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The Politics of Loss and Trauma in Contemporary Israeli Cinema, by Raz Yosef.  New York and London: Routledge, 2011.  218 pp.  $125.00.

 

There is a well-known saying in Israel that all Israelis are post-traumatic. From the Jewish point of view, one can reflect on the Holocaust, the wars against the Arabs, the intifadas, and the terror attacks on civilian targets. From the Arab point of view—the Nakba, the 1967 war, the 2000 riots, and the continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories. Alongside these national and political traumas, one finds gender and racial traumas, based on the repression of women and gays in a national society that was built on a manly heterosexual ethos, and the marginalization of Mizrahi Jews (who immigrated from Arab or Muslim countries) by Ashkenazi Jews (who immigrated from western countries). These events transformed Israeli citizens into bearers of a traumatic symptomatic aftermath.

Contemporary Israeli cinema clearly mirrors those traumas. Cinema doesn’t represent reality, but is affected by collective feelings and impacts on them. Raz Yosef’s important book, The Politics of Loss and Trauma in Contemporary Israeli Cinema, analyzes those representations.

The book provides a broad-ranging, critical analysis of the relationship between trauma, nationalism, and cinema, with a focus on collective memory, guilt, pursuers and pursued, responsibility, and the crucial role that post-trauma plays in the Israeli past and present. In the introduction, Yosef lays the theoretical groundwork for the book. He explains collective trauma and its cinematic reflections, and introduces the terms that accompany his analysis throughout the book. Dominick LaCapra coined two major terms for distinguishing between two forms of remembering trauma. The first results in acting-out. In this mental state, people who have undergone trauma tend to relive the past, with no distance from it. In the second form “working-through”—people who have undergone trauma are able to distinguish between past, present, and future. These two forms of remembering define not only individuals, but collective remembrance as well. Actingain -out” consists of uncontrolled repetitive elements of the trauma in the political, social, and cultural life of a group, and Yosef applies it to emphasize the Gordian knot between past and present in contemporary Israeli cinema.

Yosef also introduces another powerful term that was coined by Marianne Hirsch—“Postmemory”—the memory of the second and third generations following the trauma. Those who were born after the traumatic events that their parents underwent are indirectly tied to the trauma through the mediation of the stories and acting out of the previous generations. Yosef describes contemporary Israeli cinema as a cinema of traumatic Postmemory. Therefore, he claims, the cinematic images are a distorted representation and a form of acting-out that prevents the formation of a full and exact remembrance, but rather the images preclude the direct reconstruction of the traumatic experience.

These issues are analyzed in three main categories: political, sexual, and racial. The first category examines the long shadow cast by past Israeli wars. The second focuses on the complex relationships between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews in Israel, and the contemporary rise of the once lost Arab-Jewish identity. The third category analyzes the relationship between gay male sexuality, nationality, and loss. In each category, Yosef analyzes major films from the past decade that reflect the main theme (among them Beaufort, Kippur, Yossi and Jagger, Waltz with Bashir, and more). The detailed cinematic analysis leans on philosophical and physiological theories that enrich it and reveal different facets of the films.

Yosef engages with collective memory and the way it has evolved over the decades due to social and political changes in Israeli society. He points out the ways in which the individual memory is affected by the collective memory and simultaneously affects it. He refuses to deal with questions regarding the true or false representation of reality, but rather explains the meaning of collective trauma and emphasizes the paradox and the unique structure of the traumatic experience, as reflected in present-day Israeli cinema.

The overall analysis examines the ethical stance of contemporary Israeli cinema regarding the mainstream and the margins. A large portion is dedicated to the trauma of “the other.” The emergence of the different voices of trauma and loss, which dominate contemporary Israeli cinema and are examined in the book, marks the collapse of dominant collective ideologies. It reflects the way Israeli cinema has opened itself to the politics of identities, enabling a critical view of past and present. The analysis focuses on how Israeli cinema acts out the many traumas that are rooted in the Israeli identity. Nostalgia is dead. The Israeli directors do not remember the past fondly, but look back in anger, and the past looks back at them and doesn’t let go.

Liat Steir-Livny

Sapir Academic College and the Open University

Israel