Reviewed by Yuval Rivlin

A Different Chorus
by Nurit Gertz
Am Oved and The Open University of Israel, 2004, 213 pages, Hebrew.

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In his book Essays in the First Person, published at the end of the 1970s, the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld, reflecting on his experiences as a young refugee in Palestine after World War II, describes “a single protracted, guiding feeling”:

Everything that had happened to us during those long years of war was latent within us, mute and blind. An oppressive, mysterious mass, disconnected from consciousness.... Years later the land appeared to us as a broad, tranquil expanse drawing one down into a deep sleep. And this was definitely the desire: To sleep, to sleep for years, to forget oneself and be reborn.... It was a glorious forgetfulness.... Liberation, lightness, a sense of floating on air. Perhaps this is how birds feel as they hover between heaven and earth. At that point we didn’t yet know that within this marvelous self-forgetfulness there nested a cussed bitterness.

This “glorious forgetfulness,” the desire to “be reborn,” and the latent “cussed bitterness” are all at the heart of A Different Chorus, a new book by Nurit Gertz, professor of literature and film at Tel Aviv University. Yet unlike Appelfeld’s essays, which focus on the emotional maelstrom of Holocaust survivors and their efforts to repress traumatic memories, Gertz devotes most of her book to the image of these survivors in the eyes of the society that received them. She examines the attempts to recast survivors in the mold of the Israeli sabra, and the representation of this forced metamorphosis in Israeli film.

Gertz has been researching this metamorphosis for some time. The scholarship she has produced over the last twenty-five years has returned again and again to the various ways in which popular Israeli art represents the attitudes of veteran Israelis to the “brands snatched from the burning.” In her 1983 book The Destruction of Hiz’at and the Morning After, for example, Gertz analyzed the tension at the heart of the encounter between native Israelis and new immigrants as described, among other places, in Moshe Shamir’s classic novel He Walked the Fields (1947). But Gertz has never been content merely to point out the Zionist themes in the literature of the War of Independence and examine their contribution to the creation of a national ethos—and, in turn, to the suppression of a pre-Zionist Jewish identity. Rather, she has tried to understand how film and literature in the 1940s and 1950s reflected the growing divide between Zionist ideology and its fulfillment in practice. She went on to critique the values spawned by this ideology in the literature of the 1970s through the end of the 1990s. The Holocaust and its survivors also play a significant role in her popular work Trapped in Its Own Dream: The Place of Myth in Israeli Culture (1995), which examined both the efforts of Israeli culture to shape a sabra identity wholly distanced from its Diaspora past, and the manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust in the election campaigns of the early 1980s.

In A Different Chorus, Gertz returns to the theme of the recast image of the immigrant Holocaust survivor in film—from the 1934 movie Work to Eli Cohen’s 1995 film The Jujube Tree Is Taken. Gertz argues that the portrayal of Holocaust survivors played an important role in the formation of the emerging Israeli culture, casting the survivor in the role of the “other,” whose very presence jeopardizes the alternative identity the collective seeks to embrace. Her main objective here, she says, is to examine

the voice of the assimilated identity that made itself heard even in a time when people didn’t want to hear it.... This voice spoke of other, distant regions and of other memories which were necessarily threatening to Israeli identity, as it had contracted itself to the present dimensions of this land, using other types of past, space, and identity as instruments for its establishment.

Gertz distinguishes between the film portrayal of the immigrant in the early 1940s and its subsequent makeover in Israeli movies produced after the Yom Kippur War, a distinction that reflects the ideological, political, and social developments that occurred in Israel during that period. She makes clear that the focus on the image of the survivor is designed not merely to reveal the attitude of Israeli society towards its new immigrants, but also, and more broadly, as a means of investigating that society’s evolving self-image.

Gertz’s project is in some ways reminiscent of the work of Ella Shohat, whose pioneering and controversial studies of Israeli film also attempted to map the representation of Zionist identity in the early years of statehood. Shohat, too, indicted the “oppressive” approach of Israeli culture towards immigrants from Eastern countries. But Gertz differs from Shohat both in her decision to compare cinematic and literary creations and in her use of post-modern exegetical tools. Her research in Israeli film archives and skillful hermeneutics reveal Israeli cinema to be an inexhaustible lode of treasures, uncharted territory that invites psychoanalytic interpretation. In the end, this proves to be the source of her book’s power—and its weakness.

