The Film After the Scandal: Can This Trampled Israeli Icon Be Resurrected?

A new documentary seeks to tell another story of Dan Ben Amotz after a shocking posthumous biography erased his legacy.

During his radio program's daily new roundup on the morning of April 8, 1989, Alex Ansky reported: “Members of the Central Command entertainment troupe have been arrested on suspicion of having used drugs. A second glamorous wedding in Jerusalem for bridegroom Shalom Zohar,  son of Rabbi Uri Zohar, who married Yasmin Einstein, daughter of Arik, in the presence of stars who had come mainly from Tel Aviv. And here is today’s main headline: There is no progress in the peace talks with the Palestinians. And something else. In every newspaper you pick up this morning and on all the radio news broadcasts, they will tell you at length about the event that has been on everyone’s lips for nearly the past two weeks: journalist and writer Dahn Ben-Amotz’s farewell to the land of the living. A funeral without a corpse. And the deceased himself was the interviewer.”

Only 23 years ago, Ben-Amotz was still a person who was widely discussed in every newspaper and every radio broadcast. He was one of the most prominent and influential formulators of Israeliness. Many people made big efforts to obtain an invitation to the farewell party he held after he was diagnosed with cancer, but a short time later many of them refused to allow the segments in which they appeared to be broadcast. It seems that, in a single moment, there was a reversal, and many people wanted to erase their connection with the deceased.

Dahn Ben-Amotz was the incarnation of the ultimate sabra, the native-born Israeli. He was born in Poland in 1923 under the name Moshe Tehilimzeigger, and in 1937 he came with Youth Aliyah a program that brought Jewish youngsters to Palestine without their parents to the Ben Shemen youth village. Four years later he had already become Dahn Ben-Amotz Daba for short and had eradicated his Diaspora past, something that was at the time de rigueur in the Israeli melting pot. Israeliness was Ben-Amotz’s real project, but in addition to that he left a rich resume. Filmmaker Levi Zini itemizes: 25 books, eight exhibitions, six radio programs, 980 evenings of interviews, plus writing for six newspapers, translation of five books, roles in three films, and the writing of two screenplays and four stage musicals.

Motti Kirschenbaum and Dalia Guttman documented that April 1989 farewell party at the Hamam club in Jaffa, and it is at the center of Zini’s film “Daba: The Story of an Israeli Icon.” The documentary tries to trace the myth and understand who he was and why he has been totally eradicated from the public consciousness. The film is being shown this month at the cinematheques in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Zini uses fascinating segments from that party: things said by writers Amos Oz and Meir Shalev; Ben-Amotz’s angry outburst at Netiva Ben Yehuda and Arik Lavie, who tried to deviate for a moment from his very precise plan; and an unforgettable encounter between him and Amos Kenan. It isn’t only Ben-Amotz who faces renewed scrutiny in the film, but the entire era that generation we learned to admire and later rejected to the point of blotting it out. Zini, 59, tries to depict that Israel in terms of a youth society. He says there were the “popular kids” (Ben-Amotz and his coterie) and the rest of the class. “I was in the rest of the class,” he laughs.

Zini was born in Jerusalem. “I am the son of parents of Moroccan origin,” he says. “My father came here from Morocco, and my mother was born in Jerusalem’s Old City to parents who had come from Morocco. I admit I was among those who after [the novels] ‘To Remember, to Forget’ and ‘Does Not Give a Damn’ wanted to be a part of it. Daba was an object of desire. The film is an attempt to examine, from the distance of time, this monolithic Israeliness that was dictated to us.”

Until not long ago, Zini was the artistic director of Channel 8. He left the position when the ownership of the channel changed hands. This year he won the Culture and Sports Ministry award for Art of Cinema. Among the films he has made over the years: “Nachshon Wachsman Countdown to Death,” “The Witness Protection Program,” “The Wall is in Our Hands” and “This is the Only Way I Can See.”

