Commentary Magazine


Susan Sontag's Israel

<p>Unintentionally and successfully, the Israelis have resisted the efforts of moviemakers to capture the drama of their lives, be it in so-called &ldquo;documentaries&rdquo; or in made-up treatments written for the occasion or based on novels or short stories. That so much of visual and emotional interest should elude the number-one medium calls for explanation. Who has written, directed, produced the bad or unsatisfactory movies? Perhaps the best talents in the field, certainly the wisest, have steered clear of Israeli themes. Europeans and Americans, they probably felt that they did not know enough about the place, and could not hope to learn without living there a long time. So, both before the Six-Day War&mdash;when the name of Israel was a piety in the West&mdash;and after&mdash;as it picked up nasty overtones&mdash;the movies seen were heartwarmers and tearjerkers, fundraisers, and some competent travelogues, cataloguing the excavated ruins and reclaimed landscape. Hollywood especially, with its famous large proportion of Jews, put out big-budget spectaculars like <em>Exodus</em> and <em>Cast a Giant Shadow</em> that did good business in America and made audiences in Tel Aviv laugh and groan.</p>
<p>The Israelis have made and continue to make their own movies, and if these are not so ignorant and sentimental as the ones foreigners make about them, still they are far more sentimental, less tough and interesting than the Israelis really are, and they are spoiled by an amateurish quality that is to be expected of productions from a small country trying to do everything at once. Perhaps Jews make movies better in exile, away from the neighborhood where the word was sanctified. Israeli novels, short stories, and poems aspire to the highest level, and in judging some of them, no allowances need to be made. At any rate, the historical events and private histories that have attended the re-creation and career of the Jewish state are actually nearly unexplored territory, so far as motion pictures are concerned. The Israelis are willing, they will talk and perform and cooperate as well as any Mediterraneans. Is it something inherent in the subject that refuses to be recorded on film? That is unlikely on the face of it, and there is evidence against in the photographs that Capa, Fried, and others have taken. Let it just be admitted that, for whatever reason, the land and its people, overexposed, remain a mystery to the movie camera.</p>
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<p><em>Promised Lands</em>, Susan Sontag&#39;s movie on Israel in the days immediately after the Yom Kippur War, does not make much of an entrance into this mystery. Yet it is worth seeing and considering. It is a modest enough little work of discovery, in unnarrated, documentary form, by a neophyte foreigner, that turns into a token of respect for and hesitant solidarity with the people whose grief is its material. &ldquo;The job of nonfiction films,&rdquo; Sontag wrote in <em>Vogue</em> after the movie was finished, &ldquo;is not so much to develop actions as to represent conditions.&rdquo; <em>Promised Lands</em> is loaded with wailing and tears, cemetery and hospital scenes; as it was shot in November 1973, these can fairly be called true to life, no more or less dramatic than what was happening to the Israelis at that time and what anyone with eyes and ears could not help being disturbed by, unless he was preoccupied with reporting it. It was a special time, of widespread shock and unity&mdash;unlike what came before or what is following. To be reliable, a movie such as Sontag&#39;s had to be unhappy, and so it is. But though she generally succeeds in effacing herself before the pain she records, as a recently-arrived, privileged observer should, Sontag also risks making a point through her choice of sights and sounds and interviews, and this is to the effect that the situation of the sad, admirable Israelis is &ldquo;tragic.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Not all that is unhappy, even profoundly dismaying, deserves to be labeled tragic. Because Sontag is a writer mainly and a philosopher by training, she can be held to stricter definitions, such as the one which she indicated in an essay eleven years ago: &ldquo;Tragedy says there are disasters which are not fully merited, that there is ultimate injustice in the world.&rdquo; Pain alone does not qualify, in other words, but must be perceived in a special relation with justice and injustice, as well as with the limits of human power to understand or influence unjust fate. The idea of tragedy, Sontag declared in this early essay, presupposing as it does &ldquo;free-standing arbitrary events,&rdquo; is foreign to Judaism. Now in <em>Promised Lands</em>, which she has described as &ldquo;a film about a sense of tragedy,&rdquo; Sontag&#39;s working definition is considerably looser, almost popular&mdash;&ldquo;A tragedy is when one right is opposed to another right.