June 10, 2010
When it comes to Israel, Hollywood is smarter than most American Jews
No doubt two years from now we’ll be watching Steven Spielberg’s – or some other director’s - version of the flotilla debacle. This film will be provocative, widely hyped and amply written about. But what will it say? It’s hard to tell considering Hollywood’s deafening silence on matters related to Israel.
About a month ago, I was sitting in the boardroom of a $17 billion hedge fund in Century City, where Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was teaching some torah to a roomful of financiers (note: slight spoiler for my cover story next week). Inevitably, as groups of Jews are wont to do, the conversation turned to Israel, and one (right wing) banker suggested that the Obama administration’s attitude towards Israel is just like that of Steven Spielberg’s in “Munich.”
“When Steven Spielberg made that movie,” the banker began, “he took the position that [Israel’s retaliation] led to a whole cycle of violence in the Middle East, a cycle of violence that culminated in the twin towers being destroyed.” The banker was referring to the final scene in the film, where a mossad field agent (Eric Bana) and his handler (Geoffrey Rush) discuss the outcome of what they’d done in killing the terrorists who had killed Israeli athletes. They scene seemed to be asking, ‘Can you put an end to violence by resorting to violence? What is the ultimate outcome of fighting fire with fire? And there, the banker felt, was Spielberg’s answer: the World Trade Center towers looming in the background, exuding both grief and foreboding in their reminder that cycles of violence don’t actually have endings.
“Why this is so outrageous is because Spielberg bought into a self hating Jew’s screenplay – what’s his name? The guy who wrote ‘Angels over [in] America’ who was quoting as saying Israel was a mistake?” Here, the banker was referring, of course, to playwright Tony Kushner who is the definition of a self-hating Jew if you define it as someone who is brilliant and talented, and honestly wrestles with the complexities of their relationship to Judaism and Israel in their work. Then again, what kind of Jew are you if you’re not wrestling with the gap between an Israel that is real and the idealized promised land of the Hebrew bible?
Where Hollywood, and Spielberg and Kushner, deserve credit—whether you agree with their “position” or not—is in their creative processing of complexity. A concept the American Jewish community at large has trouble grasping. A lot of times when our emotions our involved, nuance gets ransacked by party-line extremism (an email I received this morning boasted of links promising “three Peter Beinart ‘smackdowns’ – Beinart, for those who don’t know, is a writer and commentator, both a lover and critic of Israel, who has written much recently about Israel’s shortcomings and in doing so, demands it do better).
So while the rest of the engaged Jewish community smacks each other down over who was right and who was wrong in the flotilla mess, attempting to justify the behavior of this side or that side, and getting ultimately very, very lost in a vicious cycle of rhetoric, Hollywood is quietly sitting out on the sidelines. But let’s not confuse silence with disinterest. Because two years from now, with the benefit of hindsight—after they’ve sifted through all the information and emotion—Hollywood might present us with a film that will help us re-think our own immovable attitudes.