This year’s Israel Film Festival was a little more contained, and therefore more manageable, than I remember it in the past. Israel’s film industry, including its television productions, has made extraordinary strides and is now one of the most respected in the world. I saw a mere sampling of half a dozen offerings this year, with my customary preference for historical themes.
The most dramatic story was a feature film called “Altalena,” about the confrontation between David Ben-Gurion’s new national government and Menachem Begin’s Irgun or Etzel nationalist militia. During the temporary summer truce in the 1948 war, the Hagana forces loyal to Ben-Gurion clashed violently with Begin’s Irgun over the possession of a boatload of arms being shipped in by the latter aboard the Altalena. Eventually, Hagana artillery shells destroyed the Altalena; 14 Irgun and four Hagana fighers died.
It was painful to see this graphic depiction of the battles in which young soldiers wearing the same uniform and speaking the same language were killing each other. The film hints that this tragic conflict might have been avoided if the two sides had not distrusted each other so much; a compromise formula might have been found. The Irgun had already incorporated its forces into the new national army, but the cohesion was not yet there. It demanded that 20 percent of the Altalena’s arms be distributed to its units in the Jerusalem area, with the Irgun overseeing this distribution.
My feeling was that a workable compromise might have been reached if the Hagana (the main component of Israel’s nascent armed forces) were given charge of the arms but had agreed to distribute 20 percent as the Irgun demanded. Instead, the entire shipment was lost at sea, with the attendant loss of young lives and the bitterness of a historical controversy that lasts to this very day.
There were two films on transformation and decline in the kibbutz movement. The feature production, “The Galilee Eskimos,” is a bitter-sweet story of old veterans of a kibbutz who wake to the reality that the entire working population of younger members has deserted in the night, having settled their debt to the bank by allowing a private developer to demolish the kibbutz and make the property into a resort. For a couple of weeks they relive their youthful days as communal pioneers, relying on their collective energies and resources to survive while they decide on how to deal with their transformed situation. There’s even a globalist dimension as the elderly kibbutzniks join in a stirring rendition of the “Communist International” with the one Chinese guest-laborer who is also left behind – a gentleman old enough to remember the collectivist spirit of Maoist China.
The other kibbutz film is a documentary, “Children of the Sun,” which eerily matches actual home movies and other historic footage with the disembodied voices of old kibbutzniks reflecting on their past – mostly on their youth and the rearing of their own children in the children’s houses. There are instances of pride upon their achievements, and moments of sadness – as they view footage of the burial of fallen comrades and of Memorial Day commemorations.
The collective identity engendered by kibbutz life was so complete that one veteran who left kibbutz stated that it took her a long time to get used to saying “I” rather than “we.” Another regretted that they missed out on much of what they might have experienced as parents if their children had not spent most of their young lives away in the children’s houses.
When the weathered faces were revealed with the closing credits, my suspicion was confirmed that one of the voices was familiar; Nachum Shoor had been a madrich (guide) to a young person’s delegation of the “Mordechai Anielewitch Circle” of Americans for Progressive Israel, with which I visited Israel in 1982, during the initial summer of Israel’s first Lebanon War. (Our organizational hosts, the Mapam party and the Kibbutz Arzi [National] Federation were almost alone in 1982 as critics of the war.) I vividly recall his booming voice as he greeted us in the early morning of the second or third day: “Hi. I’m Nachum, your madrich. I just got back from Beirut and I’m much happier to be here with you, believe me.”