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Presumably, these equivalent rights, tragically balanced, one the mirror image of the other, stem from equally just moral claims of Jews and Arabs on the same sliver of land. To put it evocatively, the land has been twice-promised. Such a formulation is too neat to be true, and although it sounds new to some, especially young <em>sabras</em> in Israel beginning to be baffled by endless war and Western radicals starting to delve into this problem between Israel and the Arabs, it is an old idea going back before the UN General Assembly gave it mundane expression by dividing the British Mandate into Jewish and Arab states, an imperfect solution accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs. Years before, Chaim Weizmann had testified to one of those blue-ribbon committees of arbitration that the Palestine Arabs had a very good case for self-determination, an excellent claim&mdash;they were the majority in the land, and although some had immigrated there since Zionism had made it more attractive economically, others descended from clans which had been settled for hundreds of years. The Jews, too, had an excellent claim. They were willing to compromise; but if it came to a showdown clash, their right took precedence, because the Arabs could expect to be handed a dozen or more states of their very own soon, while the Jews had none. Weizmann became a troubled, disillusioned ex-leader, but he did not call what happened in Palestine tragic. The moral formulation was, and still is, more exact in terms of approximate justice demanding to be done than perfect justice denied&mdash;to deprive the Jews of their one state would be worse, more unjust, than indirectly depriving the Arabs of their eighteenth (at last count).</p>
<p>At the heart of this dispute is still a stubbornly practical question of justice. This is recognized by Yoram Kaniuk, the Israeli novelist and left-wing dissenter who appears in Sontag&#39;s movie (without identification). His weary words of criticism for his narrow-minded government are recorded sympathetically on the sound track. It is Kaniuk who puts the &ldquo;tragic&rdquo; formulation into so many words, and rehearses again the notion that &ldquo;in the Bible, there&#39;s no tragedy.&rdquo; It is also Kaniuk who regrets, &ldquo;The Palestinians want all or nothing.&rdquo;</p>
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<p>Despite intimations of &ldquo;tragedy,&rdquo; Sontag&#39;s movie is not a balancing act, no liberal editorial. It is clear whom she sympathizes with. Through the images of the mourners (though not of churches, relics, shepherds, goats, yeshiva boys, and street life that only a newcomer could find picturesque), a feeling is conveyed, beyond sadness, of the moviemaker&#39;s respect for the communal spirit of the people she is discovering. Especially in times of danger and loss, the Jews in Israel show many signs of being conscious that their fate will be decided in common, never mind that it may be unjust. For an expatriate Westerner, such a brand of patriotism comes as a surprise, something that looks appetizing and nourishing compared with the thin gruel of protest and ridicule that radicals have served up since the beginning of the war in Vietnam. By her own account in previous writings, Sontag is a frustrated patriot. She would like to be able to pledge allegiance to a common cause, if not a flag; she would like to be relieved of the pangs of cynicism, skepticism, disgust, and sophistication. That was her explicit complaint and desire in the well-known report from blacked-out Hanoi in 1968, from under the American bombs. Apparently this need still bothers her.</p>
<p>For radicals of Jewish extraction, it was easier to travel illegally to totally foreign countries like North Vietnam or Cuba in search of the patriotic experience, than it was to go to the Jewish country, where much that is uncomfortably familiar&mdash;beginning with physiognomies and family names&mdash;is mixed with the strange and alien. At the most nearly normal of times, Israel is like home, an obscurely threatening, suffocating place for the traveler. It is too much, <em>de trop</em>, as the French say, and he does not stay long. Even at a distance, Israel has been an embarrassment. It actively made headlines, giving the lie to categorical pronouncements (&ldquo;The Jews,&rdquo; Sontag wrote in 1966, &ldquo;left the ghetto in the early 19th century, thus becoming a people doomed to disappear&rdquo;). Studied indifference or silence were more typical than hostility. If recently there have been Jewish radicals to leap unexpectedly with fierce words to Israel&#39;s defense (see Ellen Willis and Nat Hentoff in recent issues of the <em>Village Voice</em>), this is thanks as much to the pained perception of Jews as bleeding underdogs again, as to the shift of fashion.</p>
<p>There is something not altogether encouraging about how some radicals have rallied to Israel&#39;s side since Yom Kippur. Over the years, they have proven their love of losing and lost causes; their adherence smacks like the kiss of death. Nevertheless, Israelis are childishly glad to learn of anyone who, for any reason, has a good word to say for them. Although it explains them to themselves even less than it does to foreigners, they may be both unhappily moved and content to see <em>Promised Lands</em> when their mourning is over.</p>

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