The Place Called Palestine

By far the highest population of Jews in the world is in New York City (where the mayor just last night told them to “shelter in place”). Jerusalem has about a third, and close behind that is Los Angeles. The schools I went to growing up were 95% Jewish, to where on the high holidays it would be me and five other Christian kids sitting in a room together doodling or watching The Man for All Seasons or something on grainy VHS.

The theaters I spend most of my time at are part of the Laemmle chain, founded 85 years ago by Kurt Laemmle, cousin of Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Studios. The documentary Only in Theaters tells of the chain’s recent struggles.) It’s not surprising, then, that we’ve seen a lot of Jewish movies, including a lot of documentaries.

One of our games in the past was “how soon will they bring up the Holocaust?” For example, things you might not think required a mention of the Holocaust (When Comedy Went To School, where it’s mentioned only briefly, or Deli Man where it’s critical to answering the question of “why don’t we get any Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe any more?”)

And I’ve been known to get snarky when a movie offers me an object lesson of “Don’t be a Nazi”, as highlighted in this review of Final Account, which holds up pretty well except for one thing: My assertion that there are only 5 or 6 Nazis in the world. My mistake being not taking into account the Muslim world. But while the documentaries can be interesting (It Is No Dream: The Theodor Herzl Story) or thrilling (Follow Me: The Yoni Netanyahu StoryAbove and Beyond), the narratives may be more revealing.

The future Pee-Wee Herman with his dad, Paul, who was critical in building the Israeli Air Force. (Above and Beyond)

Israel is a modern success story. They turned forsaken swampland and sand dunes into an economic, technological and agricultural powerhouse. They had communistic kibbutzes—and still do!—but they found more individualistic approaches more successful, and the Soviet’s propaganda machine got turned on them just as fiercely as it got turned on Europe and the U.S.

As a result, you get a lot of the same self-hatred you see coming out of Hollywood. The movie Foxtrot, which has one of my favorite lines in all cinema (“God is punishing us because we’re atheists!”), is a representative example. But even the wildly successful, made-into-a-musical The Band’s Visit has this undertone of “there must be something wrong in the system if we’re doing so well while they’re doing so poorly.”

The most pro-America movies I’ve seen in the 21st century were made by Germans (Schulze Gets The Blues) and Kiwis (The World’s Fastest Indian), oh, and China (Detective Chinatown 2). We’re so confident in our existence, we indulge in complete self-loathing. The Israelis don’t have that luxury: They’re surrounded by enemies and mostly the world is silent about the good they’ve done.

As a result, the self-loathing is never quite complete. A movie like Live and Become will show the occasional viciousness and pettiness of the state and people, without losing sight of the fact that Israel provides more opportunities for Ethiopians than Ethiopia does. But it will also turn up in some unusual places, like low-budget zombie films.

Cannon Fodder is sloppy enough to where it’s political take can’t really make it any worse. (cf., Zombies of Mass Destruction. where a good movie is ruined by a trash political take.)


Unlike the US, which can play around (it thinks) with “we’re so evil we should be destroyed” without that being a major risk. Israel is surrounded by enemies willing to show it the exit, so there are plenty of reminders as to why and how the state exists (the aforementioned Follow Me and Above and Beyond, and a movie/short whose title I can’t recall where a family has to take refuge in a bomb shelter and wait out an air-raid while the grandfather calmly explains that nothing will happen, because Israel has The Bomb (maybe…wink wink).

When an Israeli movie addresses the Palestinian issue, it’s always nuanced, and (IMO) way too sympathetic. A movie like Rock in the Red Zone, which covers the “racial” issues inside Israel (Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardic) shows tremendous sympathy for the Palestinians, even while the people in Red Zone can’t ever be more than 15 seconds away from a shelter, due to all the rockets the Palestinians launch at them.

Meanwhile, movies made by Palestinians universally regard Israel and the Jews as their sole problem. Where a movie shows the Palestinian perspective without showing Jews as monsters who absolutely deserve destruction, there’s an Israeli behind it. One of last years big festival winners Let It Be Morning, for example (from The Band’s Visit) director, shows the government as random and vindictive without quite celebrating blowing up random Israelis.

Tel Aviv on Fire, where a Palestinian guy ends up having to pretend to be a writer for a Palestinian soap opera in order for the Jewish sentry to let him get to his job every day is another case.

“Tel Aviv on Fire” is such a light-hearted take on such a heavy topic, it comes off as less political than the average American film.

But purely Palestinian efforts? Most notable would be the Oscar-nominated Paradise Now, which is a love-letter to terrorists. But I’ll never forget 2013 when we had two nearly identical Palestinian flicks, one completely grotesque and the other a little more human—it was the completely grotesque one that got all the award attention, of course—but both adopting the viewpoint of “Well, yes, Palestinians kill Israelis. That’s their raison d’être. (The movies were Omar and Bethlehem, and I can never remember which is which. Another movie, Zaytoun, Steven Dorff, tries a softening approach by having the would-be terrorist be thirteen.)

Ultimately, my favorite movies from the area are not political but religious. Movies like Ushpizin,  God’s NeighborsThe Women’s Balcony and Fill The Void where religious people have to reconcile their faith with living in an imperfect world, recall favorably American classics like Friendly Persuasion, and are a kind of movie Americans don’t really make.

If there’s any real significance to this roundup, it’s that, whatever you hear from the “elite”, the Palestinians have a very specific idea of the source of their misery and the best way to handle it. And we’ve been fortunate enough up till now to be able to restrict our experience of that worldview to the cinema.

“Fill the Void” is such a challenging film conceptually to Americans, no English language encapsulation of it that I read described it accurately at all.