Needless to say, Zionism means something different to everyone. It’s seen as salvation or disaster; never-ending or moribund; just or perverse. It stars in Jewish narratives, Palestinian narratives, right- and left-wing narratives, secular and religious narratives. It is thousands of years old and infinitely contemporary. In their quest for a more nuanced understanding of Zionism, directors Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky examine the history of the Zionist movement in relation to its present-day reality in the Middle East from the perspective of those who know it best: Israeli and Palestinian men and women who live in Israel and the West Bank. Combining interviews with contemporary academics, politicians, and regular folks on the street with archival footage in Europe and Palestine, Dorman and Rudavsky present a complex picture of the Zionist project from its beginnings through today. Click here for the trailer. •Availability: Opens March 4, New York City and California, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local theater listings. •Thanks to Sasha Berman, Shotwell Media, for her help.•
DT: Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of modern political Zionism, is best known for saying, “If you will it, it is no legend.” Yet you open the film with a different Herzl quote: “All the deeds of men are dreams at first and become dreams in the end.” Does this signal your feelings about the Zionist project?
JD: We have been supporters of Israel and Jewish nationalism from the very beginning of our lives, and we continue to believe in the importance and legitimacy of Zionism. We’re also well aware of the dilemma the state of Israel faces now. We both feel that if the right decisions are not made, its existence is in jeopardy. Anyone would be foolish to doubt that now more than ever there’s a fragility to the Jewish state that doesn’t come just from the threat of terrorism, as great as that may be. One of the questions hanging over the entire film, and now over the entire project of Zionism, is the question of the fate of the Jewish state and the fate of the Zionist enterprise.
OR: I think Herzl’s quote is speaking in larger historical terms; it’s a statement about the endeavors and dreams of mankind, like the famous poem “Ozymandias.” Just to differ with Joe, I don’t think the existence of the state is in jeopardy. I think the state of Israel will survive. The question is, what kind of state? Is it going to be a democratic state? Or a Jewish state? Is it going to manage to be both? Or neither? That’s what’s in question right now.
JD: The large question in our mind is two-state vs. one-state solution, and I think a one-state solution is not a solution that furthers the idea of a Jewish state in the end.
DT: The film presents many competing views of Zionism, but two in particular caught my eye. Hillel Halkin believes that Zionism aimed to end the gulf between Jews and other people, while Orly Noy compares Zionism to a person escaping a burning building by falling on someone else’s head. You have one view in which Zionism normalizes relations between Jews and other groups, and the other in which Zionism essentially destroys normal relations.
JD: A lot of people feel there’s an inherent tragedy in the Zionist project in the sense that in order to make a Jewish state, the consequences were felt by the Palestinians, and I think Orly’s acknowledging that. What we would say is that Zionism doesn’t have to mean the extinction of Palestinian existence. That’s an important message of the film and one of the things Palestinians have realized over the course of time. But Zionism is an overdetermined project, so I think those two quotes reflect that overdetermination.
OR: Falling on someone’s head, while painful, doesn’t necessarily kill him, and it also doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to live together. I don’t think we thought of those statements as contradictory.
DT: In the film, a young man from Tel Aviv states that the process of Zionism should have ended once its goal—creating a place where Jews can live securely as a people—was achieved. On the other hand, a Jewish settler in the West Bank believes that Zionism did not come to an end when we established the state; for him, Zionism is a movement. Are these two competing views of Zionism: something that has a natural end vs. something that will never end?
JD: What you’re pointing to is a fundamental tension right now between the settler movement and those who believe in a two-state solution. This was at the heart of the settler movement and the fight over it. We feel that the Zionist project has spiritual, emotional, and cultural elements, and that never ends. It’s part of a journey of the Jewish people.
OR: It also has social elements in terms of improving the condition of people in that state.
JD: At the same time, what’s absolutely at odds here is the settlers’ notion of a permanent revolution—the notion that a revolution continues ad infinitum and if the revolution stops moving forward, the state dies. We don’t believe that. We fall into the two-state camp, which says that there are certain boundaries of the state that are important but that the Zionist project of giving the Jewish people self-sovereignty and autonomy ends once you have a viable state for the Jews. That is very much at odds with the notion that the Zionist project demands that the Jews take the whole land, the ancient biblical land. The fact that those two projects are very much at odds is why the future of the Jewish state, the future of Israel, is in question right now.
DT: In the film, Moshe Halbertal says, “Zionism is almost a Promethean revolt against Jewish destiny and history.” Hillel Halkin says that Zionism is a rebellion against Jewish history in the name of Jewish history. Can you address those remarks?
