At a discussion on Israel at last weekend’s Limmud NY conference in East Brunswick, an audience member criticized Israel’s hasbara — or public diplomacy — efforts, pointing especially to the state funding of two films that will vie for an Academy Award in the best documentary feature category Sunday night.
The Gatekeepers features interviews with six former heads of Israel’s Shin Bet security service. The aging veterans speak of the difficult decisions they had to make in the name of defending Israel, and nearly all come to the conclusion that Israel must take more risks to achieve peace with the Palestinians. When director Dror Moreh asks Avraham Shalom, who headed the agency in the 1980s, with whom Israel should be negotiating, Shalom answers, “Anyone,” including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
In 5 Broken Cameras, a Palestinian-Israeli-French coproduction that also received funding from the government-funded Israel Film Council, a Palestinian farmer videotapes the encroachment of his village by the nearby Jewish settlement of Modi’in Illit. According to the film, a fence that protects the settlement also cuts off the village farmers from much of their land and olive groves.
The films offer a challenging and at times painful view of the conflict, bound to make American-Jewish audiences more uncomfortable than those in Israel, where this kind of self-examination is a fixture in the Israeli media. The audience member made a fair point in asking if Israel is doing itself any favors by exporting the kinds of discussions that may be useful at home but damaging abroad.
But that’s not the only fair point. The other is that such films, and the courage of the country that helps fund them, is a testament to the seriousness with which Israel regards the responsibility of being a free society. It is also a testament to a country whose warriors seem eager to lay down their swords and fight for peace. In truth, the audience for these kinds of films is relatively small, but the message they send to the world about Israeli democracy is epic.