I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I learned early to differentiate art from politics. But the best Israeli films are inseparable from the political forces that shape them. Yehuda “Judd” Ne’eman’s films sharpen this sense of an artistic enterprise enmeshed in the life of the state and its culture. Fresh, original, sometimes even prescient, they summon the mind into the interface between politics and art: the place from which poets, prophets and pariahs all come.
Ne’eman’s earliest documentaries evoke a vision of original possibilities broken by the struggle for land and power. Bedouins of Sinai (1971–72) offers a glimpse of quotidian Arabic life on the edge of cultural change. Bits of religious texts interlace with girls herding goats, men racing camels, and smoking around a fire. What things mean in this culture must be delicately, patiently uncovered—like the Bedouin woman who lifts her veil of coins just far enough to sip her tea. Observation on Acco (1975) looks into a world fallen from the relative innocence of Bedouins . Made for Israeli TV, the film shows the mutual estrangement of disinterested Jews and ghettoized Arabs in the ancient city of Acre, framed ironically by the story of a Jewish woman hospitalized for depression in a crusader fortress used as a psychiatric hospital. Looking beyond the wall of her confinement, she says, “I always loved this city because it symbolized for me integrated Israel … . I grew up thinking all human beings are the same.” Ne’eman’s third documentary, Seaman’s Strike (1981), and a short feature film, The Night the King was Born (1983), expose corruption within the state and its people, articulating the filmmaker’s dismay at their failure to live up to their own early promises.
Ne’eman’s most important features look directly into sources of Israeli malaise to uncover the betrayal of cherished ideals. The suicide of a young trainee and the guilt and confusion of his commanding officer in Paratroopers (1976–77) expose the ruinous hardening of young people to pain—both suffered and inflicted. Fellow Travelers (1982–83) and Streets of Yesterday (1985–89) explore the guilt and shame borne by their Jewish protagonists because of the state’s mistreatment of Palestinians. The power of a tainted collective past to contaminate the personal present; the sense of betrayal by the apparatus of one’s own state; the evolution of a perspective in which irony cannot muffle outrage: these are the givens of Ne’eman’s work.
In the 15 years between Streets of Yesterday and his latest film project, Not Like Poetry (2005), Ne’eman produced a significant body of work as a film historian and critic. A seminal essay called “The Death Mask of the Moderns: A Genealogy of New Sensibility Cinema in Israel” (1999) argues that after decades of constructing iconic images of a Zionist utopia and “new Jews,” and of mythicizing Israeli warriors, films became agents of political critique. In the alienated protagonists of Israeli modernist cinema of the ’60s and ’70s, Ne’eman sees the adult children of the ’48 warriors, both half in love with violent death in combat because their fathers and uncles had heroically risked their lives to create the state, and critical of a society willing to sacrifice its sons while insisting that it values the preservation of life.
Elsewhere Ne’eman analyzes other sources of collective distress. He finds in “shadow cinema” the guilty residue of Zionist contempt for diaspora culture, and by what he calls the “inability of Zionist ideology to acknowledge the survivors’ plight as victims.” He examines ancient assumptions about fertility and bloodshed that may underlie violent combat in film. He describes the apocalyptic myth-historiography of films about conflict between Arabs and Jews and between Eastern and Western European Israelis. And he argues that massive combat wounds in film may imitate the opened and vulnerable bodies of women in childbirth, may even imply a radical feminization of male subjectivity. In these sophisticated essays, enriched by history, anthropology, and philosophy, one hears the voice of a critic who sees through cinematic surfaces into the anguish and bitterness of contemporary experience in a dangerous, unjust world. One also hears compassion in this voice; Ne’eman served the IDF reserves as a combat surgeon for 14 years. All his work is about trauma; he sees Israel, simply, as “the locus of trauma.”
Within the critique, finally, one feels a very old, disappointed love. George Sand believed that when “humanity is outraged” in us, “indignation” becomes “one of the most passionate forms of love.” Ne’eman’s work pulses with indignation. He speaks for “outraged humanity” without forgetting his passion for the land and its peoples—and without overlooking the catastrophe that has overtaken them. His films speak to our national dilemma as well as his own.
