November 23, 2009
Quentin Tarantino’s "Inglourious Basterds" is the definitive Israeli movie.
The bloodthirsty revenge fantasy of Jewish soldiers crushing German skulls with baseball bats and scalping dying Nazis has been a big hit here since its release in mid-September and, unusually, has been reviewed in every big newspaper or magazine. But that’s not just because Israelis, like audiences elsewhere in the world, seem to enjoy seeing Hitler’s henchmen meet grisly pulp fiction ends.
There’s something deeper at work in Israelis’ responses. It’s tied to the way their country has dealt with the very concept of the Holocaust. More particularly, the way Jews died in the Holocaust.
The response of critics has been almost uniformly positive. One of Israel’s most respected and thoughtful critics, Uri Klein, wrote in the leading newspaper Ha'aretz that "what Tarantino does in 'Inglourious Basterds' seems to me more valid and more decent than what Spielberg did in 'Schindler's List.'"
Instead of trying to recreate the horror that was the Holocaust as Spielberg did, Klein wrote, Tarantino simply made up an alternative reality, dealing with Jews and the Nazis on his own terms. That, in fact, is what Israel did, too.
In that context, the most revealing review was by Avner Shavit in Achbar Ha’Ir, a Tel Aviv weekly. “The truth is that [Tarantino] is on our side. … Like a typical Yankee who has been raised on stories about Ari Ben-Canaan, Moshe Dayan and other Mossad agents, he describes the Jew as the only one capable of kicking the bad guy's ass for humanity's sake.”
In other words, Shavit believes Tarantino’s portrayal of Jewish fighters during World War II is determined by the image created of Israel since then. Ari Ben-Canaan was the hero of Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” which is set during Israel’s founding struggle. Moshe Dayan was Israel’s army chief and the country’s Defense Minister during the victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Mossad agents crop up in almost every popular thriller with inside information and a magical ability to rub out the bad guy.
But what appeals to Israelis about Tarantino’s portrayal of these fantastical Jewish avengers is that they bear little relation to the great bulk of Jews who died in Hitler’s camps without making any attempt to resist.
That gets at the heart of the issue, because the Israeli establishment is, in many ways, still ashamed that so many Jews went to their deaths without a fight. The implication is that Israel created a new breed of Jews who’d have stood up to the Nazis, rather than being herded onto cattle cars.
Israel commemorates the victims of Hitler’s depredations with Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day — the relatively few “heroes” of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising get as much prominence in the naming of that memorial day as the millions of “martyrs.”
After World War II, Israel’s founders didn’t want to acknowledge that most Jews had gone powerless to their deaths. They lauded those “heroes” who fought back, no matter how hopelessly, over those who simply survived. The survivors never overcame that taint in the eyes of those who had arrived in Israel before the war. Many survivors have told me they were called “soaps” when they came to what was then Palestine — a callous reference to the rumor that the Nazis used the bodies of their victims to make soap.
Israel’s founders built a myth around the Holocaust. But the myth was like the repression that an individual places upon the unthinkable moments buried within his own subconscious.
Even to be recognized as a survivor in Israel requires a long battle with red tape. Then the government does its best to hold onto money that’s due to the survivors. New allegations emerged this week that lawyers hired to wrest that cash from the bureaucrats continue to take extortionate commissions from survivors, in violation of recent laws forbidding it.
Of 240,000 survivors in Israel, 20,000 receive compensation from Germany, and 40,000 get an Israeli stipend of less than $300 a month. The rest have nothing but their scarred memories. About 80,000 survivors live below the poverty line in Israel. The worst place in the developed world to be a Holocaust survivor is Israel.
So cheering Tarantino’s bloodcurdling re-imagining of history is an easy way out.
It’s also something which casts an unpleasant light on current Israeli politics.
On the Israelity blog, leading Israeli cultural writer David Brinn described how the crowd at the theater where he watched Tarantino’s movie cheered the demise of each German. In a reference to a banned political party that advocates the forced expulsion of Palestinians and has a reputation for violence, Brinn wrote that it “felt like I was at a Kach rally.”“On the one hand, it was liberating to be the avengers of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis,” Brinn wrote, “but on the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t have been so happy about it.”