JD: For the most part, the early Zionists were modernizers. They were an outgrowth of the Jewish enlightenment, and they were a rebellion against a religiously dominated culture. In order to create Zionism, they reached back beyond two thousand years of diaspora history to a biblical nationalistic prehistory. So it’s a rebellion against those two thousand years of the diaspora, but it’s a rebellion in the name of Jewish values that existed prior to the diaspora as well as being part of the diaspora. I mean, you can take the Jew out of the diaspora, but you can’t completely take the diaspora out of the Jew, even if they happen to be living in the land of Israel.
OR: Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun talks about diaspora rabbis creating a spaceship: the religious attempt was to keep Jews within a bubble for two thousand years. The Temple was destroyed, so they re-created a tradition that could exist outside of that, which is Talmudic law. The Zionists who rejected that were looking for a purer, simpler connection to a land and to a place and to a heroic tradition that dissolved the fear that diaspora Jews have. That’s the Promothean revolt, and that’s what they’re both talking about.
DT: Saman Khoury [General Director of the Palestinian Peace and Democracy Forum] was talking about a bitter debate within the PLO about what it meant to tell a Jew, “Go home.” Khoury’s view was that when a Palestinian tells a Jew to go home, he’s not telling him to go back to Poland. He’s telling him to get out of East Jerusalem.
OR: This is an amazing refutation of there not being a partner for peace. When the Palestinians and the PLO and the Arab League and Jordan and Egypt, who have a peace treaty with Israel, all accepted the notion of an Israel behind the Green Line, that was a revolutionary moment. Now, unfortunately, there’s perhaps a larger growing Palestinian movement epitomized by Hamas and Islamic Jihad that still doesn’t believe in the state.
JD: In the film we show the trajectory of a growing mutual recognition that led to the Oslo Accords. That’s the hopeful trajectory, and there’s been a movement away from that since then. All the polls show that the majority of Israeli Jews continue to believe in a two-state solution whether or not they trust the peace process. It’s unclear to me how much the Palestinians believe in the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. While that may be true on both sides, certainly on the Palestinian side there still remains a belief in some cases that Judaism is a religion and not a nationality.
The question of trust and what recognition means is still an open one. I fervently believe peace is necessary. I believe a two-state solution is possible. I believe that both sides can live up to a two-state solution, but I think there are realities on both sides that are very complex. I don’t think we are starry-eyed in any way about the complexity of the situation and how much more work needs to be done in order to create two states.
OR: I think it would be wonderful if Palestinians accepted the idea of Jewish nationalism, and I think it would be wonderful if the Chinese accepted the idea of American democracy, but the Chinese no more need to accept American democracy than Palestinians need to accept the idea of Jewish nationalism for there to be a peace treaty. I don’t think you need to accept everything about a state in order to make peace with that state.
DT: Before the establishment of the state of Israel, Jewish immigrants would buy land from Arab landholders. As a result, Arab sharecroppers who had lived and worked on the land for many, many years were dispossessed. This privation led to a number of reprisals against the Jews. Diaspora Jews viewed these attacks as European-style anti-Semitism, plain and simple. Were those attacks different from anti-Semitism, and if so, how?
JD: Anita Shapira has written a wonderful book about this called Land and Power. Part of the problem with the Jewish-Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the same problem a lot of international conflicts have: what people are conflicted about is not always a factual reality. It can be an imaginary situation. In this case, that was true on both sides.
After being victims of anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Jews arrived in Palestine, where there were attacks on them that were national in character. Palestinians were being dispossessed, so they were not necessarily attacking Jews based on the fact that they were Jews; they were attacking Jews based on the fact that they felt their national existence was being threatened. It was hard in many cases for Jews to see that. They saw the attacks as purely an attack on their Jewishness. At the same time, from a Palestinian point of view, rather than seeing the Jews as a people desperate for a home in order to protect themselves, they saw them mistakenly as a kind of imperial wedge. So what made the conflict and continues to make the conflict so intractable today is that you have this overlay on the part of both peoples where they project onto each other their own worst fantasies and fears. That prevents them from seeing the very specific factual basis of the conflict between them.
