Changing Images Muddy Picture Of Zionism, Israel


In 1960, the film “Exodus” was nominated for three Academy Awards. Based on Leon Uris’ novel about the founding of Israel, it seems hard to believe that such a film, drenched in Jewish military heroism and suffused with Holocaust imagery and Arab aggression, could have such broad and unambiguous appeal. But it did. It not only won an Oscar, it also starred a Hollywood icon, Paul Newman, as the heroic Jewish fighter, and even made a commendable showing at Cannes.

But almost a half-century later, a very different film about Israel won an Oscar nomination. “Waltz With Bashir,” (2008) directed by the Israeli Ari Folman, put a spotlight on the massacres at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps during the first Lebanon War.

Christian Lebanese militants slaughtered Muslim Palestinians and Lebanese refugees, but it was the Israeli military that guarded the camp. The film, directed by an Israeli veteran of that war, left at least one clear impression: Israelis were complicit.

Both films reflect competing images of Israel that American Jews today, of two different generations, have grown up with. In light of the debate triggered by Peter Beinart’s essay in The New York Review of Books, in which American Jewish leaders were chastised for failing to acknowledge the more complicated, critical views younger Jews seem to have towards Israel, these films are worth considering.

They are far from the only images that have helped shaped the popular perception of Israel, but they go a long way in showing the role popular culture, broadly defined, has played in influencing this debate.

“The grand narrative of Holocaust to redemption is part of a mythology that was very important in [Israel’s early years],” said Theodore Sasson, a professor of sociology at Brandeis whose work was quoted by Beinart. “It still plays a role in the minds of young Jews today, but there is no obvious core epitomized by Moshe Dayan anymore.”

He was referring to once widely circulated images of Dayan, the eye-patched Israeli military leader, who helped capture the Old City and east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. Today, those areas are at the center of Israel’s recent spat with the Obama administration, which has demanded that all construction in east Jerusalem be stopped.

Beinart argued that the organized American Jewish leadership —represented by AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the like — was imperiling the connection young Jews have with Israel today because of its uncritical embrace of the state. The problem was, he argued, younger Jews are unwilling to compromise their liberal beliefs for the sake of professing blind support for Israel. So, “to their horror, [Jewish communal leaders] are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”

But the scholars interviewed for this article said that, while Beinart articulated the liberal Jewish intellectual position quite well, those views made up a much smaller segment of what “liberal Jewish opinion” actually is. “The idea that you can generalize so broadly about young Jews is ridiculous,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, who is currently teaching in Israel. “He lumps together the liberal Jews who care deeply about Israel [and are critical] with the people who don’t care at all.”

The reason so many young people don’t seem to care, moreover, is not because they find their liberalism and Zionism at odds. It’s because they no longer know what it means to be a Zionist. “It’s very difficult to speak of ‘liberal Zionism’ nowadays because Zionism on campus is spoken of in illiberal terms,” said Arieh Saposnik, director of the Center for Israel Studies at UCLA. The word itself has become radioactive, making it much harder to touch.

For many years now, Jewish students on college campuses have been bombarded by highly conflicting images of Israel. It is no longer fair to say that it is only the demonizing images of Israel that exist — the protest signs equating Zionism with fascism, for instance, or the ones calling Israel an apartheid state, or depicting the separation barrier. Pro-Israel marches, politicized tenure battles and the establishment of Israel studies program counter those images aggressively now, too. But, taken together, Zionism seems to represent so many different things that the subject defies a simple embrace. The sheer complexity, Saposnik said, is off-putting to many young Jews.

Several factors account for this. First, Saposnik and others said, is the simple fact of the Israeli occupation. After the euphoria that followed Israel’s against-the-odds wars during its first 30 years, Israel began settling civilians in captured territory. Israeli supporters may be able to argue that the occupation is justified — as a spoil of war, or as a strategic advantage against Hamas and Hezbollah. But the imagery itself is difficult to confront.

“The substance is not in Israel’s favor,” said Saposnik. “And the imagery makes it even worse.” One image that lingers is the sight of so-called “hilltop youth,” young, religiously zealous settlers resisting the dismantling of West Bank outposts that have been deemed illegal by the government (and most of the world).

Second, since the founding of the Likud party in the 1970s, the traditional Zionist image of the romantic Israeli pioneer tilling the soil and heroically defending his land, has been replaced by the image of the Israeli as victim. Likud politicians have argued that Israel must defend itself, because it is a victim of wanton Arab aggression and a demonization campaign held in the court of world opinion.

“This shift was critical,” said Ronald Zweig, director of the Taub Center for Israel Studies at NYU.

From its earliest years, Zionists consciously fought against the stereotype of the Jew as a weak, feeble and despondent victim. To believe in Zionism was to believe in a healthy, positive alternative. By the 1970s, however, the overarching theme of victimhood re-emerged, with Likud leaders like Menachem Begin making deliberate parallels between Nazi atrocities and Arab intentions. The Zionist, Zweig said, “was no longer a wonderful and healthy image that everyone could identity with.”

That may be even truer today. Most young American Jews have grown up in safety and security, even when taking 9/11 into account. Few have known poverty and even fewer have served in war. Compared with the images that come out of Israel — be they of bomb shelters in Sderot evoking the constant threat of war or nuclear threats from Iran’s Ahmadinejad — it is no wonder American Jews find it hard to relate.

“Jews today look around and don’t exactly see themselves as victims,” said Zweig. “We’re actually doing very well, thank you very much.”

Of course the Israeli-as-victim, the 1938 parallel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has frequently invoked, competes with the countless images of powerless Palestinian citizens and the Israeli soldiers who search their houses, stop them at checkpoints and chop down their olive trees.

Compounding this disconnect is that fact that Israeli society today is much more diverse than it was a half-century ago. Russian Jewish immigrants now make up a significant minority, as do West Bank inhabitants. And the number of Arab Israeli citizens is now about 20 percent of Israel’s total population.

“Israel has become a multicultural society,” said Sasson, adding that Jews today are increasingly exposed to it. Younger American Jew have grown up with the Internet, making a glimmer of Israel’s reality more accessible. But the reality is also more difficult to make sense of.

Abstractly, liberal American Jews would seem to embrace the cultural diversity expressed in Israel’s equality for women and gays, for example. But working against that is the discord existing among many Israeli groups; Russian immigrants and religious settlers have moved to the far right, which is not to say they are necessarily united, and Arab Israelis are moving far to the left. Israel may be getting more diverse, but it is embracing the principle of diversity much less. What’s more, no one group has managed to become the public face of Israel. Where there was once the image of the tanned and muscled Sabra, now there is the indistinguishable crowd.

In his essay, Beinart made many of these points. But scholars who generally agreed with him took exception with the reasons he gave for young Jews’ indifference. Those interviewed said that, contrary to Beinart’s representation of blanket indifference, most of the students who signed up for their classes on Israel were in fact liberal, secular Jews. They tended to sympathize with the need for a Jewish state, and understood that the country faced real threats, but they came with an open and critical mind, too.

Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.

Check out the Jewish Week’s Facebook page and become a fan! And follow the Jewish Week on Twitter: start here.