For a fractured Israel, a film offers ominous lessons from the ancient past
JERUSALEM — A gripping political thriller swept across cinema screens in Israel this summer, with the film prompting passionate debate and striking a particularly resonant chord, particularly with Israel’s precarious new government.
Right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged lawmakers to watch the film during the recent, stormy session of parliament. The new president, Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the centre-left Labor Party, said if he could, he would screen it for every child in the country.
The epic, animated drama, “Legend of Destruction,” is being widely cast as a cautionary tale for a largely polarized society. The effect of the film is even more surprising as it depicts the catastrophic events in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
At that time, the first Jewish rebellion against the Romans had turned into a bloody civil war between rival Jewish factions, culminating in the Romans’ sacking and destruction of the Second Temple and their rebuilding of the Holy City.
The bitter civil war changed the course of Judaism and gave rise to the Talmudic concept that the fall of Jerusalem was caused by squabbles and “sinat chinum”, a Hebrew word usually translated as baseless hatred.
A graphic and disturbing depiction of the existential threat posed by such internal conflict, the film is soul-searching among its audiences – and the country’s still-new leader urges that its lessons be heeded.
After years of toxic political discourse and division, Mr. Bennett declared national unity as a mission of his diverse coalition, which took power in June and was made up of small parties at the centre, right and left and, for the first time, Is. Arab Party.
And he is using the temple parable to warn his opponents, led by his notoriously divisive predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to reduce the vitriol and attempt to outlaw his new government.
“You are not against the government,” Mr Bennett told opposition lawmakers before recommending that he see the film. “You are pitting yourself against the state, against the good of the nation.”
The film opens in AD 66, with the Jewish majority on Yom Kippur atoning for their sins in the temple courtyard. Four years later, the temple is in smoldering ruins. The Romans grieved and starved after their rival warlords burned each other’s granaries to find the Jewish population, tired of the internal struggle to take back the city.
Its pervasive sense of apocalyptic destruction speaks to the fear of Israelis at a time when internal conflict appears more dangerous than external enemies. Ideology has given way to identity politics and social scholarship. The country is torn by religious-secular tensions; ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs and Jews of Middle Eastern and European descent; And, in recent years, a growing gap between Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters and opponents.
Israeli leaders have drawn sharply on lessons from Jewish history, noting that Jews enjoyed two previous sovereignty over the land in antiquity, but both lasted about 70 or 80 years – one for the modern state. The touching reminder, which was founded in 1948, has crossed the 70-year mark.
“This is the third instance of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel,” Mr. Bennett said in a recent interview. “We messed it up twice before — and mainly because of domestic polarization.”
Even before watching the film, in his inaugural speech in June — made almost inaudible by constant heckling — he sparked past controversies that “burned our house down on us.”
And in a speech marking Israel’s 73rd Independence Day, the army chief, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochawi, referred to the devastating lack of solidarity in the past. “While Titus’s soldiers gathered outside Jerusalem,” he said, referring to the forces led by the future Roman emperor, “the Jewish fighters refused to unite within, and when factionalism prevailed over patriotism, The Romans overcame the Jews.”
Though over the years, the July release of “Legend of Destruction” couldn’t have been more timely. Its director, Gidi Dar, began work on it as the Arab Spring turned to winter and civil war tore apart neighboring Syria. As it progressed, he said, it became increasingly relevant to Israel.
In May, a deadly flash of mob violence between Arabs and Jews raised fears of civil war. In June, after four inconclusive elections in two years, Mr. Bennett formed his fragile coalition that is still in its first 100 days and rules with a very thin majority.
“You flourish, then you crash,” said Mr. Dar. “The dangerous moment is now. There we are.”
A secular Israeli, Mr. Dar believes the country is in a spiritual crisis, lacking vision and purpose.
Referring to what he called “super violent discourse” on politics, society and the Internet, he said, “The point is to raise the alarm before it goes, not after. It’s like what our ancestors have been telling us for thousands of years.” are ‘Look what happened to us. Don’t be complacent.'”
The film uses a new technique made from 1,500 paintings. Top Israeli actors cast their roles against the haunting soundtrack of the fabled temple musical. Without taking sides, it tells the story of a civil war through the eyes of a young enthusiast less driven by religious bigotry than by hatred of social injustice and corruption.
Israelis left and right have praised the film as arguing for a new climate of tolerance. But not everyone agrees with this message.
At least one far-right former legislator disputed the narrative of self-destruction, arguing that the Romans were to blame, not the Jewish infiltration. Others doubted that the film would have any lasting impact.
Ideological disputes are nothing new for Israelis, said Tehila Schwartz Altschuller, an expert on democracy in the information age at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research group in Jerusalem. But now, she said, dissent had turned into hatred, which was fueled by social media. “You can compel every teen in Israel to see this film, but everyone will find it a reinforcement of their current thoughts and beliefs.”
Mr Netanyahu’s aides continue to denounce Mr Bennett’s government as a fraud, which rightly rests on “stolen” votes and “supporters of terrorism”, meaning Arab lawmakers.
And after an Israeli soldier was fatally shot by a Palestinian terrorist on the Gaza border last month, Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters sought to capitalize on the incident, calling army commanders weak and restrained and Mr. Bennett to the soldier’s blood. as was depicted.
The public attack on the legitimacy of the military prompted Chief of Staff General Kochavi to issue a special statement in support of its soldiers with an ominous warning: “A society that does not support its soldiers and commanders, even when mistakes are made.” are done, you will find that there is no one left to fight for it.”
Before Yom Kippur, which falls on Thursday, some Israelis were viewing their government as a last-ditch experiment to see if right and left, Jews and Arabs, could work together.
Failure would be “a disaster”, said Micah Goodman, a philosopher and popular author with whom Mr. Bennett consults.
He said that thinking of internal division as an existential threat was new to Israel, and ignited by a new sensitivity to Jewish history, along with the global issue of potentially increasing polarization.
The problem, he said, was what he called “demonetisation of the government” which is trying to end demonetisation.
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