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Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation, by Ella Shohat. New Edition. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010. 377 pp. ₤65.00.
Ella Shohat’s book, first published in 1989, is considered one of the best and most comprehensive books ever written on Israeli cinema and has been reprinted several times. Thousands of students in Israel and all over the world have used it as a textbook, and we may assume that thousands more will continue to do so. The new 2010 edition has updated the original five chapters and added a Postscript.
Shohat’s Israeli Cinema was ahead of its time. Its uniqueness lay in its inclusion of a long list of films made in Israel from the late nineteenth century—the early period of Zionist pioneering in the land of Israel-Palestine under the Ottoman Empire and later the British Mandate—through the early years of the State of Israel (founded 1948), to recent films. The title states that it connects three elements—East, West and the politics of representation, which on the surface are disparate. However, a deeper look shows that history, film, and ideology have always been tied to one another from the earliest days of film. We have seen obvious connections in German expressionist films following World War One, in French cinema which attempted to address reality through a surrealistic lens, and the most outstanding of all, Soviet cinema by Eisenstein and Pudovkin. In the United States as well, the Hollywood film industry had a capitalist-racist-ideological orientation intertwined with America’s own history. Fiction has long been the major tool used in filmmakers’ work to express nationalistic social emotions and thoughts, political ideas and outlooks. In this context, we can also include Israeli cinema as a comprehensive name given to “Jewish” cinema made prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, financed by agencies of the World Zionist Organization, and on to contemporary Israeli films.
According to Shohat, the common denominator in Israeli films was the ideological hard core that lay at the center of Zionist society, which from the very beginning excluded foreigners. Shohat includes Palestinians, Arabs, and Mizrahi Jews who immigrated from Arab countries in her definition of “foreigners,” thus linking the fate of Mizrahi Jews with contemporary Palestinian Arabs, and considers them both “victims of Zionism.” Her ideology is reflected in her impressive analysis of the films on a case-by-case basis. She points an accusing finger at Zionism for using film as propaganda to express Zionist emotions and for taking a colonialist and racist attitude towards Mizrahi Jews as being different from the mainly Ashkenazi pioneers of predominately European origin.
Shohat wrote her original book as an antithesis to a Zionism that did not recognize Israeli-Palestinian partnership for the new state. Her book was written before the 1990s when the Oslo Accords and peace talks began and before research trends in Israel began to focus on Mizrahim, and before Mizrahim started seeking their place in Israel’s socio-political-cultural space through various social movements.
It is important to read this book in the context of the period in which it was written, keeping in mind, however, that since then, “much water has flowed down the Jordan.” Thanks to studies by Shohat and a persistent group of scholars, much new research was published which led to visible social and cultural change in Israel. The studies that came in their wake respond to claims of discrimination and show that there have been rapid and deep changes in the socioeconomic, social status, and culture of Mizrahi Jews and Arab Israelis over the past 20–30 years. For example, in contrast to the past, Israel’s middle class is now mostly if not entirely made up of Mizrahi Jews. Today, a great many of the members of Israel’s ruling party and leading public personalities are of Mizrahi origin. Since the 1980s there has also been a religious political party of “Pure Mizrahi” Israelis. In addition, the Mizrahi religious stream of Judaism in Israel, headed by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, provides a more moderate view on religious and ritual themes (such as the issue of conversion to Judaism) than Ashkenazi rabbis do, which may make the Mizrahi religious stream attractive to a greater number of people and provide it with more power and influence in Israeli society. A vast majority of Israeli directors and actors are Mizrahi, including Ronit Alkabetz, Moshe Ivgy (awarded numerous best actor prizes), and new immigrants such as Yevgenia Dodina and Sasha Damidov.
With regard to the Arab population, there has been a visible rise in access to universities by Israeli Arabs in professions such as medicine, pharmacology and computers, leading to a rise in the standard of living in the Arab sector, although we cannot ignore the many areas still in need of improvement. Geopolitical spheres that had been taboo for many years due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have also changed considerably: a large segment of Jewish Israelis now support the creation of a Palestinian state—e.g,. the Oslo accords and the Geneva initiative—and in general are willing to publicly demonstrate and sacrifice huge chunks of land for peace. The IDF Army Radio Galei Tzahal, one of the most popular radio stations in Israel, broadcasts criticism of the government, Knesset and even the IDF itself on a regular basis.
The themes of films produced in Israel, especially those over the past decade, refer to the relation of society and the individual, Zionism and overt subversion of the Zionist vision, such as the movies Once I Was (2010) by Avi Nasher, 7 Days (2008) by Ronit Al Kabatz, and Year Zero (2004) by Joseph Pitchhadze.
Shohat’s “Postscript” is primarily the author’s political manifesto, which is her privilege as she has been considered the “diva of Israeli film” for many years. However, linking an extreme political manifesto to random cinematic creations that have since challenged the hegemony of films of the past seems extraneous and heavy-handed. Furthermore, the collection of films she discusses is selectively suited to her theme, such as Walk on Water (2004) and Waltz with Bashir (2008). Both mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict numerous times, while “everyday” Israeli films avoid making the conflict the center of the film, although it is present in other forms. Examples include Time of Favour (2000), which received excellent reviews; Campfire (2004), winner of an “Ophir,” Israel’s equivalent of the Academy Award; Beaufort (2006) Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival; Metallic Blues (2004); Debt (2007) and Lebanon (2009), all of which earned international prizes. These films, however, have been dropped from Shohat’s discourse. Even the cautious discussion about the Ethiopian wave of immigration and difficulties of adaptation and acceptance into Israeli society—which essentially parallels the Mizrahi experience as explored in the film Va, Vis et Deviens (Go, See and Become, 2005 an Israeli-Italian-Belgian-French co-production)— receives no mention at all in Shohat’s book.
As such, the writing in the Postscript neglects to engage in the historical philosophy of Israeli film, which it should have done. Shohat makes no mention of quality in the change generated in Israelis cinema and its acceptance in the western world. Nor does she discuss how the themes of films produced in Israel, especially those over the past decade, refer to the relation of society and the individual, Zionism and overt subversion of the Zionist vision, such as the movies Once I Was (2010) by Avi Nasher, 7 Days (2008) by Ronit Al Kabatz, and Year Zero (2004) by Joseph Pitchhadze. Instead, she deals with their sharpness and how they have became politically more extreme. This means, we can assume, that within the current reality of contemporary Israel today, the book has nothing new to add.
Yvonne Kozlovsky Golan
Culture and Film Studies,
University of Haifa, Israel