Janet Burstein Judd, all your films develop a strong, leftist perspective that seems to have several roots. One of them is an affection for Arab culture that ripens into a concern with the displacement and suffering of Palestinians since 1948. Where do these interests begin for you?
Judd Ne’eman They begin partly with my father. When he spoke Arabic, one couldn’t tell that he was Jewish. He was born in Palestine to parents who had come on the first aliyah (wave of immigration) in the early 1880s. My father was born in Maskeret Batya, and next door was an Arab village called Aqir. He earned an engineering degree in the US, so he spoke English like an American. As well as Arabic, Hebrew, and Yiddish. When he returned to Palestine from his studies in the 1930s, he went to work for the British Mandate’s public works department, building roads and irrigation systems.
JB How did he foster your love of Arab culture?
JN He was like an Arab himself, in his soul. My mother called him a peasant. She came from a small town near Odessa; she was a communist who had studied at the Sorbonne. But he saw her as a traditional peasant sees his wife. Although she was an educated woman, with a Master’s in perfume chemistry, he wanted her only “to milk the cows.”
JB Those were extraordinary women, who seemed to move, in one generation, from the traditional life of Jewish shtetls to the enlightened political and intellectual life of great European cities.
JN Yes, but her life was a misery. In 1930s Palestine, she couldn’t do the lab work she was trained to do. And her man was wandering all over the country—road construction for the British army, water dams in wadis for the Bedouins. When I was a boy, during World War II, he engineered small roads that connected Arab villages to one another, built by Arab workers. On weekends he would take me with him, to negotiate with the mukhtar for workers and for the passage of the road through village fields.
JB Did you learn Arabic then?
JN Not quite, but its music went in. I played with the children in the villages; people would talk to me, give me their food to eat. Arab culture became my second culture.
Then, in the summer of ’48, I visited Mazkeret Batya, where my grandparents lived, as I did every summer vacation. Often the Jewish children, ten to 12 years old, would cross the wadi to Aqir. There were a couple of thousand Palestinians there, compared to a few hundred Jews in Mazkeret Batya. But when we crossed the valley in the summer of ’48, Aqir looked like a ghost town. Everything but the people was there: donkeys and dogs in the streets, food on the tables. But no people. You could still smell the bread baking in the taboun (clay oven). But there were no people. It was my Nakbah (Arabic for the Palestinian catastrophe). That’s how it sank into my memory. Like the inhabitants of many other Palestinian villages in the 1948 war, the people of Aqir were driven out of their homes and became stateless refugees when their village was occupied by Israeli armed forces. I was a young boy when I entered this deserted village, but I remember very well that I felt a terrible grief. I still mourn this loss.
To disparage me, some Israelis call me an “Arab lover,” but these are my roots.
When I wrote my first film script in the mid-’60s, it was about an Arab boy who was evicted from his village in 1948. He crossed the border into Israel from a refugee camp in Gaza to find his village again. He was captured after the crossing. I never finished the script.
JB What was the relationship between Mazkeret Batya and Aqir? Did Palestinian and Hebrew children attend school together? Did they play in each other’s homes? Did the grownups mingle?
JN No, it was not like that. We crossed the small valley to their village. We played together, but not in their homes. Some adults from their village worked in Mazkeret Batya, and sometimes they brought things to sell. I remember clearly my grandfather dealing with Arab peasants who came to his farm to buy wheat; they carried grain sacks on camelback. That was during the war, a different world. But the two peoples were not intermingled. We were separate: side by side, but not intermingled.
JB Could you say that what it developed in you was an awareness of difference—an acceptance of difference?
JN Yes. What we witnessed was like a dance of both sides: talking Arabic together, doing business together, but not living together.
JB It reminds me of the way Jews lived in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Is that fair? Accurate?
