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Arts & Culture: First Part of Israel Documentary Tells the Story of the Early Years

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 a Moscow synagogue in the late 1940s, tells the crowd, “Thank you for having remained Jews.”

Dancers are jubilant in Tel Aviv on the day Israel declared 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 recounts his family’s suffering at Jewish hands.

The Moriah Films division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center scoured two dozen film and photo archives across the world 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. Yet, the creation of Israel was not only one of the greatest events of the 20th century, but in all human history.”

The film was completed after its first version was canceled for still-debated reasons.

The early actors in the drama tread across the stage of history: Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin and King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat before the chin stubble and kaffiyeh, and such musical visitors to the Jewish state 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 controversial killing of Arabs 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 a 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 second as writer-director of the Wiesenthal Center’s own “The Long Way Home.” The co-writer was Stuart Schoffman, a well- known American-born Israeli journalist.

After some 15 months work, Hier and Trank canceled the film, titled “A Dream No More.”

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, but the resentment lingers.

“I wasn’t invited” to see the film, said Harris in an interview last week.

“My experience was quite bitter. 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.”

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