The Wound and the Gift: In Memory of Judd Ne'eman

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Israeli filmmaker Judd Ne’eman

”The Wound: Gift of War” (in Hebrew, Am Oved) is what filmmaker and writer Judd Ne’eman, who passed this week, chose to call his only book of nonfiction, a collection of his academic writings on Israeli cinema and war. The title is a paraphrase of a statement by the Greek philosopher Herodotus, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” he once told me, as though sharing a secret, years before the book came out. To a large extent, Ne’eman’s attraction to the wound, just like his ability to define the wound as a gift, is perhaps the deepest essence of his cinematic, research and activist project.

Judd Ne’eman, the ultimate sabra, received the Medal of Distinguished Service for treating wounded soldiers in the Six-Day War, and was a physician and a professor of film studies. He could have easily snuggled into the warm bosom of the Israeli consensus, which is blind to wounds and blows and distortions. Most people, by the very fact of their closeness to themselves, would have done that. However, throughout his life Ne'eman was attracted to the wound, in the innermost and deepest meaning of the word. And not just in wars.

Consciously or not, Ne’eman used his personal starting point to bring into the Israeli consciousness many of the things that only a person like him could truly have brought. There is hardly a large social wound to which he did not devote attention. Both in his movie making – who, if not a distinguished service medalist, could have made the most critical film about military pedagogy? – and in his essays and contemplative writing. I use the word “contemplative” deliberately here, because even when his writing was strictly academic, he always tried to look beyond, to create a language and a framework for far broader thinking.

To understand Ne’eman’s important place in Israel’s cultural system, it is necessary to recall that as a thinker, as an activist, he was a man of infrastructure, of means of production, of creating frameworks within which others could work, create and ultimately change something in the world. Whether it was his involvement in Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Tel Aviv University’s film school or the establishment of Israel’s first film foundation for supporting cinema, as in his essays and his movies the central aesthetic was always the commitment to something greater than himself. This may also be one of the explanations for the extraordinary generosity that was so characteristic of him. I encountered that generosity over the years, and it was always plain, straightforward and free of pretensions.

This was why he could call the wound “the gift of war.” A bad and painful gift but one that we can use. If we listen to it, if we look at it not only as a necessary evil that we need to repress; if we recognize the marks seared into the human soul and body and society after every war – not only the all-out, political war but also the local, individual war – then this wound can become the most important tool for healing. Without it, there is only wallowing in the mud.

At one stage, he gave me the screenplay to read, a movie he wanted to make about the Yom Kippur War called “Cataract.” Ne’eman’s war in the presence of the wound was always the war on blindness. “In the army, they don’t teach you how to kill; they teach you how to get killed” – that was how Ne’eman defined military pedagogy. If you want another example, in order to understand the depth of his thinking and its clarity, listen to that sentence, which serves as an epigraph of my first novel, “The Drive.” This ostensible reversal of the course of events, the deep understanding of the system, putting the individual at the center, is the essence of Judd Ne’eman’s revolutionary philosophy. About all the centers of powers. Always. May his memory be a blessing. I, and we, will miss him.

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