Cin­e­ma and Zion­ism: The Devel­op­ment of a Nation Through Film

Ariel L. Feldestein; Mer­av Pagis, trans.
  • Review
By – June 11, 2013

Ariel Feldestein’s vol­ume sur­veys the devel­op­ment of cin­e­ma in Israel from the pro­mul­ga­tion of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion in 1917 through the rise of Hitler and the out­break of World War II, focus­ing on three indige­nous film­mak­ers and three from over­seas. Though it makes some valu­able points, the book – which is sig­nif­i­cant­ly ham­pered by a stilt­ed trans­la­tion into Eng­lish from Feldestein’s orig­i­nal Hebrew – will be of inter­est main­ly to a few spe­cial­ists who are con­ver­sant with a small cor­pus of obscure films. 

Although a few of the films Feldestein dis­cuss­es aspired to the sta­tus of main­stream enter­tain­ment, most were con­ceived as lit­tle more than pro­pa­gan­da. The film­mak­ers seemed to be inter­est­ed pri­mar­i­ly in devel­op­ing, and then recy­cling, a series of stock images that would rein­force the found­ing ideals of the Zion­ist enter­prise. The book does pro­vide a valu­able cat­a­log of this iconog­ra­phy: the effete, first-gen­er­a­tion immi­grant from the Dias­po­ra who gives way, and gives rise, to the hearty, self-suf­fi­cient sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion sabra; the sub­or­di­na­tion of indi­vid­ual inter­ests to the col­lec­tive; the bloom­ing of the desert; the role of the essen­tial­ly sec­u­lar pio­neers to pre­serve and pro­tect ancient reli­gious sites, sects, and folk­ways in a man­ner that calls to mind how muse­um cura­tors treat the col­lec­tions in their charge.

Feldestein seems bent on resus­ci­tat­ing the rep­u­ta­tions of these film­mak­ers and their works, most of which are acces­si­ble only through prints pre­served in repos­i­to­ries such as the Steven Spiel­berg Jew­ish Film Archive at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty in Jerusalem. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Feldestein’s own analy­ses often under­mine this objec­tive. The films, at least as he describes them, seem to have been prim­i­tive even by the stan­dards of the peri­od in which they were made. While Feldestein laments the lack of sup­port of inter­na­tion­al Zion­ist agen­cies for the efforts of indige­nous film­mak­ers like Yaa­cov Ben-Dov, the read­er is like­ly to agree with the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of those agen­cies who point­ed out that the works they were being asked to spon­sor were embar­rass­ing­ly poor, and that the agen­cies’ resources would be far bet­ter spent elsewhere.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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