Zini says he is guilty of making what he calls scare documentaries. “I had a production company, 2 Shot Films. We made ‘Bulldog,’ which I am most proud of. We started screaming ‘Tycoons!’ before anyone was shouting at tycoons. And then we made the ‘Antibiotics’ series with Dana Weiss, in which we developed the scare shtick. We started making films in the genre of ‘Let’s scare you and then we’ll give you the solutions.’ Some of my grievances with Channel 2 are that they raised the level of emotionalism. Everything goes through the gut. I have [played] a part in this. In my defense, I can only say that I resigned from that in 2008, and since then I have been making independent documentary films. Not that I can earn a living from that.”

When his latest film is over, the viewer wants more. It’s like watching a thriller in which the identity of the murderer is already clear in the first scene but nevertheless there is suspense about how it happened exactly. Zini says he is amazed by the way Israeli culture always throws whatever came before into the fire. Of the farewell party, Uri Avnery says in the film that it was a farewell for a generation, not only for Ben-Amotz. Chava Alberstein says: “It is as though you had won a kind of seal of eternity, of Israeliness.”

Journalist Reno Tsror notes: “It’s really the elderly elephants gathering like in the old Tarzan films, and the strongest elephant of all lumbers slowly toward the graveyard to die there, far away.” And Amnon Dankner says that, to a large extent, the people who were at the party were mourning themselves: “We’re talking about 1989. That was already the year when Shas grew strong, when the Mizrahim [Jews of Middle Eastern descent] were raising their heads here. This was an era of revolution, the changing of the guard, and that was the party of the departing shift.”

Anyone who was anyone was at Ben-Amotz’s farewell party. Zini notes that the vast majority of participants were Ashkenazi. Amos Oz and Meir Shalev, Shaul Biber, Uri Avnery and Netiva Ben Yehuda, Johnathan Gefen, Nurit Galron and Yehudit Ravitz, Shlomo Artzi, Yaakov Agmon, Gila Almagor, Tommy Lapid, Haim Hefer, Yossi Banai, Rivka Michaeli, Shulamit Aloni, Chaim Topol, Arik Lavie and Amos Kenan. And this is just a partial list. And also Amnon Dankner, Ben-Amotz’s good friend at the time.

Ben-Amotz died in October 1989. In 1992, Dankner published his biography and the book caused a scandal, mainly because of the revelations it contained. One was Dankner’s claim that, before his death, Ben-Amotz had confessed that he had slept with his own mother when he was 13. The other revelation concerned Ben-Amotz’s affinity for young girls. It seems as if his work was suddenly blotted out: The books he wrote are no longer on the shelves; the skits he wrote are no longer on the air; his journalism, his excellent spoken Hebrew; and the icon he was all have been forgotten.

“It’s terribly difficult today to say what he was,” Zini says, “because there is no Israeli figure that we look up to now; no one we say we want to be. In those days, there were several people like that, and he was one of them. He was a cultural icon. He embodied Israeliness, he was a role model. Ben-Amotz was one of the outstanding models for Israeliness, both because he was very loud and because he spread out over a lot of areas.”

Haaretz: Why did you decide to make the film?

“The truth is, this isn’t the kind of film in my area of interest I have other hobbies. But I saw the materials from the party, and what fascinated me there was that I could examine my own relationship with those people who had dictated what ought to be, and what I too wanted to adopt as my culture and identity. It intrigued me to examine this from the distance of time.

“There’s also a provocative figure here, and I admit that provocativeness is something I like and it is very much lacking in our current cultural life. Dahn Ben-Amotz moved fences fearlessly and was willing to get scratched our culture needs people like that.

“The whole argument about whether he was moral or not, and whether Dankner told the truth or not, is an argument of the ‘popular kids,’ and I admit that I don’t connect with their internal debate it doesn’t really interest me. I admit that in this matter I am guilty of gloating a bit. For years [Ben-Amotz] silenced everyone else, and all the immigrants got pushed aside. So go for it, okay, quarrel! The popular kids are beating one another up what do I care? Exhaust one another.

“I am not a literary critic, but I went back to his books when I made the film. I remember the tremendous influence ‘To Remember, to Forget’ had on me as a young adolescent, and ‘Doesn’t Give a Damn’ they were earthshaking. And today when I read them I think: The man is digging; it’s intolerable how he is digging.

