Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Zionist Love Letter: The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers

The recent death of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister from 2001-2006, was a timely reminder of the unique situation of the men and women who have held that country’s highest office.While leaders of all lands bear a heavy responsibility for their country’s safety, it’s only in Israel that the threat is existential. Should Israel lose a war, she would cease to exist, something that is not a factor anywhere else. Richard Trank’s documentary The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers, based on Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers, testifies to that fact as well as illuminating two of Israel’s PMs, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, whom Avner served in various capacities. It’s a sometimes schmaltzy, overwrought film but also an emotional and thoughtful testament to one’s man’s love of country and those who led it. (It’s the first of two parts, with the second film, The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers, detailing Avner’s stints under Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres set for release in the spring.)

The Prime Ministers is the 13th film made under the auspices of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Moriah Films (The Long Way Home, In Search of Peace) and as such bears the trademarks of that company's output, well made but conventional historical documentaries that offer great archival footage, as well. The footage takes on more importance here because the only talking head in the documentary is Avner, the 85 year old Manchester-born Israeli who served as personal secretary and speechwriter for five Israeli Prime Ministers, Eshkol, Meir, Begin, Rabin and Peres, as well as serving as his country’s ambassador to England and Australia. That’s quite a track record and Avner, albeit not the most charismatic of raconteurs, acquits himself well on camera.

Yehuda Avner
The Prime Ministers is pretty much a chronological affair, describing (briefly) Avner’s early life in the U.K. before he decided to immigrate to Israel in 1947, on the eve of the country’s birth. He fought in the famous Siege of Jerusalem, founded a religious Kibbutz, returned to England for awhile to work for a religious Zionist youth movement and then made his way back to Israel in 1954. Four years later, he joined the Foreign Office where for 25 years he served as speechwriter and Secretary to Eshkol and Meir and as advisor to the other three Israeli PMs. As such he was well placed to tell the often fascinating and stormy story of the Israeli state’s maturation and the dramatic events that formed the country over the years.

There aren’t that many startling revelations in the movie, though I don’t think I knew that famed Israeli General Moshe Dayan was adamant about Israel not trying to capture East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War, fearing that too many Muslim and Jewish religious relics would be damaged in the process. (He was most strongly opposed by Menachem Begin and General Yigal Allon, who was briefly Israel’s acting Prime Minister after Ehskol’s death, and they, of course, got their way on that issue.) Mostly The Prime Ministers functions best as a reminder of how plain spoken and honest Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir were, approachable individuals who often did what was right for Israel without worrying about their own political skins in the process (Israel’s current PM, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to approach political decision making form the opposite point of view, placing himself before the needs of his country.)

Prime Minister Golda Meir
Eshkol, who died in 1969 while in office, in particular, has his reputation refurbished by Avner. Previously seen as something of a plodder, perceived as weak for resisting calls at home for Israel to attack its neighbours in the years before the Six Day War, in The Prime Ministers, he comes across as much more of a savvy, smart politico, utilizing a warm relationship with U.S. President Lyndon Johnson to his country’s advantage when American help was needed during the war. The portrait of Meir is a multi-faceted one, too. Her visit to the frontlines during the disastrous Yom Kippur War, where a cocky Israel, still high from its dramatic victory in the Six Day War, was caught unawares by an Arab invasion in 1973, suggests a brave woman willing to face the music. Her anguish when she realized her fellow Socialists, including much praised German chancellor Willy Brandt, would not help Israel, even when she was facing extinction before turning the tide in the Yom Kippur War, is palpable. Her anger at Austrian Jewish Chancellor Bruno Kreisky,  who when giving in to Arab terrorism, closed a way station for Soviet Jews leaving the country is equally understandable. (Though I expected it, Avner doesn’t discuss in the film the aftermath of the Munich massacre when Meir signed on to a controversial counter terrorism operation to avenge the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games. That mission, involving hunting down on Western European soil, the Palestinian terrorists responsible; he must have felt had been adequately dealt with in documentaries like One Day in September and in Steven Spielberg’s feature film Munich.) Most amusing are Avner’s anecdotes about Yitzhak Rabin, who created a stir in Washington diplomatic circles when the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. refused to wear a suit and tie. Like virtually all Israeli politicians, Begin excepted, he preferred casual attire. That casualness didn’t affect his popularity, though, as he made quite a splash in America’s capital.

President Lyndon Johnson & PM Levi Eshkol
One complaint I do have about the film is that, despite the fantastic archival footage – director Trank and company have dug up reams of it for every occasion and incident portrayed on film – the terrific pictures are undermined by two aspects of the documentary. One is the horrible music layered onto throughout but especially in the first half. It’s obvious, melodramatic and loud, functioning as an unnecessary, irritating distraction. The second is the decision to use Hollywood actors to voice the words said by the protagonists, but not consistently. So sometimes we hear Eshkol and Meir in their own words, only to have them followed by Leonard Nimoy (effective) as the voice of the Yiddish accented PM and Sandra Bullock (so so) reading Meir’s utterances (Christoph Waltz as Begin and Michael Douglas as Rabin make no impression at all.) I get that star power might help entice more people into the theatre but it’s not an effective tool in the movie, adding a regrettable patina of fakery to the proceedings. I could have also done with a little less of the movie’s propaganda, such as the emphasis on Israel safeguarding the safety of world Jewry. That’s true to a point, when it comes to the rescue of Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda or the airlifting of Ethiopia’s beleaguered Jewish population, but the Jewish state does not protect Jews in Europe or North America. Their status and security in those countries is entirely based on the societal attitudes towards their Jewish minority, which is why Jews in the United States and Canada are far more accepted and secure than those living in Europe.

What is not present in The Prime Ministers, nor should there be, are any references to relations with the Palestinians, simply because neither Eshkol nor Meir ever had any contacts with them. (That came later in the early 90s with The Oslo Accords when Yitzhak Rabin was PM.) Yet it’s been interesting to read negative reviews (and critical commentary in Israel’s most left leaning newspaper Ha’aretz) bemoaning that supposed omission. (It would be like insisting that every historical American documentary mention slavery whether that had anything to do with the subject of the film or not. Obviously, the second half of The Prime Ministers, dealing with Rabin and Peres, will tackle Israeli-Palestinian relations as that played a big part in their terms in office.) There was one reviewer who felt the need to bring up the Nakba, the Palestinians’ term for modern Israel’s birth. The word means catastrophe, but clearly the writer doesn’t understand that it actually refers to many Palestinian’s attitudes to Israel even existing at all, never mind their dropping the ball and not accepting the state they were offered alongside that of the Jews. Another Toronto film critic assailed The Prime Ministers for lacking any controversial elements. But that, of course, is the point. Avner, as an immigrant to Israel, and not a native born Sabra, is like most converts more zealous than those born into the fold. In short, he’s a staunch Zionist, who felt privileged to serve his country in the best way he could and, more significantly, be eyewitness to events that helped ensure its survival. Living through the horrible reality of the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews,  as Avner did, put Israel’s importance to the Jewish people and to him into strong perspective. That makes The Prime Ministers, besides being a fascinating document of its times, a Zionist love letter. (It's also the complete opposite of an Israeli documentary like Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers, whose agenda was to make Israel look like the cause of all the troubles in the region.) In light of the calumny and opprobrium heaped on Israel on a daily, disproportionate basis, that’s not such a bad thing at all.

- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor. He will also be teaching a course on icons and iconic cinema at Ryerson, beginning on Friday Feb. 7 at 12:10 pm. 

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