Thursday, October 27, 2016

"Rabin in His Own Words"

Yesterday, the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University held its fourth annual Yitzhak Rabin memorial event by screening Erez Laufer's bio-pic "Rabin in His Own Words," followed by a talk-back with the director. In conversation afterwards Laufer explained that the film had been timed to be released on the twentieth anniversary of the assassination of the Israeli Prime Minister and long-time military and public figure and broadcast on a minor Israeli docu-channel. Laufer worked on the film for about fifteen months, pretty much around the clock, using extensive archival recordings publicly available at the Rabin Center, among other sources. Among his notable revelations were the extraordinary statements Rabin made on the settlements as a "cancer" on Israeli society and the premonition of an Israeli Apartheid state if they were allowed to grow. Laufer told us that Rabin had included some of these statements in the draft of his autobiography but they were expunged by the political censor. While he had to leave them out of the Hebrew version of his book he went on and leaked them to the New York Times so they became public knowledge after all.

The film is moving. It provides a history of the modern state of Israel from the British Mandate period where Rabin came of age as the son of Russian immigrants and a young Palmachnik charged with helping immigrant survivors of the Shoah to enter Palestine illegally, acts for which he was detained by the British along with his father, who had nothing to do with it and did everything to help his son not to feel guilty about it. The narrative moves through the great moments of Israel's history: the run-up to the war of independence in '48, when Rabin was a commander in Jerusalem who helped a Haganah convoy to break the blockade of the city but helplessly witnessed the demise of a group of 14 to 16 year-old recruits and the evacuation of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; the re-capture of the Old City in 1967 that was both filmed and simulcast on Israeli radio; the horrors of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the subsequent demise of the labor party elite and the ugly power struggle between himself and Shimon Peres; his first stint as Prime Minister that ended in scandal and the elections of Menachem Begin as Prime Minister; his stint as Secretary of Defense in a national unity government in the late eighties that saw the rise of Palestinian violence in the occupied territories; his pivot toward the PLO ("Ashaf") in the nineties; his vilification by the opposition; and his final moments.

In between, Laufer mounts scenes Rabin took with his small old-fashioned film camera, home movies that allow you to see the world through Rabin's eyes in addition to hearing his spoken and written voice. These scenes, mostly of his wife and children, his father and sister, at home, in Washington D.C. during his stint as ambassador, and on vacation, are sweet and gentle, contrasting with the seriousness of the sepia-toned documentary moments of struggle, and stark television footage of terrorist violence, political demonstrations, and prime-ministerial statements.

What emerges is a consistent character. Without the aid of voice-over and with minimal explanatory panels that reference dates, places, and events - presupposing viewer familiarity with the general story - we get acquainted with a very curious, very Israeli, very shy leader, who loves his stern mother, his caring father, his sister, and his children, serves his country in several distinguised positions of leadership, weathers threats and crises, and in a certain way never changes. He is always the same loving, terse, shy person who does what he believes is right and good for his people and his country. No wonder, Bill Clinton is proud to have called him haver, friend. One gets the sense one meets an antique hero, a simple man who rose through the ranks of service and took on the leadership of his country in times of need. An old-fashioned patriot who doesn't excel through rhetoric, who is not a politician but a leader, a reflective do-er.

Arabs make scant appearances in this documentary, as if they played a marginal role in Rabin's life. With the exception of a few leaders such as Egypt's president Anwar al-Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, and Yasser Araft, they only appear as collectives, in contexts of war, expulsion, and in visual cues such as areal shots of villages and landscapes. We hear only a few Arab voices and they only speak Hebrew or English: a student from Nazareth who asks why Israel is not negotiating with the PLO (this was before the 90's); construction workers demanding living wages but also respond to the star-power of the moment of interaction with the Prime Minister; King Hussein in 1994, on a diplomatic occasion. The film shows the document in which Rabin - at then-PM Ben Gurion's command - orders the evacuation of the Arabs of Lod, leading to acts of violence that persuade the Arabs of neighboring Ramle, which is next on the list, to leave voluntarily. He then orders his men to clean up the mess before an imminent Red Cross inspection. In a pivotal statement about Gush Emunim and the settlements, he berates them for having turned something that should be a matter of government or politics (mediniyut) into a matter of value (inyan erki). He is incensed. The opposition runs deep. He has the first settlements cleared, but then he loses power and is sidelined, while Begin reaps the benefits of Rabin's policies of reconciliation with Egypt and makes the settlements a matter of policy. Rabin pays the ultimate price for applying his belief in legitimate coexistence between Israel and its Arab neighbors to the Palestinians. But it is not clear what he was thinking or who he was talking to. He merely appears dogged in his pursuit of the peace process (tahalikh ha-shalom) in the face of terror. Who were the Arabs that gave him the confidence that such a historic reconciliation was possible? Who did he listen to? Who gave him advice? What did he really think? Or was he as abstract in his thinking as he comes across toward the end, when his statements become even more terse, when he is booed and vilified by the opposition and can show his face in public only under security protection. We don't hear. The last word, btw, is not the assassination. Rabin has nothing to say about it, so it would be dramatically inappropriate. It is not the speech he gave in Tel Aviv in 1995 but Rabin's boyish smile and a gentle interaction with a teen he passes, who does not want to look at him nor get out of his way, with whom Rabin interacts gently.

By using Rabin's voice and because Rabin was not much of a talker, the film gives only a few hints to the most painful moments in Rabin's life: the loss of his mother; the guilt about his father's internment and failing to make it back from D.C. before he died; his collapse in the run-up to the June '67 war that made him wonder why he didn't have what it took, as chief of staff, to stop a war he thought could be avoided; his beloved wife's public disgrace because of a harmless financial oversight; seeing his society destroyed by the perils of peace and security that emanated from fanatics exploited by opposition politicians. One would have wished this timely film a stronger response in Israel, but perhaps it is still not the moment for soul-searching. The cancer is still growing. The fever may need to run its course. I would not be surprised if this film will be rediscovered before long and exert the effect of its quiet, complicated, morally ambivalent message and allow for Rabin to reemerge, as he did so many times during his lifetime, as a posthumous icon of what is right, even though it is not always good.

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