Israel’s Cinematic Enigma — is the Past in the Present, or the Present in the Past?
In the Summer a new film was released in Israel that traces the events leading up to the destruction of the second Temple in enticing detail. It is widely considered to be the first Israeli film successfully showing religious life for a popular audience. Set from 66-70 AD, ‘Legend of Destruction’ by filmmaker Gidi Dar is entirely composed in still drawings.
The story is told from the perspective of a Jewish scholar who becomes a zealot in the revolt against Rome. As the Times of Israel reports: ” [the] film unfolds from the days prior to the Israelites’ first, nascent protests against the Jewish elite who were playing a political game, balancing their protection of the Temple with their knowledge and fear of the Roman power. Using drawings that lend a feel of vivid photography, Dar brings the tension and emotions of the crisis to life, demonstrating how critical the period was for the very nature of the Jewish nation”. Dar doesn’t malign the zealots in the film, albeit the Talmudic consensus renders their actions blameworthy for rousing the ill fated rebellion: “I thought that they [the zealots] are pure, they are willing to fight to the end in their quest for justice,” he said.
Apart from some poetic license, the film follows roughly the historical narrative as recorded by Josephus Flavius. Many of its details describing everyday life are derived from his works: “There are many moments in the movie that bring the ancient city of Jerusalem to life: glimpses of Second Temple traditions, with its marble floors and gold fittings, where sheep are brought for sacrifice against the background of the Levites’ choir; the thousands of Israelites who would gather to pray at the holy Temple; the simplicities of daily ancient life, with dark homes carved out of the Jerusalem hillside, the people eating flat loaves of bread and wearing strappy sandals” (Times of Israel).
Speaking with the Times, Dar describes how he wants all Israelis, not just religious Israelis, to have access to the ancient Hebrew text, in order to be more familiar with their own history: “We have to offer access to it,” he said. “My movie is an attempt to address this, to deal with this subject my way and not in a religious way. I don’t expect people to become religious, but to find their path in the jungle…secular Israelis have no access to the past, except through the Bible that is written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and you have to know a lot in order to just read it”.
What’s fascinating is how those same events two thousand years ago are replicated in our current political climate. The Talmud ascribes that the reason the revolt failed was baseless hatred (‘Sinat Chinnum’). The Jewish people were lacking unity, and thus they were easily fractured: “For Dar, the ancient history becomes an allegory about the current state of affairs in modern Israel. Over the last eight years, he said, political and societal life in Israel has soured. And he compares this to ancient Israel, and to the sages, who blamed the destruction of the Temple on the lack of equality among the Israelites”. Indeed there are several divisions in contemporary Jewish Israeli society, rendering it even more fractured than during the Second Temple period. Foremost is the religious (Chareidi, strictly Orthodox) – secular divide. But even amongst the Orthodox, there is enmity between the ‘national religious’ (Orthodox Zionists) and the broader strictly Orthodox community (who are none Zionist). There is a political chasm between the left wing and right wing supporters. And to a lesser extent nowadays there is the traditional polarization between Ashkenazi (European Jewish descent) and Sephardic (Oriental Jewish descent). All this has played out in various incidents that have included frequent rioting and even the assasination of a Prime Minister (Yitzchak Rabin). With all that being said, Israel has survived six major wars in its short existence. As a nuclear armed nation it is virtually indestructible. The Jewish State can only be annihilated by divisions within, that could lay the gates open to an external foe. And so, I think that we need to hold our nerve and be confident that we still have something to gain by listening to each other more and seeking common ground.
In terms of Rome’s equivalency, the USA is of course today’s world super power. Israel is the regional junior partner of the United States. The US is like a friendly uncle that says ‘I have something that you want. And I have something that I’ll give to you, whether you want it or not’ (paraphrasing Professor Noam Chomsky). That’s the relationship between Israel and the US. So when the US does something Israel inevitably tails along politely. If the US wants to negotiate with Iran, against Israel’s interests – it has to accept it politely. At most responding in a restrained fashion (think Netenyahu’s controversial speech to Congress during the Obama administration). Like in ancient times, the power dynamics are just too overwhelming. The Israeli military establishment and foreign office understand this very well. It is imperative for Israel to avoid tension with the US by upholding the Washington consensus – id est Pax Romana. This is America’s notion of international order. It means: we make the rules, and you follow them.