According to Gertz, Israeli art’s preoccupation with the figure of the immigrant is motivated by the desire to identify within him those components supposedly in need of transformation. In so doing, it bolsters the identity of the sabra. This is the youth who, in Moshe Shamir’s words, “sprang from the sea,” and who is orphaned of all cultural heritage. This sabra is of course the unchallenged hero of Zionist culture during the formative period of the Jewish settlement (the yishuv) and the establishment of the state, a vigorous antithesis of the puny, pale Diaspora Jew.

Gertz’s analysis of the evolving character of the immigrant in My Father’s House exemplifies her approach. This 1947 film by Herbert Klein follows the search of a young Holocaust survivor named David for his lost father, who promised to meet him in Israel. It initially portrays the youthful protagonist as “hounded, homeless, and feminine, dependent on the goodwill of the Gentiles and traumatized by the Holocaust.” Only at the end of the film, when he accepts that his father is no longer alive and relinquishes his previous dependence on him, is David reborn as a son of the Israeli working settlement—in other words, as a real man. “The process of change drew to its conclusion—David’s new Hebrew identity had been formed on the basis of his surrender of his connection with his exilic past and his father, and the adoption of a father figure and past from the land of Israel, in the light of which he can now develop a ‘correct’ Zionist masculinity.” Gertz claims that the metamorphosis David undergoes from an “exilic,” “feminine” Jew to a “masculine” Hebrew reflects his new relationship to the land of Israel and its people:

The right to freely traverse the land of Israel, between the open spaces and the closed ones, to dominate it through one’s movement and one’s gaze, is a right acquired by the survivors over the course of a plot strewn with obstacles. The two faculties, those of motion and sight, are intertwined, and testify not only to the hero’s ability to command the wide open spaces, but also to the change within him, as he is transformed from a passive Jew to an active Hebrew.

And indeed, in order for David to shed his former identity, he must quit the immigrants’ camp—which is reminiscent to survivors of a ghetto or concentration camp—and embark upon an exhausting educational journey throughout the land itself. Only after he has conquered his new surroundings with his feet and come to feel at home will the exilic chapter in David’s life come to a close; only then will he be enabled “to experience his rebirth in practice.”

Gertz similarly surveys the hidden symbolic structures of other Israeli films that touch on this theme through the mid-1990s. Yet to read her book, one would think that these films are canonic works that reveal the opinions of mainstream Israeli culture, rather than merely the idiosyncratic views of their creators. Despite the fact that these films’ limited success at the box office makes it difficult to ascribe to them any real influence, Gertz’s study bestows an almost mythic status upon them.

This is only the first of the book’s problems: Its selection of films, which is supposed to reflect Israeli cinema’s common denominator, is both arbitrary and incomplete. Gertz, for instance, argues that “After a number of years of intense preoccupation with Holocaust survivors in the forties and fifties, Israeli films abandoned the subject, and effectively took it up again only in the late seventies, eighties, and nineties.” But one cannot make this claim without even a cursory mention of Natan Gross’ 1963 The Cellar, which is entirely devoted to the experiences and memories of a survivor. Likewise, one cannot examine only those films depicting young immigrants who forsake their parents’ identity on their way to becoming Israelis, while ignoring Henry Schneider’s movie Yonatan and Tali (1953). That movie portrays the reverse quest—a survivor who travels through Israel in search of her lost sons, only to find that she has been excluded from their new lives. And as for the representation of immigrants as “feminine” and Israeli natives as “masculine,” it should have at least been worth mentioning Alexander Ford’s 1932 film Sabra, which imputes feminine qualities to the Zionist pioneers. It could also have been noted that the attribution of “feminine” qualities to Holocaust survivors is not unique to Israeli cinema: Hollywood movies—foremost among them Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1959)—also indulged in this cinematic “sin.” The above-mentioned films present positions diametrically opposed to that which Gertz so skillfully discerns, and challenge her thesis that Israeli film suffers from a homogeneous worldview concerning survivors. (Were someone to suggest that the above-mentioned movies are “the exception that proves the rule,” we should recall that in any event, Gertz derives her “rule” from a very limited number of films: Between 1932 and 1960, fewer than twenty movies in total were produced in Israel, making statements concerning “the views of the cinematic establishment” somewhat suspect, and the decision to exclude from the discussion films that deviate from the so-called “establishment” view simply untenable.)