OR: It’s also important to point out that while the Jews who first came were buying land from Arabs, they were also employing Arabs to work on that land. When Jews came later, at the turn of the century, they came up with the concept of a kibbutz, where they were going to do all the labor and therefore didn’t need Arab labor anymore. A further complicating factor is the fact that clearly you’re dealing with two different religions. Events happening in Jerusalem, which were disputes over prayer space, were being riled up by Palestinian religious leaders to create tension between various Palestinian groups. So there are multiple levels going on: land dispossession was only one of the factors. We’re talking about 1929, 1936, a time when the world economy was collapsing and poverty was a huge issue around the world.
DT: I don’t mean to keep coming back to Saman Khoury, but he had a brilliant phrase: He said that when Palestinians started calling themselves Palestinians again after ’67, they were in a state of “euphoric dilemma.”
JD: One of the fascinating things about this whole history is that it’s much more complex than just a simple fight between Jews and Arabs. The Palestinians feel that they have been victims not only of Israelis but of other Arab states as well. This is a very complex, variegated picture in terms of nationalism and identity in the Middle East, and that comment by Saman Khoury only shows how complex it is. Even though ’67 represented another terrible defeat for the Palestinians, it allowed them to become Palestinians again within Israel, which they were not able to do in Jordan. The conflict is much more complex than simply Jew vs. Arab. The Middle East is a very old region of the world with a lot of byways and a lot of crevices in terms of the nature of the politics and identity. Saman’s line is a great example of just how ironic situations can get in that part of the world.
DT: According to one of the people you interviewed in the film, Yitzhak Rabin believed a two-state solution was inherent to Zionism rather than a concession to Arabs. Do you think that attitude is possible today?
OR: If we didn’t believe it was, then I would question the future of a Jewish state. Suspicion is much more at the basis of what’s going on in terms of prolonging the conflict. On the whole, I think that a large number of Israelis believe that the two peoples need two states. When we were interviewing Hanan Ashrawi [Palestinian legislator and activist who has served on the Palestinian Legislative Council and was the first woman elected to the Palestinian National Council], we talked about the post-Zionist notion that there should be a single binational state, neither Jewish nor Arab but both.
JD: What times showed was that it was impossible for the two peoples to live together because of conflicts. I wholeheartedly agree with something Hanan Ashrawi said, which was that even if in the future there were to be a single state, at this point in time there needs to be two states. I’m a believer in two states. I want a Jewish state. The idea that somehow a single state will end the conflict is a utopian idea; in fact, a single state would probably be disastrous, considering the ethnic conflict among Sunnis and Shia alone within Islam. The notion that somehow Jews and Palestinians could live together in a peaceful state at this point in time is just not realistic, so I think that the two-state solution is demanded for both peoples. Ashrawi believes the Palestinians need a separate state as a means of asserting their own self-identity and sovereignty first—that is primary—and I think that’s absolutely true.
Some people say that if we could just have a single state, all the problems would end. I think that’s when the real problems would begin. And that’s not the only reason I want a Jewish state. I want a Jewish state because I believe in the idea of Jewish nationalism, but it’s also clear from just a position of realpolitik that one state would be a potentially disastrous situation.
OR: I want to point out that in Israel today, many ultrareligious Jews don’t speak of the state of Israel, they speak of the land of Israel. To them, that is the more eternal thing. One can dismiss them, but I think that what they speak about has deeply influenced the settlers. Yoel Bin Nun said that the Jews of Tel Aviv have to understand where those settlers are coming from in talking about the land of Israel, and the settlers have to understand what the Tel Avivniks mean by a sovereign state: not just understand it but take it in and appreciate it. Understanding where your own people are coming from and what their understanding of a state is, is as essential to the survival of the state as is the Palestinian acceptance or the Israeli acceptance of a two-state solution.
DT: What was the most painful moment for you while making the film?
JD: Listening to the Palestinian point of view without being able to challenge it. I’ve done lots and lots of interviews over the course of my career, but one of the most painful moments for me was the first interview I did with a Palestinian, in this case Walid Mula, an Israeli Palestinian. Walid is an extremely sophisticated, college-educated man with a graduate degree, a very thoughtful man whose close friends are Jews as well as Palestinians. Sitting there and listening to his rejection of Zionism was incredibly painful.
He lives in Israel proper, and he elucidated the situation from his point of view, describing his own family history of land dispossession and political manipulation—all the reasons why he felt Zionism was inherently prejudicial against Arabs, why he could never accept Zionism, and why he felt it could never grant equality to Palestinians. This is not some fire-breather from Hamas, this is not a fanatic or radical, this is a very thoughtful man, and hearing him reject Zionism, which is so fundamental to who I am, and my own sense of Jewish identity, was very painful, because my natural inclination of course was to fight back, to challenge, to argue. Of course you can’t do that—in an interview you want to understand the other person’s point of view. That was the single greatest challenge to myself, and I learned, over the course of the project, to take in that point of view.