JN Yes. My grandparents were not Zionists as we use this word today. They settled in Palestine as “Lovers of Zion” before the Zionist movement was established. They relocated the Jewish shtetl from Europe to Palestine. They lived there as they would have lived beside non-Jews in Europe. Like Jewish life in Fiddler on the Roof. But these Jews in Palestine tilled the land and grew crops.
Cultural difference is something that cannot be overcome. And maybe need not be overcome.
JB On the contrary: when you speak of it, it sounds like a source of cultural richness.
JN But not necessarily of cultural stigma. For example: my grasp of English comes from my early exposure to Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot, and from listening to my father talk to the British in Palestine. I have become very intimate with English; I have internalized and cherished it. Nevertheless, I am still a stranger among native English speakers.
All of Israel is a mixture of ethnicities. My parents came from the same—but also different—ethnic groups. They are Jews. But my father was born in Palestine; he spoke Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, and then American English. My mother was born in the southern Ukraine; she spoke Russian, Yiddish, a little Rumanian, then French, and—when she moved to Palestine—Hebrew.
JB Did you grow up in Yiddish?
JN I grew up in nothing. My parents spoke Yiddish to each other, but I could not speak Yiddish. It was against the ideology. The Zionists decreed “Ivri, daber Ivrit”: the Hebrew must speak Hebrew. So I was dispossessed from my mother tongue. When my father was 17 he came to America to study: what was he, with four native languages? When my mother was 17 she left her small village and went to Paris and learned French literature at the Sorbonne. Then she married and settled in Palestine. So what was she? When I hear Russian I can speak its music. My accent is almost impeccable. But I don’t speak Russian. Or Yiddish. This question of ethnicity is very complicated for us.
JB Because we are gathered in from so many different places?
JN Yes. Social engineering—by the educational system and the army—has erased many differences among us. But what am I? That’s an unanswerable question.
JB For you, then, mixture contains a residue of dispossession. In my own background as an American Jew, there is a similar loss—of the Yiddish I was forbidden to speak because my parents wanted me to be an American. I wasn’t always conscious of that loss as a “dispossession.” What raised this into awareness for you?
JN During the Six-Day War, I served in a paratroop unit as a combat surgeon. The Golan Heights was populated by Syrian peasants. There were many villages there. Several were destroyed and people were expelled or left; there was an exodus. Today it would be called ethnic cleansing and the perpetrators war criminals. I had my part in that.
JB Is this when the displacement of a whole population becomes an explicit issue for you?
JN I suddenly understood the extent of it. Once again I saw empty villages, ghost places. I thought: Now it’s Syria. What’s next? Again I entered a village and everything but the people was still there. Some soldiers began grabbing war mementos. I said to myself: I’m not part of this anymore. And I began to voice my opinion about occupation and displacing people.
JB But you really were still a part of it, weren’t you? You were decorated in the ’67 war for “valor in combat”; your army service in the reserve lasted until 1989, and you retired as a major.
JN That’s true, but a new feeling developed in me: of having been deceived by all those who believed, and still believe, that we could thrive in a land where the homes of “others” are erased and so many have been displaced.
JB So your sense of yourself was split partly by the different ethnicities held in your parents’ different languages, enlarged by your own experience of “two cultures,” and further complicated by your service to a state whose treatment of others you began to oppose.
One kind of fallout from these combustible circumstances emerges in your documentary Observation on Acco. It shows the disjunction between people of different cultures living beside one another, in a place where some people have power but take no responsibility for the lives of others who are powerless.
There is one scene in which an Arab man bursts out of his basement apartment, insisting that the camera “look over here … everything’s gone … broken. I’m a poor man, I have no money for my children.” He sounds desperate. The apartment floor is flooded; he sweeps the water with a small broom, mourning the shabbiness of the dark rooms crowded with small children. Did you set up this scene, or did it just happen?
JN We were roaming the streets of the Old City of Acco when this man jumped in front of us. We just asked him for a replay, which you see in the film, but the scene was purely accidental. Many of the scenes took place in front of our camera as we were moving on the street. The camera provoked people to speak up.
