Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Cowboys & Arabs Ride Again at Israeli FF

I notice that the "closing night event" of Albert Dadon's (AICE) Israeli Film Festival (13-28 August) in Sydney will be the screening of Otto Preminger's 1960 adaptation of Leon Uris' Zionist propaganda novel of 1958, Exodus.

Billed on the Palace Cinemas' website as merely "a lavish, ambitious chronicle of the formation of the State of Israel," Exodus, the original Zionist western (eastern?), takes the propaganda of Uris' novel to new heights - or should that be depths?

The very fact that this load of old Zionist cobblers is being dusted off for a festival such as this is a telling indication of the retrograde, colonial mindset of the festival's organisers. Try to imagine, if you can, a 2013 American film festival concluding with the quintessential 'cowboys & Indians' film They Died with Their Boots On, a 1941 take on Custer's last stand.

An indication of just how outrageously Preminger misrepresents events in Palestine in 1947-1948 may be found in the study Our Exodus: Leon Uris & the Americanization of Israel's Founding Story (2010), by Israeli scholar M.M. Silver. Silver zeroes in on the film's very American Lone Ranger/Tonto relationship between Zionist hero Ari Ben Canaan (Paul Newman) and his Arab sidekick Taha:

"The Taha-Ari friendship has a frontier quality of emergency patronage and rustic indebtedness. Taha swears that he owes everything to the Ben Canaans. 'When the Syrian Arabs murdered my father in his own mosque, Ari's father saved my life and my heritage,' exclaims Taha. 'Ari and I used to live together in Yad El. We shared the same room. Now to think that my house could become his tomb.' [Wounded during a jailbreak in Acre, Ari is nursed back to life in Taha's village.] Taha might owe his 'heritage' to the Zionist Ben Canaans, but owing to the wild logic of the frontier he is also forced to lodge the Jews' most vile nemesis. An old Nazi is in Taha's house plotting the deployment of his own 'personally trained' 80 Arab storm troopers and 300 newly recruited Abu Yesha villagers in a ruthless attack on the Jewish children's village Gan Dafna. Not willfully duplicitous, Taha appears as an honorable but weak Indian chief who is unable to keep both the good guys and the bad guys off his lands. Taha pleads, earnestly but ineffectually, with the Nazi. 'I am the mukhtar of Abu Yesha, and I will not attack Gan Dafna,' he implores. When he points out that there are 650,000 Jews in Palestine, his ghoulish Nazi guest replies 'temporarily.'

"Few of the details in this sequence make sense when removed from the binary oppositions and emotional expectations of a cowboy movie. There is no historical validity to the gruesome account provided by Taha's Nazi guest regarding his meddling. 'The Grand Mufti was our guest in Berlin during the war. Since we are now his guests, we have placed our experience in handling Jews entirely at his disposal,' the Nazi guest states. He explains that the strategic plan for the attack on Gan Dafna is to clear out the Jezreel Valley to guarantee passage for Haj Amin on his way to Safad, which will serve as the Mufti's 'provisional capital until every last Jew in Palestine is exterminated.' Handicapped by outrageous errors of geography and fact, this Nazi speech does more on its own to delegitimize the Palestinian side of the 1948 struggle than anything Uris ever attempted. As we will see, in his novel Uris pointed to real-life connections between the Mufti and Nazism, and he also indulged scathingly prejudicial descriptions of the Jews' Arab antagonists in the 1948 war. However, Uris never manipulated historically invalid devices to portray the fight as an updated and Palestine-transplanted chapter of the Nazi plot to exterminate the Jews.

"The late sequence in Taha's home is juxtaposed against jubilant scenes from central Israel, where a city crowd throngs on a summery night supposedly in late December 1947 to hear Barak Ben Canaan announce the UN vote in favor of the partition of Palestine and the establishment of a free Jewish state. Barak's oratory implicitly recognizes Palestinian sensitivities and grievances as being at the heart of the brewing dispute: 'We implore you,' the veteran Zionist diplomat addresses Palestine's Arabs, 'remain in your homes and shops, and we shall work together as equals in the free state of Israel.' The oration is a central plot event in the film narrative... As Taha, Kitty [Ari's American lover], and Ari listen to a radio broadcast of the elder Canaan's peroration, the mukhtar candidly spells out Palestinian objections to the land's newly approved dispensation. 'You have won your freedom, and I have lost mine,' Taha laments. Ari attempts to correct his friend: 'We've never had freedom. All our lives we've been under British rule. Now we will be equal citizens in the free state of Israel.' Taha's rejoinder conceptualizes the impending war as a fight for political power. If, as Ari insists, it makes no difference whether a group is a majority or a minority in a free democracy, why have the Zionists fought so hard to create a Jewish state, asks Taha.

"That is a good question, and it can be addressed cogently by an examination of the twists and turns of Jewish history.* But the climactic sequence of the Exodus film engages neither a serious investigation of history nor a serious political discussion of the causes of the 1948 war. Neither the nomenclature, the dates, or much else is accurate; the scene offers absurdly divergent explanations of the Palestinian cause in 1948 as either a Nazi plot or as a nationalist campaign for political power. The scene, in short, is not history in cinema, but cinema transmogrifying history as a western showdown.

"At the end of his blood-curdling interview with the Nazi, Taha dutifully pays obeisance to Middle East hosting rituals by promising his hateful guest dinner. Taha then rushes to Ari's room to warn him to get the Jewish children out of the Gan Dafna village by midnight the following day, the showdown hour designated for the attack by the Nazi-trained Arab storm troopers. Wrapped in traditional white headdress, Taha comes on as a film cliche when he conveys this vital intelligence to Ari - the good native of the cowboy western genre, he personifies a conflict between the demands of blood-brother friendship with a white man and tribal honor... After successfully evacuating Gan Dafna's small children, Ari leads a united Haganah-Irgun attack on Abu Yesha (he has no compunction leading the charge on the home village of his blood brother, because the Mufti's men are understood to have gained control of Abu Yesha). After winding through the alleys of the deserted village with his small force, Ari stops to behold what has happened to his lifetime friend, Taha. The camera follows his gaze down a straight alley; a swastika is smeared on a side wall to herald the handiwork of the Nazi agent. Looking straight ahead, Ari spots Taha, hanging dead from a noose with a blood red Star of David branded onto his chest. The form of execution, a hangman's noose, has relatively little meaning in the terrorized landscape of the modern Middle East. But its resonance as a token of justice, or lack thereof, in the epic frontier of the western knows no bounds." (pp 142-145)

So, on Wednesday night, August 28, at Paddington's Palace Cinema, festival-goers will be able to - ahem - screen out the valiant, scholarly efforts of Israeli historians such as Morris, Sternhell and Pappe to uncover the brutal truth behind the Zionist blitzkrieg in 1948 Palestine, and revert once again to the 'innocent' days of the 50s and 60s when the fantasy Exodus narrative of heroic Zionist pioneers battling impossible odds to avoid being driven into the sea reigned supreme.

[*I don't think so.]

[In a similar vein, you might like to reread my 12/5/13 post Israel: The Movie? and the 3 Battle of Hanita posts which follow.]

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