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Warts and All

Wiesenthal Center's 'In Search of Peace' looks at Israel's first two decades.

by Tom Tugend

November 23, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Golda Meir, then Israel's foreign minister, with U.S. President John F. Kennedy during a meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., December 1962.

Golda Meir, then Israel's foreign minister, with U.S. President John F. Kennedy during a meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., December 1962.

True to its title, the documentary "In Search of Peace (Part One: 1948-1967)" covers the broad sweep of history during Israel's first two decades, but it is the small human touches that stick in the mind:Golda Meir, engulfed by a mass of humanity outside the Moscow synagogue in the late 1940s, telling the crowd, "Thank you for having remained Jews."

Jubilant dancers in Tel Aviv on the day Israel declares its statehood, while a heavy-hearted David Ben-Gurion, recalls Shimon Peres, prophesies, "Today, they are dancing, tomorrow they will be fighting."A handsome Israeli Arab movie actor, bitterly recounting his family's suffering at Jewish hands.

The Moriah Films division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center scoured two dozen film archives across the world, and an equal number of photo archives, to create a dense pictorial narrative of the tumultuous 20 years, starting with the United Nations partition vote in 1947 to the stunning Six-Day War victory in 1967.In introducing the Los Angeles premiere of the 105-minute documentary last week, co-producer and co-writer Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, promised, "This film is not an infomercial for Israel. We are showing its history, warts and all."

The early actors in the drama tread across the stage of history: the improbably young Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin and King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat before the chin stubble and kaffiyeh headdress, and such visitors as Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein.

The peaceful triumphs of the state are celebrated, from the mass absorption of refugees and the blooming of the desert to the vibrant intellectual and cultural life.

True to Hier's promise, the warts are there, too, including the massacre of Arab women and children at Deir Yassin during the War of Independence, the fratricidal struggle between the Irgun and Haganah, religious strife, and Palestinian grievances against the military occupation that followed the Six-Day War.

The professional skill and production values of the Wiesenthal Center's film division, which has racked up two Oscars in five times at bat, is evident, thanks in large measure to director and co-producer Richard Trank.

Also, as in previous productions, some of Hollywood's big names have contributed their talents, with Michael Douglas as narrator, Anne Bancroft as Golda's voice, plus Ed Asner, Richard Dreyfuss, Miriam Margolyes and Michael York. Composer and arranger Lee Holdridge and the London Philharmonia Orchestra shine on the musical soundtrack, and British historian Sir Martin Gilbert is credited as co-writer.The documentary was first shown in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and then New York, and a series of follow-up premieres are planned for major American, Canadian and European cities. Filming has already started on the second part, which will take Israel's history to the present.

In some respects, the creation of "In Search of Peace" has been almost as stormy as Israel's.

Originally, the film was conceived as a centerpiece in the celebration of Israel's 50th anniversary in 1998 and was to cover the entire five decades of the Jewish state in a two-hour documentary.

Moriah Films entrusted the project to veteran filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris, winner of two Academy Awards. The co-writer was Stuart Schoffman, a well-known American-born Israeli journalist.

After some 15 months' work, the film, titled "A Dream No More," was just about in the can when it was axed by Hier and Trank.

At the time, the embittered Harris and Schoffman argued that the project was scuttled because American Jews - and by extension the Wiesenthal Center - wanted a "feel-good Diaspora jubilee film" and were unwilling to accept a realistic representation of Israel's life and history, depicting the shadows along with the light.

Hier and Trank responded that "A Dream No More" simply didn't work as an effective documentary and that ultimately conceptual and creative differences between producer and director doomed the film.

Neither Harris in Los Angeles nor Schoffman in Jerusalem - both listed as interviewers in the "In Search of Peace" credits - has seen the film ("I wasn't invited," said Harris in an interview last week), but the resentment lingers on.

"My experience was quite bitter," said Harris. "Our film did deal with some of the major polarities in Israel and could have contributed much to the present debate about Israel's direction and future."

But the film's creators remain proud of the final product, which received glowing reviews from its premiere audience. The documentary, said Hier, didn't have to varnish the truth to be powerful. "The creation of Israel," he reminded the audience, "was not only one of the greatest events of the 20th century but in all human history."

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