JB You made an equally provocative and critical documentary called Seamen’s Strike. It describes a strike of workers on boats flying the Israeli flag and having Israeli crews in 1951, when Ben Gurion was prime minister. But it’s actually about the nature of the Ben Gurion government. You’ve called it a “proto-totalitarian” government, whose “deterioration to a cruel ‘cold regime’ we witness today in the occupied territories.” Was this film also broadcast on Israeli TV? Remembering the McCarthy era here, I am struck by the openness of a government that funds and broadcasts such critical material.
JN That’s one way to look at it. But actually this is characteristic of the Israeli balagan (confusion). When the film was commissioned, they let me do as I wanted. But after it was aired, and received very strong adverse political responses, the board of directors censored sections of it. I believe this was the only film that the chief editor of the state channel ever re-edited after its transmission.
JB And The Night the King Was Born? This film shows two corrupt army officers paying as little as possible for Palestinian land, exaggerating the terms of the sale to an Orthodox Jewish speculator and pocketing the difference. Was this film made with the cooperation of the state? How did audiences react to it? Was it based on fact?
JN The narrative was a fictionalized version of a newspaper story, adapted from events that in the early 1980s took place quite often in the occupied West Bank. All you had to do was pick a story and stage it. This film had very little audience and very few reviews.
JB I remember a scene in which the two Army officers browbeat an Arab landowner in front of his family. In this scene the previously reluctant Israeli who has had his subordinate do the dirty work is transformed as he beats and threatens the Arab man. Like Isaac Babel’s Jewish recruit who begins to resemble his Cossack comrades when he kills, for the first time, in “My First Goose,” this man seems to be brutalized by the exercise of his own power.
JN Always the presence of violence transforms me. I discover a capacity for true violence in myself. I can suppress it, but I have to want to. It’s always there, and it’s there to stay. That’s how military pedagogy works. Basic training raises the level of violence in the individual soldier. Both victims and perpetrators are transformed in the process.
JB I wonder whether another kind of fallout from your confrontation with the effects of military power is responsible for the feature film Paratroopers, which looked not at any particular military engagement but at the nature of basic training and its effects on men who become soldiers. To me, it said something about the calculated hardening of human beings, the transformation of sensitive, ordinary men into “new Jews” capable of holding their own in a tough and violent world.
JN One thing that was on my mind when I made Paratroopers was to show what military pedagogy is all about. Basic training in the military teaches you two things: how to injure and kill the enemy and how to endure being injured yourself and being ready and willing to suffer and die. In basic training you learn much about weapons, tactics, ways to protect yourself, and hurt the enemy. But they do not tell you anything about the other art to which you’re initiated: how to get hurt and how to get used to suffering and to the idea that you’ll die soon. All they tell you is how to apply dressings to wounds.
JB Yes! In the opening scene an officer is showing the men how to stop a hemorrhage by applying pressure to the groin of Weissman, who will commit suicide before the film is half over by throwing himself on a live hand grenade during an exercise.
JN When I was an instructor in basic training, one of the soldiers committed suicide after experiencing harassment. We heard the sound of a rifle shot and rushed to the company office. I opened the door. The body was lying on the floor; all the brains were spread out on the ceiling. He had put the rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger. This happens in Full Metal Jacket as well, but my film was made ten years before. This sight of the mutilated body of the dead soldier made a deep imprint.
JB How can I understand what this film would have meant in 1977 to audiences in a state that had fought more than two major, successful combats and then, in 1973, come through another major combat by the skin of its teeth? For me the film calls into question the whole image of the warrior Israeli.
JN I take your word for this. But, speaking individually, what motivated me was not the Yom Kippur War, but the Six-Day War, and what I witnessed then. I wanted people to see that no one openly teaches you in basic training how to react to being injured or to having your fellow combatants killed or injured. That kind of training takes place when they torture you: spiritually, mentally, physically. It’s not a side effect, not marginal or residual. It’s the core, a pillar of military pedagogy. No one breathes a word about it. But that’s what the film is all about: how you get trained to suffer; how they train you to take more and more pain. They teach you that you can take enormous pain, survive or die.