“What does hold up a bit more is his humor. You also can’t take away from him the fact that he wrote in spoken Hebrew. For a lot of people here, he released the fetters of writing. In my opinion, he gave legitimization to a literary stream. The author Judith Katzir, who wrote her first story as a young girl and sent it to him, appears in the film. “The fact that he brought the language down to the level that is accessible to all of us made it possible for many people to write,” she says. “I credit this to him. He wasn’t a great writer, but I also think he didn’t want to be a great writer. He wanted to be the local [Jean-Paul] Sartre, the one who would give us the recipe for the right everyday life in the modern age. That’s how I see it.”

In one of the most unforgettable scenes in the film (which was produced by Ya’akov Shem Tov and Avishai Peretz), Ben-Amotz invites Amos Kenan to the stage. It is hard to miss Kenan’s scorn for the party, participants and Ben-Amotz himself. This is a group of people who were just as cruel to one another as they were talented or clever, and the fact that Ben-Amotz was about to die didn’t take the edge off anything. Kenan offers to sing a song in Ben-Amotz’s honor. He sings “Anonymous Soldiers” the anthem of the nationalist Lehi prestate underground militia, to which Kenan had belonged, and a slap in the face to Ben-Amotz, the Palmachnik from the rival socialist-leaning movement.

How do you explain those knotty relations?

“Nurith Gertz, Kenan’s wife, described this in cinematic terms: It was like John Wayne movies versus film noir. Amos Kenan was in the Lehi. He felt they had fought the real war, and then along came those shits from the Palmach saying they were the ones who had liberated the country. In 1956 Ben-Amotz published “Yalkut Hakzavim” (“The Book of Fibs”) together with Haim Hefer those two nothings and everyone was already convinced the Palmach had liberated the country. But in fact what had they done? They just stole chickens and had sing-alongs around campfires. While we, the Lehi, were in the shadows, in the dark, and we waged the real war. From there the hostility between them began.”

But they also collaborated sometimes. “Politics linked them together,” Zini says. “In the film there’s a joint picture of them at a Black Panthers demonstration. In the 1960s they published a satiric page in Yedioth Ahronoth called ‘The Soul Bird.’ They also collaborated on Uri Zohar’s film ‘Hole in the Moon.’ All along the way they had a kind of love-hate relationship, petty, childish, silly and full of depth. It’s a delight.”

It wasn’t at all certain that Kenan would accept the invitation and come: “Before the party there was crazy discussion about whether or not he would come. He hated that evening. He said so on the stage. He begins his speech with a quotation from [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein, who said death is not a part of life because it is impossible to live death. He taunted Ben-Amotz for having tried to turn death into something trivial, into a part of life. In the interview he gives afterward, Kenan wonders who throws a party like that. According to him, a person wants to die in the midst of his family; he returns to the bosom, so why is he making a fuss?”

In a letter to Kenan, Ben-Amotz recommended he write pornography for the masses and implant his ideas within it. “After ‘To Remember, to Forget’ and ‘Doesn’t Give a Damn,’ the rest of his books were an envelope of pornography aimed at selling his opinions, at reaching readers and he also recommended this to Amos Kenan,” Zini says.

“Those were the years when in France there were people like Sartre and [Albert] Camus people who tried to delineate a way of life and I think that’s what he was trying to do. Recently, someone published a book about Sartre and Camus [“The Boxer and the Goalkeeper” by Andy Martin], and about their passion for the female sex. The ugly duckling Sartre versus the handsome Camus. It would be intriguing to write a book like that about Kenan and Ben-Amotz, both of whom were among those who laid the foundations of humor here. In contrast to Daba,
Kenan won, and the person who wrote his biography [‘Unrepentant’] was his wife, Nurith Gertz, who approached it with love. Dankner was angry when he wrote.”

In the film, Dankner says the biography won. That the things written in it have become fixed in the mind of the Israeli public, but it wasn’t his aim that Ben-Amotz’s sketches would cease to be heard, and that the public would stop reading a single word of his. However, people aren’t reading him much and people are fairly disgusted by Ben-Amotz. Do you also attribute to the biography the fact that he has been forgotten?

“To return to the youth society comparison, what intrigued me was Israeli society’s relations with this figure. It did choose him as an icon, and it did choose to discard him. Ostensibly because of Dankner and I say ostensibly because, in my opinion, this biography gave a bad odor to a social and cultural process that would have happened here in any case. Dankner jumped off this ship because he realized it was sinking, and he realized where the new ships were.
He did this even though it wasn’t popular in his own reference group he understood what was happening before the others did.”

