What’s the best - and worst - film you should see if you want to understand Israeli-Palestinian dynamics? To my mind, the answer is an all-in-one. It is The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers, a new effort by Moriah Films, a division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The film opens on Friday in Toronto (at Bloor Cinema), and is making its way around theaters in the United States.
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Told through the perspective of British-born, Israeli diplomat and speechwriter Yehuda Avner (and based on his book), the film recounts the state’s first few decades, by focusing on the travails of Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and then Ambassador to the U.S. Yitzhak Rabin. (A second installation, covering the prime ministerial tenures of Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres, is due out next spring.)
The most startling words - and the reason why this film is both revealing of Israel’s political psyche and obscuring of the geopolitical and human reality - are those which remain unsaid. There is one brief mention of the “Arabs” which Israel found itself in the position of controlling following Israel’s capture of the West Bank from Jordan in the Six Day War. But the word “Palestinians” simply does not appear.
Amidst the triumphant footage of 1948, there is certainly no mention of the Nakba, no discussion of what became of the 750,000 Palestinians who were exiled, and no analysis of the Palestinians who remained Israeli citizens after the 1949 ceasefire and fell under martial law for the first eighteen years of Israel’s existence.
As a film, there is little that is new; much of the footage seems like stock, and truisms like Rabin being shy, and Eshkol being publicly perceived as weak militarily, are trotted out. As a storyteller, Avner is passionate and affable and brings enough historical detail to animate the episodes, but he lacks the critical eye of narrators in far-better documentaries. (Think The Gatekeepers.)
While the film lacks the subversive and reflective quality of most good art, as a nostalgia-laced historical overview of Israel’s history, it may serve at least two purposes. One is to enable Israelis and their supporters to bask in the warm glow of righteous memory. Focusing on the surrounding countries who sought Israel’s destruction and who were foiled by Israel’s military prowess provides a soothing overlay to the messier facts of Israel’s founding. Why is this useful? Because in the age of attempted delegitimization of the Zionist project, those who seek to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do well to envelop themselves in the narratives that Israelis actually use to make sense of their country’s past.
But doing so comes with a cost. Rendering invisible the Palestinians also means that the Israeli focus on adversaries farther afield (think Iran) at the expense of the immediate needs of Palestinians, is reinforced. This, in turn, means that Palestinians and their supporters might need to watch the film to understand not how Israelis hate them, but how Israelis hardly saw them through the haze of the state’s founding on the heels of the Holocaust.
Understanding the power of invisibility might ultimately be an important step to reconciliation, as Palestinians can focus less on the attempt by the Zionist project to trample them and more on the hopes and dreams of Jews who sought to rebuild their nation out of the ashes. The challenge remains, then, to convince Israelis that Palestinians now share the same dreams.