JB Would you call this film anti-militaristic?
JN I’m not sure. Can a war film be anti-militaristic? Some elements of that are there, but other elements crystallize the identification of the audience with the army. In this film you feel the solidarity among soldiers; they vouch for one another. That’s the essence of their esprit de corps.
JB You’re suggesting a more complex vision of the film and the military apparatus than I originally understood.
JN There’s something even more horrifying than dying. It’s the thought of dying alone. In the army you’re encouraged to believe that you’ll never die alone. Paratroopers shows that. In the last weeks before the kids mobilize for the army, some go to a guibbush course—which means “crystallization.” They learn there, “You are not alone.” It’s like the chemical process of crystallization, when many molecules join to create a new structure, a new single thing out of many parts. For many Israelis this belief, this musketeers’ “one for all and all for one,” was shattered in the Yom Kippur War when many combatants were left to die on the battlefield or abandoned to be captured.
JB The film also subverts one of the most hallowed dominant fictions of the young state, the fiction of the “new Jew.” Do films both carry and critique dominant fictions?
JN I think what Jacques Rancier called a “dominant fiction” represents the “myth” of a society, through which an individual can discover that his own motives and aspirations match those of his group. The dominant fiction of the “new Jew” comes out of the need for agricultural workers in the new society—different from the image of the traditional Jew in Europe who was not thought of as doing hard physical work. In the new land Jews would need to live by their work as farmers and industry workers. Many early films show this transformation to the “new Jew.” And films after World War II show this change from victims and survivors into pioneers. Physical work was used as a kind of therapy for the trauma they had suffered.
In the early films you see only Jewish settlements, hardly any Palestinians—even though there were over one million Palestinians before the 1948 war, and fewer than half as many Jews. The conflict between the two communities was bad news for the Zionist project. Some early filmmakers saw colonizing as immoral, so it was best not to deal with it onscreen. Here and there you could see traces of Arab existence, and of the emerging conflict. But after the ’48 war the conflict becomes very visible; it could not be avoided any longer. Having become victorious over several Arab armies, Israelis show that Zionists are not only good farmers, but also good warriors.
JB You’re describing not one but two areas of complexity—and problems—that develop in the early films and also in the early history of the state. One has to do with the construction of the Zionist “new Jew,” and the other has to do with the relationship between those Jews and the Palestinian people who were also here.
JN Yes, these troubled waters are not recorded on film until much later in Israeli cinema. Earlier films portrayed battles in which the new Jews were heroes. In Paratroopers, for the first time, the new Jew appears as non-heroic. The film is about a misfit soldier who cannot live up to boot camp’s ideals of the combatant, and commits suicide.
JB There’s another man in the film who has successfully met all the criteria for the warrior Jew, who has transformed himself the way he was supposed to—
JN This other man is the company leader, in charge of training, who pushes the new recruit toward his death. He’s the other side of the “new Jew.”
JB Do you think he shows something about what happens to people who do make this transformation, about what the warrior hero has lost? Or to put it another way, about the loss of humanity in such men?
JN I now see mainly the confusion that I felt while I was making the film. I had to put myself in the condition of both the harassed recruit and also the instructor who tortures him. This impossible relationship forges the male bonding that takes place in boot camps.
JB We never see the wounded body of Weissman in the film. But out of your experience of training and combat you developed a critical argument about wounds and war.
JN Wounds and mutilated male bodies have become very visible in war films of the last decades. I argue that the big combat wound represents the opening up of the male body to the world—in a way that resembles the opening of the female body in childbirth. To the male body this opening happens only when it is torn apart in combat. The proliferation of wounds in recent war films is a call for, a yearning for, openness, a rejection of the regime of closure, of the closed body. I think these films look at the body as something vulnerable. Like a symbolic opening up to other people.
JB The other major issue that comes out of the ’67 war and becomes crucial in the films that follow Paratroopers is the conflict between the victors and those who were displaced in that and earlier wars.
