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Monday, September 20, 2021

For a fractured Israel, a film offers ominous lessons from ancient past

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-winger, urged lawmakers to see the film during a recent stormy session of parliament.

By: New York Times | Jerusalem |
September 12, 2021 11:51:37 am
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at his office in Jerusalem, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021.(Amit Elkayam/The New York Times)

A gripping political thriller swept across cinema screens in Israel this summer, with the movie prompting impassioned debate and striking a particularly resonant chord with Israel’s precarious new government.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-winger, urged lawmakers to see the film during a recent stormy session of parliament. The new president, Isaac Herzog, a former leader of the center-left Labor Party, said that 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 profoundly polarized society. The movie’s impact is all the more surprising given that it depicts calamitous events in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

At that time, the first Jewish revolt against the Romans had devolved into a bloody civil war between rival Jewish factions, culminating in the sacking and destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and their reconquest of the holy city.

The bitter civil war changed the course of Judaism and spawned the Talmudic concept that the fall of Jerusalem was caused by infighting and “sinat chinam,” a Hebrew term usually translated as baseless hatred.

A graphic and disturbing portrayal of the existential danger posed by such internecine conflict, the movie is causing soul-searching among its audiences — and has the country’s still-new leader urging that its lessons be heeded.

After years of toxic political discourse and division, Bennett declared national unity as a mission of his diverse coalition, which took power in June and is made up of parties from the center, right and left and, for the first time, a small Arab party.

And he is using the temple parable to warn his detractors, led by his notoriously divisive predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to tone down the vitriol and efforts to delegitimize his new government.

“You aren’t against the government,” Bennett told opposition lawmakers before recommending that they see the movie. “You are placing yourselves against the state, against the good of the nation.”

The movie opens in 66 A.D., with the Jewish multitudes prostrating themselves in the courtyards of the temple atoning for their sins on Yom Kippur. Four years later, the temple lies in smoldering ruins. The Romans retake the city to find the Jewish population exhausted by internal strife, wretched and starving after their rival warlords burned each other’s grain stores.

Its pervading sense of apocalyptic doom speaks to the fears of Israelis at a moment when internal strife appears more threatening than outside enemies. Ideology has given way to identity politics and social schisms. The country is torn by religious-secular tensions; ethnic frictions between Jews and Arabs and Jews of Middle Eastern and European descent; and, in recent years, a growing chasm between the supporters and opponents of Netanyahu.

Israeli leaders have increasingly drawn on the lessons from Jewish history, noting that the Jews enjoyed two previous periods of sovereignty in the land in ancient times, but both lasted only about 70 or 80 years — a poignant reminder for the modern state that, founded in 1948, has passed the 70-year mark.

“This is the third instance of having a Jewish state in the land of Israel,” Bennett said in a recent interview. “We messed it up twice before — and primarily because of domestic polarization.”

Even before seeing the movie, in his inauguration speech in June — made almost inaudible by constant heckling — he evoked the disputes of the past that “burned our house down on top of us.”

And in a speech marking Israel’s 73rd Independence Day, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the military chief of staff, referred to the disastrous lack of solidarity in the past. “While Titus’ troops 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 prevailed over the Jews.”

Although years in the making, the July release of “Legend of Destruction” could not have been more timely. Its director, Gidi Dar, began working 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 the specter of civil war. In June, after four inconclusive elections in two years, Bennett formed his fragile coalition that is still in its first 100 days and governs by a razor-thin majority.

“You flourish, then you crash,” Dar said. “The dangerous moment is now. We are right there.”

A secular Israeli, Dar believes the country is in a spiritual crisis, lacking vision and purpose.

Referring to what he called the “superviolent discourse” in politics, society and on the internet, he said, “The point is to raise the alarm before it happens, not after. It’s as if our forefathers are telling us across thousands of years, ‘See what happened to us. Don’t be complacent.’”

The movie uses an innovative technique, being made up of 1,500 paintings. Top Israeli actors narrate their roles against a haunting soundtrack of imagined temple music. Without taking sides, it tells the story of the civil war largely through the eyes of a young Zealot motivated less by religious fanaticism than by disgust over social injustice and corruption.

Israelis on the left and right have praised the film as an argument for a new atmosphere of tolerance. But not everybody agrees with the message.

At least one far-right former lawmaker disputed the narrative of self-destruction, arguing that the Romans were to blame, not Jewish infighting. Others doubted the film would have any lasting impact.

Ideological disputes are nothing new for Israelis, said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert in democracy in the information age at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research group in Jerusalem. But now, she said, disagreement had turned into hatred, amplified by social media. “You can force every teenager in Israel to watch this movie, but each one would find in it reinforcement of their current ideas and beliefs.”

Netanyahu’s allies have continued to denounce Bennett’s government as fraudulent, resting on “stolen” votes from the right and reliant on “supporters of terrorism,” meaning Arab lawmakers.

And after a Palestinian militant fatally shot an Israeli soldier along the Gaza border last month, Netanyahu’s supporters sought to capitalize on the event, portraying the army commanders as weak and restrained and Bennett as having the soldier’s blood on his hands.

The public assault on the army’s legitimacy prompted Kochavi, the chief of staff, to issue a special statement in support of his troops with an ominous warning: “A society that does not back up its soldiers and commanders, also when mistakes are made, will find that there is nobody left to fight for it.”

Before Yom Kippur, which falls on Thursday, some Israelis were viewing their government as a last-ditch experiment in whether the right and left, Jews and Arabs, could work together.

Failure would be “a disaster,” said Micah Goodman, a philosopher and popular author with whom Bennett consults.

Thinking about internal division as an existential threat was new for Israelis, he said, and likely ignited by the global issue of growing polarization as well as a new sensitivity to Jewish history.

The problem, he said, was what he called “the demonization of the government that is trying to end demonization.”

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