In many countries, if you criticize your country’s leader, you end up in pain, in prison or poisoned. But in Israel, you can make a documentary that seeks to make a leader look like a fool, a hero, or something in between, and be celebrated in the country and beyond.
Starting Monday, the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan will stream “Israeli Leaders on Film,” a virtual series of documentaries about Israeli leaders. The films offer a fascinating look at a group of leaders who, under enormous stress, try to keep their homeland safe under a constant threat of war and, often, under clouds of scandal or internal opposition.
Presented by the JCC’s Other Israel Film Festival and New Israel Fund, all of the films will be available for viewing March 8-23.
Here’s a sneak peek at the seven films:
Honorable Men: The Rise and Fall of Ehud Olmert
Rony Aboulafia, 120 minutes, Q&A March 17, 5 pm.
Many politicians are corrupt. But that doesn’t mean they pay the price for it. Olmert did. “No man is above the law,” Olmert says from his prison cell where he spent 16 months in jail after being convicted of fraud, breach of trust and tax evasion. But he also complains about being singled out, blames others and says he doesn’t consider himself corrupt. You may conclude he is pathetic, or that the former mayor of Jerusalem and prime minister was targeted by political enemies for breaking with Likud Party orthodoxy to broach peace with the Palestinians.
Menachem Begin: Peace and War
Levi Zini, 85 minutes, Q&A March 16, 3 pm.
From being sent to Siberia when he was young, to being wanted by the British for the bombing of the King David Hotel while a leader of the Irgun, to running for prime minister, Menachem Begin seemed destined for a life in opposition. Zini’s film traces how his luck changed after he had a heart attack, recovered and finally won in 1977. We get glimpses of Begin as a family man and reluctant signer of an unlikely peace treaty with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat—at one point, Begin calls the day of the signing the third best day of his life. The film also suggests that Begin underestimated Yasser Arafat’s political currency, dismissing him as a lightweight with a scruffy beard.
Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir, Shani Rozanes, 85 minutes, Q&A March 9, 3 pm.
Israel’s only woman prime minister was criticized when the army appeared unprepared for the Yom Kippur War, although former Mossad Director Zvi Zamir says he warned of an impending attack but was overruled by Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. The film also recalls how she attended the funeral of her sister, and as a result missed the funeral of the Israeli athletes killed by terrorists in Munich during the 1972 Olympic games. Ironically, we learn her father told her not to be too clever because men would not be interested in smart women.
Nurit Kedar, 57 minutes, Q&A March 14, 5 pm.
Is Knesset member Avigdor Lieberman a racist or a truth-teller? A victim of exaggeration by the media? Was he Netanyahu’s lackey, or Svengali? How did the Russian immigrant go from being a porter at Ben-Gurion Airport to becoming Defense Minister and Foreign Minister? A family member says he is extremely sensitive: Should we believe her? Lieberman is also shown facing corruption charges, but he doesn’t seem worried.
Barack Heymann, Uri Levi, 75 minutes, Q&A March 22, 3 pm.
A Knesset member, noted peace activist and leader of the Communist party Hadash, Dov Khenin was crucial in enacting many laws as a legislator. His causes included access for those with disabilities, and he was instrumental in winning accommodations for the blind. Still, he was skewered as a communist, for his support of Palestinian rights and for being perhaps the worst-dressed Knesset member. Whether you consider him a hero or delusional will depend on your politics, but it is clear he is pained by human suffering.
Yariv Mozer, 70 minutes
Largely based on an interview with Clinton Bailey, there’s lots to love in this film. Israel’s first prime minister is frank and says if peace meant withdrawing to pre-1967 borders, he would do it. At one point he is seen sitting next to Ray Charles and clapping along (on the wrong beat) to “Hava Nagilah.” A philosphical Ben-Gurion says: “I believe that every human being can be good and can be bad. It depends a great deal where he finds himself.” One of the best documentaries on a nation’s leader you will ever see.
Dan Shadhur, 87 minutes
Shadhur’s harsh appraisal asks how the son of a scholar who appears more interested in business than politics would become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Would he have styled himself as an expert on terrorism, and run for office, were his brother Yoni not killed in the raid on Entebbe? Would he be facing corruption charges if he did not see himself as Israel’s indispensable man? The director tries a bit too hard to pin Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination on Netanyahu’s heated rhetoric following the Oslo Accords. Despite its clear agenda, still a potent film.