But the methodological problem inherent in any selective choice from within such a limited pool of examples is not the only weakness in Gertz’s work. There are two other flaws in A Different Chorus: One of form and the other of content. First, Gertz dedicates the lion’s share of the book to exposing an “artificial structure designed to conceal the contradictions in Zionist ideology and to unify its assorted variations within a homogeneous narrative.” This leaves us, despite the hermeneutic achievements of the approach, with a sense of missed opportunity. In contrast to Gertz’s previous studies of popular culture, which are models of lucid and accessible prose, A Different Chorus is aimed primarily at those well versed in post-modern discourse and the theoretical jargon of the field, and hence forgoes the chance to speak to those readers interested in Israeli film but unfamiliar with the scholarship on the subject.

Ironically, however, Gertz’s main failure stems from her insistence on “digging deep” into the hidden depths of Israeli film, a task that often means the neglect of those topics that exist on the surface. Thus, while she focuses correctly on the transformations undergone by cinematic characters, she ignores the fact that even during the peak of collectivist-Zionist education, there were almost no films produced in Israel that dealt with the contribution of Israeli and native-born citizens to the building of the Zionist enterprise. A majority of the movies produced by the nascent Israeli film industry featured characters with a distinctly “Diaspora” bent. They were intended mainly for viewers who were not themselves Holocaust survivors but who nevertheless wished to become acquainted with the narratives of those who were. Furthermore, during a period in which most survivors still refrained from telling their stories, and the cultural establishment was busy nurturing the ethos of the warrior-hero of 1948, numerous films were screened that directly addressed the terrible trauma of European Jewry. These films, which granted a fascinating glimpse into survivors’ attitudes toward their traumatic past and their attempts to integrate into the fabric of identities here in Israel, are perhaps the first testimony to the tremendous Israeli need to deal with the Holocaust. While these films were admittedly and distinctly Zionist, they did not hesitate to broach subjects that had yet to receive appropriate attention in the public discourse.

The relationship of Israeli cinema to Holocaust survivors is inextricably intertwined with the relationship of Israeli society to Jewish identity, but in Gertz’s book there is almost no trace of the latter. Rather, Gertz’s interest in the identity of Holocaust survivors stems primarily from a desire to expose the bogus nature of “Israeli” identity, and thus she almost entirely overlooks the ways in which survivors themselves voiced their inner struggles and longings for home. A more comprehensive study of the subject would have juxtaposed the narratives of the survivors as portrayed by Israeli filmmakers with the narratives presented by the survivors themselves. Interestingly, the alleged “gap” is not as big as it seems: An examination of the film production industry would reveal that most of the films Gertz addresses were not made by native-born directors and producers, but often by individuals born and raised in Europe, some of whom even experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand. Precisely for this reason, it would have been wise to subject their cinematic works to a more ambivalent investigation, which would have underscored the fictitious sabra identity that was forced upon the Holocaust-survivor characters.

Ultimately, the importance of A Different Chorus lies in the glimpse it affords us into several of the themes concealed in the old, forgotten spools of Israeli cinema. These themes doubtless reflected the views of the Zionist leadership, and their eventual disappearance from Israeli film expresses the ideological shift that has transpired in Israel since the early 1970s. Yet the picture Gertz traces is only partial, and this detracts from the reader’s ability to understand to what extent the movies and books she cites express the consensus of the Israeli public. Above all, by filtering the voices of the Holocaust survivors through the lens of the Israeli “establishment,” she only makes it more difficult to hear them. While Gertz would have us hear the music of “a different chorus”—the sounds of a “repressed” Holocaust identity—in fact, the music we often end up hearing the loudest is her own.

Yuval Rivlin, film critic for the weekly newspaper Makor Rishon, teaches film and history at the Ya’akov Herzog Center for Jewish Studies.

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