JN I had been aware of the plight of the Palestinians before 1967. I was aware of the catastrophe of 1948. But I had repressed its emotional resonance. When I saw the emptied villages in the Golan Heights and re-experienced what I had seen in ’48, I could no longer turn my eyes away from the Palestinians and from what we had done. After Paratroopers I made two feature films that focused on the relationship between us—the colonizers of Palestine, and the Palestinians—Fellow Travelers and Streets of Yesterday. Then I stopped making films. The memory of the Nakbah as I witnessed it remains always in my mind and in my heart, but I couldn’t make films for many years.
JB One critic has suggested that these films depicted a “dead end.” Do you agree?
JN Yes. Nitzan Ben-Shaul, the Israeli film historian, saw that at the end of Streets of Yesterday the Israeli protagonist leaves the Berlin Olympic stadium where the 1936 games in Nazi Germany took place, and where in the film some young Palestinians kill an Israeli secret agent who has killed many of them. As the protagonist leaves the stadium unhurt but alone, he has to face his new reality. He is still on the run, but the answer to his self-searching can only be “where to?” He has nowhere to go. Ben-Shaul argued that the film depicted the political dead end of the Zionist left: the unsolved problem of the democratic Zionist state that contains the memory of the Nakbah and also the crimes against the Arab minority in Israel.
JB This film was not released in Israel. Did you feel that the Israeli public was not receptive to what your films were showing?
JN We are a society that lives under the volcano. To negotiate other options, one has to lay down the gun and become empathic to the other side. Films and novels can help people do that. But for many people, the perspective of my films was too radical; they were too painful to look at, and they were rejected.
I’ll tell you a story about that. I recently went to see a show at my daughter’s high school, about Jewish artists in the Terezin camp during the Holocaust. The piece was very moving; it made me cry. After the show, Arab and Jewish teachers told us how they teach the Holocaust in Arab high schools in Israel. I turned to the headmaster and said to him, “They talk to Palestinians about the Holocaust. Why don’t we start talking to students in our school about the Nakbah?” He was disturbed. “No. No. No. They are not ready for that.” I said, “By now it’s history; it’s in their history books. It’s not a secret any more.” He said, “They will start hating themselves. They will not want to go in to the army.” I said, “I’m more concerned that they become more knowledgeable about themselves, their country and its past. For the sake of their future.” He said, “I agree with what you say. But practically, I still think it’s premature for us.” And that was the end of it.
JB Could most of your films be called “premature” in this sense? A little ahead of what’s already comfortable for people to think about? I wonder whether the new films will also be disturbing to Israelis. The new documentary, Not Like Poetry, is about an Israeli Christian choreographer, born in the Ukraine, who teaches classical ballet and Arab and Slavic folk dances to Arab and Jewish children. It shows that art can contain difference and conflict. Not resolve them, just contain them. You didn’t always feel this confident about the power of art, did you?
JN I came to filmmaking from the slaughterhouse of modern warfare. In the face of war atrocities, art becomes ludicrous, even redundant. But what drew me to this woman’s work was her power to contain two cultures in one art. That was amazing, because part of it is what happened to Jews, here. In spite of the animosity toward Arab culture, something of that culture is always included in our culture. It shows in the language, and also in what are called Israeli folk dances, which are very synthetic—combining Slavic music and dance with Arab and Bedouin dances.
Even Fellow Travelers and Streets of Yesterday were about the mixture of cultures. We filmed Tel Aviv like a Mediterranean town, not an architecturally modernist city. We showed the Near Eastern, even Arabic places: streets in Jaffa, the library, the hospital—all evocative of Arabic culture. There is conflict and violent death in these films. But not in Not Like Poetry. In my earlier films people can die together, but I’m not sure they can live together.
JB Not Like Poetry is really like a myth that says “yes” to all that pain, but also shows that art is possible and can contain it.
JN Today I can see how art contains dissonance and conflict, and even bad blood and hostility. I wasn’t aware of that earlier. Now, when the situation in my country deteriorates politically, when my body deteriorates physically, it’s high time to believe in art.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee