January 7, 2009
For your consideration
While missiles are raining down on the Jews of southern Israel, do you know what's raining down on the Jews of Southern California? Screeners.
That's right: It's pre-Academy Award season in Hollywood, a time when everyone involved in the movie business receives free DVD copies of all the Oscar contenders. That way, they can be informed voters in the democracy that is Hollywood.
For those of us not actually in the Industry, there is still a good chance we can borrow some of these screeners -- after all, some of our best friends are Jewish.
So while the residents of Sderot have to decide whether a trip to the market for a carton of milk is worth risking their lives, the Jews of Hollywood have to wonder whether "Slumdog Millionaire" will play better on their flat-screen or at the Laemmle.
No one said life is fair.
A remarkable number of this year's movies traffic in Jewish victimhood. "The Reader," "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and "Adam Resurrected" are adapted from books about the Holocaust. "Valkyrie," in which Tom Cruise doesn't save the world, features glimpses of Hitler's Jewish victims, as does "Good," starring Viggo Mortensen as an unwitting Nazi collaborator.
Two movies attempt to turn our stereotype of ourselves on its head by portraying Jews fighting back. "Defiance" shows how a relative few of Hitler's victims mounted an armed resistance, and the upcoming Hannah Senesh documentary, "Blessed Is the Match," eulogizes another martyr. But these are Jews-as-victims stories, as well -- one man or woman's courage notwithstanding, in the end, we mostly die.
What is going on here? Hollywood and the movies still cling to the image of the Jew-as-victim, while in the world beyond Blu-ray the reality is much more ... complicated.
There is a yawning gap between how we portray ourselves for the world to see and the reality of the Jew in the world. That gap helps explain why we are so shocked when news reports stress the charnel-house effects of Israeli bombs. Yes, many of these reports are biased, but yes, that havoc is what Jews too can wreak.
It's clear from my stack of screeners that we Jews prefer to see ourselves as victimized, rather than as all the other adjectives that might apply to Jews since the end of World War II: assimilated, accepted, beloved, cool, aggressive, conflicted, popular, cruel, humane, brilliant, powerful.
I'd add "funny," but we were always funny.
Movies mirror our heroic selves -- and clearly we Jews are most comfortable seeing ourselves as heroic sufferers. No people has been persecuted like us, our stories keep telling us, and that's the story we keep telling others.
Meanwhile, the roles Jews inhabit have become far more varied and morally complex.
The narrative we are hearing from our leaders thus far could fit comfortably on one of those DVDs: Israel is a victim of Hamas; Israel is just trying to survive.
But of course we live in a more complex world than that, a world that, to my mind, demands we at least wrestle with some murky questions, both practical and moral (and I tend to believe the moral path is, in almost all cases, the most practical).
Some practical questions are: How will Israel's short-term military success advance its long-term interests? How does it help Israel's cause to leave Gaza in ruins, Hamas' fighting force intact, a new generation of Gazan youth terrified and angry at Israel? If Hamas is not destroyed -- and it looks like it won't be -- how long before it cashes some more Iranian checks, regroups and rearms?
And if some of Israel's politicians and supporters aren't willing to make concessions to more moderate Palestinians like Mahmoud Abbas, why risk Israeli soldiers' lives trying to dethrone Hamas and put people like Abbas back in power?
Some moral questions are: If it is OK for Israel, in the name of survival, to kill 40 innocent children, is it acceptable for it to kill 400 children? What about 40,000? Where exactly is that line?
For that matter, if it is OK to kill innocent Palestinians because Hamas hides among them, would it be all right to kill innocent Catholics, or Evangelicals, or Jews, if Hamas hid among them?
Make no mistake: Hamas is intransigent, fanatic and violent. As long as it retains power in Gaza, those who want peace for Israel and justice for the Palestinians will be frustrated.
But where Jews have power, they also have the ability to react wisely -- and it is wise to be asking these sorts of questions; there is no shame or weakness in it. Just don't try to make a movie out of it.
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