Israel looks in mirror as TV series unwinds Documentary gives warts-and-all view of the state and its people

March 26, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- For weeks now, Israelis have been watching a televised history of the country that chronicles its glories. And, some say, its shame.

The exhaustive documentary series, produced by Israel's state-owned broadcast authority, retells the national narrative in poignant and provocative images that have ignited harsh criticism of the project's creators and the stories they chose to tell.

But beyond the criticism of an individual director's perspective or the documentary's cinematic subject, the response to the series has raised questions about the way Israel's history is being remembered 50 years after the nation's founding in 1948.

The footage, some of it never before seen by the Israeli public, presents a startling, self-critical commentary on the Jewish state, its leaders and its people.

The strongest criticism has erupted over the portrayal of the Palestinians and the fight to reclaim what they consider their land. The segment opens with black-and-white footage of Palestinian children living in the squalor of refugee camps, a voice explaining: "The Palestinian revolution began in our refugee camps, with the poor, the landless and the hungry."

"Israelis are of age, and it's time we look at our past truthfully and critically," said Anita Shapira, an Israeli historian who heads the Rabin Center for Israel Studies in Tel Aviv. "Even though the story of Israel, of the last 50 years, is on the whole a story of immense success and achievements, nevertheless there were things that were done that we have nothing to be proud of. Some were unavoidable and some were simply bad mistakes. If we cannot face the past, we can never learn from the past and we also cannot make things right."

Not everyone views the series in that way.

Amnon Lord, a Jerusalem film critic and member of Israel's intellectual right, questioned the documentary's historical accuracy and its politics. He views the debate over the 22-part series as "a battle about the national narrative." The series, he said, has been monopolized by a small sect of the Israeli left.

"I don't see any new research that gives me any new evidence," said Lord. "I only see a new point of view."

The documentary chronicles Israel's early years: the struggle during British-mandate Palestine; the country's battle-scarred birth in 1948; waves of immigration of Jews and the building of the promised land amid wars with its Arab neighbors. It takes in the occupation of the Palestinian people after the 1967 war, the recurring nightmare of terrorism and the uneasy peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The project is titled "Tekuma," a Hebrew word that doesn't translate easily into English. It means alternately "resurrection," "recovery," "revival." And, in many ways, the documentary reflects all three. Since it began airing Dec. 28, the weekly series has held 30 percent of the Israeli television audience.

A range of voices

It combines oral history with present reflections, archival footage of war zones -- including films from Palestinian archives seized by Israeli troops during the Lebanon campaign -- and parliamentary speeches. Televised broadcasts of events follow frames of propaganda films. The variety of voices includes generals and soldiers, statesmen and ordinary citizens, revolutionaries and victims of terrorism, Arab poets and Israeli novelists, war heroes and peace activists.

This range of voices is considered by Israeli political scientist Yaron Ezrahi to be the series' strongest point -- and one that reflects a significant change in Israeli culture.

"Its most distinguishing characteristic is that it has abandoned the idea of one official story, one master narrative whose characteristics are epic," said Ezrahi, an award-winning author who teaches at Hebrew University.

'A sign of maturity'

"The most extraordinary aspect is that you hear the Arab voice and the Arab perspective from the authentic spokesmen who are completely outside the sensibilities of the majority of Israelis," said Ezrahi. "It's definitely post-epic, if not a postmodern documentary, which replaces the hegemonic melody with a symphony of voices, many of whom are contradictory. This shift is a sign of maturity for our culture and democracy."

Yehoram Gaon, a popular Israeli singer who resigned as the series' narrator because of the Palestinian segment, said he was "enchanted" by the initial episodes that portrayed the country's early days.

"As the series came closer and closer to the present day and talked about the distresses, the problems and the arguments, the work became more and more difficult," Gaon explained recently on his radio program.

Gaon's resignation triggered calls to cancel the program. The Israeli director of the Palestinian segment has received harassing telephone calls at home.

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