Conflict Films

Liberal politics in Israeli movies of the 1980s and '90s.

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Similarly, in early Zionist cinema the pioneer-hero frees natural waters by digging (Sabra), or drilling a well (Avodah), or by forcing Arab peasants to give away water rights (They Were Ten). The Arab jar, a traditional water container, appears in these films along with a plough blade, both symbolizing the process by which the wasteland is revitalized. The sword dance, rooted in the fertility cults of Tammuz, Isis, and Osiris, corresponds to the hora circle dance of the pioneers. These early films present an Arab patriarch--a sheik or a muchtar--as the antagonist of the Zionist pioneers.

Characteristically weak, wicked or backward, Muchtar is defeated by young, virile and progressive Zionist pioneers. These scenes are related to both the Near Eastern mystery cult, where the death of the demigod symbolizes the end of the agrarian year, and the Grail romance, where the rejuvenation of the sterile or old king by the quester eventually frees the waters and restores the wasteland.

The Second Cycle

The second cycle of Grail romances differs significantly from the first cycle in that the quester himself is the cause of misfortunes. The deconstructed Zionist master-narrative in the 1980s Conflict Films corresponds with the late cycle of the Grail romances. The Jewish hero, no matter if he is a pioneer arriving in post-World War I Palestine as in Unsettled Land (Uri Barabash, 1987), a middle class farmer in a Jewish village in 1980 Israel, (Hamsin), or a military-government officer serving in the occupied West Bank as in Smile of the Lamb and A Very Narrow Bridge (Nissim Dayan, 1985), constantly fails to inquire as to the meaning of what he perceives to be a wasteland.

Unlike the master-narrative in early Zionist cinema in which the hero restores the land to fertility, the 1980s hero fails to carry out his mission and instead brings about misfortune: the exile of the Palestinian peasants in Hirbet Hiz'ah, the brutal killing of the Palestinian farmhand in Hamsin, the killing of the son of the Arab patriarch as well the Israeli military physician in Smile of the Lamb, and the exile of the Palestinian school teacher in A Very Narrow Bridge.

The key to the freeing of the waters in the Grail romance is in asking the right question. In Avanti Popolo, a thirsty Egyptian POW asks the "right" question in order to receive water from his Israeli captors. An Egyptian reserve soldier whose civilian vocation is in the theatre recites to his Israeli captors a famous Shakespearean monologue that starts with the line, "I am a Jew, has not a Jew eyes?" and ends "If you poison us do we not die?" When asked by one of his men "What the f--k is he saying?" the Israeli patrol leader retorts: "He got the roles mixed up."

The Jews who excelled in the art of asking questions in the great Talmudic tradition seem to have lost this gift while the Arabs have adopted it successfully. French-Jewish philosopher Edmond Jabés comments, "All of Jewish tradition is a tradition of posing questions, and this point has been totally ignored. Israel is a Jewish state, but it is not Jewish in its character" (Jabés: 252).

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Judd Ne'eman

Judd Ne'eman is a well-known Israeli filmmaker.