civilians.

The Lemon Tree skirts the central issues of Israeli security and Palestinian responsibility, and in this way partly conforms to the “progressivist” and post-Zionist bias that actuates much of the Israeli intelligentsia, the media and the so-called “peace” faction. It does not in this regard bear adequate witness to the true situation that prevails in the country. The fact that it was co-written by Israeli-Arab Suha Arraf, a former journalist for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, might explain this partial skewering of reality. And yet it must be admitted that The Lemon Tree distinguishes itself from the general run of Israeli anti-Israeli films and “documentaries,” treating its characters in the round, introducing an element of human tenderness, leveling criticism on both parties to the conflict—a welcome departure from the norm—and thus constructing at least a theoretical fence between itself and the majority of one-sided cinematic lemons that have it in for Israel.

[Editor's note: To order a copy of David Solway's new book Hear, O Israel!, click here.]