Lisa Goldman writes: For years, Paul Newman and his blue eyes shaped America’s perception of Israel.
Newman starred in Exodus, a 1960 Hollywood blockbuster set in 1947, the final year of the British mandate in Palestine. The film depicts Ari Ben Canaan, played by Newman, as an idealized sabra hero-warrior — tough, brave, handsome, taciturn, and a lady-killer. Ben Canaan, a leader in the Haganah, the preeminent Jewish paramilitary organization of the time, fought with the British during World War II; but now he is fighting against their policy of limiting the immigration of Jewish refugees from the scorched remains of Hitler’s Europe. The film takes its name from the SS Exodus, a leaky boat packed with Holocaust survivors that the British ultimately sent back to Europe. It goes on to recount the story of the establishment of the State of Israel in a mythical narrative, entirely from the Zionist point of view.
A few years later, Kirk Douglas starred in Cast a Giant Shadow, a fictionalized account of Col. David “Mickey” Marcus, an assimilated Jewish-American who fought with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War Two, where he saw Dachau. Recruited by Haganah representatives in New York, Marcus agrees to train and command units of the nascent Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 War of Independence. Naturally, the blond, assimilated American Jew falls in love with an olive-skinned, raven-haired female Israeli warrior who knows how to handle a weapon. The film’s a classic, so I don’t suppose I’ll be guilty of spoiling the end by revealing that Marcus is killed. But of course he lives on as a legend, etc.
Hollywood churned out one more film about heroic Israelis. Raid on Entebbe, released in 1977, stars Charles Bronson as the commander of an elite military unit tasked with rescuing Jewish and Israeli passengers on an Air France flight hijacked by terrorists. The film may have continued the tradition of the heroic sabra warrior, but stylistically it was a mediocre made-for-television production with a clunky script and wooden acting.
Since then, however, the image of the heroic Israeli valiantly fighting for survival has faded from the silver screen. Hollywood movies about Jews have focused on the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Israel’s domestic films — the stories that Israelis tell about themselves — have long been much more self-critical. [Continue reading…]