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Celluloid Promised Land

A French filmmaker tackles the birth of Israel

Natasha Lehrer
December 15, 2006

Once upon a time, in that strangely distant era known as the 1970s, American Larry Collins and Frenchman Dominique Lapierre collaborated on a book about the birth of Israel. Impeccably researched and written in the sort of fast-paced, novelistic style that is often described as “bringing history to life,” the book—dubbed, with a biblical flourish, O Jerusalem—was an immediate critical and popular success and has remained in print since, selling more than 30 million copies to date.

It’s hard now to imagine a time when Israel wasn’t “the most despised and also the most unattractive country in the world,” as Doron Rosenblum recently put it in a satirical piece in Ha’aretz. Hard to imagine a time when anyone really believed that just telling the facts of history straight would be enough to persuade the people of liberal Europe that Israel not only had the right to exist, but that the nation’s origins were not rooted in an ancient Jewish longing to perpetrate genocide on the Palestinian inhabitants of this stony land. Hard to imagine a United Nations that voted for Partition instead of passing yet another resolution against Israel, with the United States the lone voice of dissent.

Amazingly, into this unforgiving, forgetful contemporary landscape storms French film director Elie Chouraqui, complete with fabulous Jewfro and what some might consider a widely off-the-mark optimism. Last month, nearly thirty-five years after the publication of O Jerusalem, Chouraqui’s film version hit French screens. Okay, it didn’t last for more than a fortnight, got lukewarm reviews, and hardly anyone went to see it. But the film was made—and, perhaps more interestingly, France being a country generally known for its strong anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian sentiment—the book has been glossily reissued here as a tie-in.

Chouraqui has several romantic comedies and dramas to his name—like Harrison’s Flowers, a glossy Hollywood flick about the wars in former Yuogslavia—but has never made such an ambitious historical film before. In interviews he’s said that he wanted to make an “impartial” film about the birth of Israel. The film sets out to show the horrendous suffering and the heroism of both Jews and Arabs in that intense and fraught period following the Second World War, the friendships that overrode religious barriers, the sacrifices made by individuals, the ruptures of families, the hopes and dreams that were shattered by death and destruction and war. It’s an admirable ambition on Chouraqui’s part and to that end he frames the action by having two leads, New Yorkers Bobby Goldman, a Jew (JJ Feild), and his friend Saïd Chahïn, a Palestinian originally from Jerusalem (Saïd Taghmaoui), both of whom dash off to the Holy Land to fight against their respective enemies and thus determine the future of their peoples.

The story opens just before the UN vote for Partition and unfolds during the ensuing War of Independence. Chouraqui flashes back and forth between scenes of Bobby and Said’s friendship in post-war Manhattan, the hustle and bustle of Mandate Palestine, and Saïd’s traditional family in Jerusalem. And, while Bobby and his Haganah friends are portrayed as an earnest, morally irreproachable bunch, Chouraqui is careful to remind us that there are also very bad Jews in their midst, like the Jabotinsky lot, who are introduced just after having slaughtered the inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin (today the Jerusalem suburb of Givat Shaul), leaving behind a monument to the Palestinian catastrophe and evidence that Jews are capable of comporting themselves shamefully during wartime.

Like the book, the film makes valiant claims to show both sides of the story, but like the book it ends up showing the Jews in far more detail than the Arabs, rendering the Arabs little more than textured background—women who ululate and cook and men in kafiyehs looking fierce. There are Arabs with guns and Arabs who live in picturesque villages and tend goats. There are murdered Arabs. But there are no three-dimensional characters aside from Saïd, who has to incarnate all possible sides of the Palestinian Arab character. He is both decisive and uncertain, Arab nationalist and citizen of the world, an Arab who has to avenge the death of his uncle (this is not a film to rise above cliché) and a man for whom friendship, even with a Jew, overrides all else. Saïd Taghmaoui does a terrific job incarnating Saïd the Ur-Arab, though Chouraqui refuses to let him relax. JJ Field’s Bobby and the other Jews come across as more jolly since there are lots of girls for them to have lots of 1940s fun with (no hanky panky, but plenty of soulful looking into each other’s eyes).

Good intentions only go so far. The film never manages to stop feeling like Exodus without Paul Newman, messily dubbed into French (Chouraqui made the film in English, presumably aiming for success on the other side of the pond). Its rose-tinted realism, its tedious impulse to tell both sides of the story, and its obsession with the chimera of impartiality bloat the film, while draining it of anything resembling real pathos as Chouraqui crams in detail upon endless detail. Even the wedding between Bobby and the mortally-wounded Hadassah, with Saïd as one of the witnesses (Of course! Even as Hadassah has been shot by one of his fellow Arab fighters!), while the hardy amateur fighters take shelter in a church in the Old City, is so labored that this potential moment of real drama ends up drowning under the weight of its own touching significance.

Part of the problem, of course, is that this kind of cinema—like this kind of history—is simply no longer fashionable. We have learned to crave the fragmentary truth of multiple viewpoints, of jagged unfinished narratives. We recognize that our heroes are complex, ambiguous figures. We need them thus, in our complicated world. Exodus, if made today—even with Paul Newman—would not be the same film that it was when it was made in 1960.

But, cinematic fashions aside, does anyone really believe today that there is an “impartial” tale to be told about the Middle East? The story that Collins and Lapierre dispatched 30 years ago has been revised many times since by historians such as Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappé, and Benny Morris (to name just the Israelis). O Jerusalem (the book), while sympathetic to the Palestinians, did not challenge any of the foundation myths of the State of Israel—the notion of Israel as the weak David, set upon by the mighty Goliath of the combined forces of all the surrounding Arab countries who, with the Palestinian Arabs, were determined to destroy the fledgling state. At the end of the book Collins and Lapierre dealt briefly with the question of the Palestinian refugees. Chouraqui’s film echoes the major tropes of the Collins-Lapierre narrative, and then he closes with an historical account that could have been written in the 1970s, blaming the dispossession of the Palestinians on “Arab propaganda” and making a direct link with the Arab-ordered Palestinian exodus and the suicide bombers of today.

Yet since the 1980s, access to material in declassified archives has fundamentally changed our understanding of that specific question and demolished much of the narrative innocence that infuses Chouraqui’s anachronistic, naïve film. Benny Morris was the first to challenge the official Israeli claim that the Arab leadership ordered the Arab population of Israel to flee in his seminal 1988 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, in which he demonstrated convincingly that no such orders were given. Yet Chouraqui repeats the long-debunked official Israeli line. His failure to recognize that the state of knowledge has fundamentally changed makes the critical viewer realize that the film, for all its proclaimed impartiality, is no less political than today’s vicious anti-Israel rhetoric. Chouraqui isn’t so much trying to rewrite history as to unwrite it—to return to the prelapsarian knowledge of 1972, when such troubling issues had yet to be raised. None of this is to say that there were no heroes and idealists and villains as Chouraqui portrays them. As in any period of history, they existed. But today we recognize that history has as many truths as it has versions, and that the most truthful histories are not always—are never—impartial.

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