It seems as though it happened in a single stroke. One moment he was the tribe’s campfire, the next he was forgotten.

“I attribute this to when Channel 2 began broadcasting, in 1993. This privatization suddenly there was an abundance of Israeli faces on the screen. That was the moment. Channel 1 marched in step with the hegemony and bam! Channel 2 happened, and how quickly Israeli society ran to it. Suddenly there was liberation. We were liberated.”

And this liberation led us to endless conservatism.

“We are a puritanical society, and at the moment we are in an era of political correctness that makes you want to scream. There isn’t a single cultural figure here who dares to express an opinion. Not one.”

Or anyone who dares to live his life in a way that isn’t respectable, at least when it comes to appearances.

“In the film, there is a segment when Daba is being filmed for the Friday current events program on Channel 1. That was in 1979. In that year the secular audience watched it on Friday on Channel 1 and the religious saw it on Saturday evening so it was clear to him that he was reaching 90 percent of the households in Israel. He chose to bring to the filming a girl of 16, so they’d see. He walks around the flea market and plucks at the dress of every girl or woman who walks past him, because he thought that image would help him reach his readers.”

Today they would put him in jail.

“Definitely. This is the period about which Yehonatan Gefen wrote ‘Good Stuff.’ It was part of the intolerable and exploitative chauvinist atmosphere, and there was a feeling then that the more notches you put on the butt of your pistol, the bigger shot you were. Note that there wasn’t a single person no matter how esteemed who came onstage and didn’t spice up his remarks with sexual innuendo. As though in Ben-Amotz’s company it was permissible to have a little fun. Amos Elon said of him that he had taken the girdle off Hebrew so we could feel it up. Suddenly it was permissible to speak in language like that he seemed to legitimize it. Today this is forbidden. It’s also necessary to put this in the context of the period. There was a spirit afoot of the steam coming forcefully out of the pressure cooker. The ‘Lool’ group [of actors and singers], [film director] Jacques Katmor’s group suddenly there was a ferment of hormones.”

And there were also cruel conflicts and fierce criticism of one another.

With all their ills, they were people of culture, and they polished their swords. I say what is happening today is that the path is becoming narrow. They pressed up against fences and moved them. [Ben-Amotz], [the poets] Yona Wallach and David Avidan. They opened wide paths for us. Somehow, ever since there’s been a commercial [television] channel, things have changed. The commercial channel has brought about social crimes here, and somehow there’s no one now moving the fence. Everything is becoming narrow and boring deadly boring.”

Shaul Biber, who was with Ben-Amotz in a displaced persons camps in Europe, has an amazing story: When a relative of his wanted to tell him about the fate of his family that had perished, Ben-Amotz refused to speak with him or listen. What was that all about?

“He cut off, as Uri Avnery says. They were people without emotion. He was not capable of having emotional relationships. I’m not a psychologist, but that’s what emerges there. Amal Netiva Ben Yehuda’s daughter talks in the film about the violence that was bottled up in them, about the 1948 generation that had experienced that terrible war. They were in post-traumatic stress syndrome when no one even knew there was such a thing. His deepest relationship was with Israeli society, that’s what he worked on.”

At one stage Zini wanted to call the film “It Will End in Tears.” At the beginning of the film, Uri Avnery says that when a person cuts off his previous identity, he loses emotion, and that he himself has never cried in his life. At the end of the film, Dankner relates that after the confession about his sexual relations with his mother, Ben-Amotz kicked him out of the house. Dankner went down the steps and cried. Avnery relates in the film that when Ben-Amotz returned form the United States, paralyzed after a failed medical treatment, he lay in bed and cried the whole time. “Physical crying,” Avnery calls it.

“At some stage I felt compassion toward this generation,” Zini says. “If initially I had come with antagonism toward this generation that had forced me to be something it was necessary to be, during the course of [making] the film I felt compassion. They were screwed up, but they brought about an incredible miracle here. And in so doing they scratched themselves and wounded themselves, and passed it along to us to live with their wounds.”

Alex Levac
Yoni Pazi
Yaron Kaminsky