It was an enormous point of growth for me. This is at the heart of the issue for Jews and Palestinians. It often happens, and has from the very beginning, that acceptance of the other person’s narrative feels like self-annihilation. What both peoples have tried to achieve over time—with some success and many setbacks—is to believe, and to somehow embrace, an alternative narrative. To be able to accept a point of view that will never fully accord with your own without feeling that sense of self-annihilation is what I think is at the heart of the conflict.
OR: I referred earlier to Yoel Bin Nun’s perspective of Jews on both sides needing to hear each other’s narratives. The other obvious narrative that Jews on both sides have to hear and understand is the Palestinian, because there are multiple Palestinian narratives as well. It’s too easy to simplify, but they all need to be able to hear each other’s narrative without necessarily agreeing in any way.
The most difficult moment for me was interviewing Aryeh Eldad, a member of Parliament at the time, who said that the Zionist dream will not be fulfilled until the Third Temple is built. That to me was a painful and difficult moment to hear, because I think he was extremely serious. There was no tongue in cheek there.
DT: What do you want to accomplish with this film?
JD: Our greatest ambition is that this becomes the centerpiece of a national conversation. We went into this believing that conversations about Israel and the Middle East often become shrill. There’s more heat than light. There’s defensiveness on the part of some Jews, and dismissal of Israel on the part of other Jews, but somehow the conversation lacks a certain kind of complexity. We were struck by the fact that the conversation in Israel over the nature and future of Zionism is in many ways much richer and deeper and broader than it is here, for obvious reasons—it’s their lives—but we feel that the best defense of Zionism is a recognition and an exploration of its history with all its flaws, as all nationalisms have flaws. Exploring that history and laying out all the various arguments is the best way to push the conversation here in America over the nature of Zionism, Israel, Jewish nationalism, and the Jewish state…to broaden that conversation for Jews of all ages, but particularly younger Jews who’ve grown up under the shadow of occupation. We grew up in the glory days of Zionism; it was a shining star. Any Jew who’s under the age of 40 has grown up under the shadow of the occupation. The film is not a polemic—it’s the opposite of a polemic—but we’d like to make a case for the possibility of believing in Zionism without having to whitewash it, without having to run away from its flaws.
OR: What was important for us in making this film was to hear both sides and to make it possible for Jews who are strong supporters of Israel, maybe much more to the right than we might be, to hear Jewish Israelis and Palestinians across the spectrum. Many Americans, and I’m speaking mostly about American Jews, who visit Israel rarely see a complex vision of Israel’s history and its population. This film is a history, but it’s a history in deep recognition of contemporary issues. We intermix history with contemporary scenes because we wanted it clear that there’s a dialectic between that history and what’s happening today on the streets. The history and contemporary scenes play off each other quite deliberately.
I hope that this film, aside from creating a national dialogue, will be used very practically in schools and study groups. We’re putting together a study guide and website that will provide a larger frame than any film can provide. My goal is to educate the next generation, because clearly our generation doesn’t seem to have the answers, or if we think we have the answers, we don’t have the political clout to put them into effect, either in Israel or in the US. I believe Israel will be there for a long time, but what Israel will be is up for grabs, so it’s up to future generations to create a better future.
We’ve been asked by several people to make sure this film gets to Israel and to Israeli students, and we’re hoping to reach very much beyond the shores of the United States in terms of what that dialogue is. We have ambitious aspirations, but the bottom line for me, as somebody who grew up with this history, is to provide a history from a 2015 perspective that is not mythology but doesn’t ignore the mythology. The mythology is a part of what we grew up with. And there are multiple mythologies; all sides have their own mythologies.
DT: There’s one more thing I want to bring up. Because this is a film about Zionism from the perspective of people who live in Israel and the West Bank, you didn’t include the issue of Jewish identity, which is of interest mainly to diaspora Jews. At a Q&A after the film, Richard Pena told a story about being upset when his daughter drew an Israeli flag at Hebrew school. His response was, “I didn’t send her to Israeli school. I sent her to Hebrew school.”
OR: I think Richard Pena was really speaking in code about something else: Oftentimes people mix up Jews and Israel. That’s true on a very political platform today, and it’s why Orthodox Jews are getting shot up in a kosher butcher shop in France. Jews are seen as the same as Israelis or automatic supporters of Israel. Richard’s wary of that link, and rightfully so.
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