Saturday, January 17, 2015

NYJFF ’15: The Zionist Idea

Israel is the only nation in the Middle East that guarantees religious freedom, respects the human rights of women and the LGBT community, and protects the environment. Naturally, the UN therefore condemned it, or rather the idea that led to its founding, as “racist” in what the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan witheringly described as a “great evil.” As a result, the concept of Zionism has been misunderstood and deliberately mischaracterized for decades. To some extent, Joseph Dorman & Oren Rudavsky supply the historical, political, and cultural context to better understand the maligned movement in the epic-long (by documentary standards) The Zionist Idea, which screens during the 2015 New York Jewish Film Festival.

Obviously, Twentieth Century Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel are tragically linked to the Holocaust. However, European Jewry were never safe from pogroms and repression. Indeed, that is still clearly the case today, as is only too clear in the wake of the French Kosher supermarket hostage crisis. There was good reason why Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann concluded a Jewish homeland was essential for their survival as a people.

Dorman, Rudavsky, and their extensive battery of historians do a fine job of chronicling the birth of the Zionist movement as we now know it, but Richard Trank’s It is No Dream: the Life of Theodor Herzl offers a more in-depth and cinematic treatment. Likewise, Trank’s subsequent The Prime Ministers: the Pioneers and Roberta Grossman’s forthcoming Above and Beyond more compellingly document the nascent state’s desperate fight against the invasions of its surrounding neighbors.

Yet, in a weird way, Zionist Idea perfectly illustrates the humanist values of Israel, by bending over backwards to cater to every conceivable critic of Zionism. If you blame Zionism for the bad service you received in a Tel Aviv beachfront bar, Dorman and Rudavsky will give you your say. Unfortunately, they are not as accommodating with the West Bank settler movement, so viewers really ought to check out Dmitriy Khavin’s The Territory for balance.

Nevertheless, the level of scholarship collected in Zionist Idea is certainly impressive, particularly the commentary and personal recollections of historians like Mordechai Bar-On and Hillel Halkin. While the style of presentation is rather conventional, the seriousness of the subject rings through in each and every sequence, making certain blind-spots, like the historic Taba concessions and the Second Intifada, all the more frustrating.

Through the sheer volume of its one hundred sixty minute running time, Zionist Idea encompasses quite a bit of valuable history and intellectual debate. Yet, just like the nation of Israel, the film tries to be compulsively fair to its possible detractors. As a result, the final film feels somewhat timid and overly apologetic, especially in light of recent events, which only reconfirm the Zionist contentions. Impressive in scope, The Zionist Idea is still difficult to recommend without considerable reservations when it screens this Thursday (1/22) and next Monday (1/26) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYJFF.