The COVID-19 crisis has not left culture unscathed. One after another, cultural institutions in Israel and around the world have closed. Numerous artists have been forced to deal with the severe economic fallout the crisis has caused. Yet, new ways of creating and consuming art have also been found. As in other areas of life, culture too has shifted to another format. Writers’ meetings on Facebook, virtual tours of museums and live music shows have proven that the public does not readily give up on culture.
Last year’s Assessment emphasized television’s centrality as a major cultural medium in the present era. Streaming and VOD technologies have wrought real change in how television is consumed and have boosted its artistic and cultural standing. The coronavirus further underscored this state of affairs. We can expect that technology’s penetration into the art world will continue in the near future and will influence how culture is created and consumed.
Crisis within a Crisis
For many of those Israelis engaged in culture, COVID-19 is nothing but a crisis within a crisis. Some of the institutions and branches of the cultural market in Israel felt the rope tightening around their necks even before the health crisis. This, for example, was the situation for the national theater, “Habima.” Shortly before the crisis broke, it was revealed that the theater had accrued a deficit of almost 100 million shekels ($29 million). There was genuine fear that the theater would collapse. But after an orderly rehabilitation plan – including a settlement with creditors – was put in place, the COVID-19 crisis erupted and undermined the plan.
The economic difficulties have brought with them growing criticism of the content performed in the theaters. Many people of culture believe that the repertory theater in Israel has lowered the standard of its productions in order to fill its coffers. Those who manage the various stages prefer to put on entertainment shows and musicals and not to invest in quality productions or in theater with biting messages.
Publishing in Israel has also suffered from the economic crisis. For years, young authors have been forced to pay a portion of the publishing costs of their books. The publishers face difficulty dealing with declining readerships and struggle to sell books, especially those by unknown authors. Small bookshops are fighting for their place against the large chains, and all were shuttered during the COVID-19 crisis, with some sustaining very heavy damage.
The Return to Lebanon
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon after a presence there that gave rise to quite a few important cultural works and influenced an entire generation of Israelis who served there as soldiers. Ahead of this anniversary, the documentary series “War without a Name” was broadcast on Israeli television (Kan, Israel Rosner and Mati Friedman, 2020). The series deals with the Israeli presence in Lebanon from the end of the First Lebanon War in 1982 until the withdrawal in May 2000. A very long period of tough and debilitating battle that was never defined as a war. The series examines the main events in the process of becoming mired in the Lebanese mud, and aroused much interest.
In December 2019, a few months before the series was broadcast, a book by the journalist Haim Har-Zahav was published: Lebanon: The Lost War. It describes the military presence in Lebanon from the standpoint of the fighters, as well as the protest movement against it.
As shown in the series, Har-Zahav’s book decries the omission of the war from the official record, and the refusal to recognize the long years of combat as a war. Simultaneously with the documentary works about the war, an active Facebook group, “Stories from Lebanon – What Happened in the Outposts,” began and grew rapidly. Created by the director, Eyal Shahar, the group has almost 36,000 members, all of them soldiers who served in Lebanon. Through Facebook, they share moments from the past, descriptions of heroism and pride, but also difficult moments of terror and trauma. Following the public discourse, the outgoing Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced the establishment of a special team to consider awarding a special decoration to combat soldiers who served in Lebanon.
Lebanon was fertile ground for Israeli creativity. For example, “Waltz with Bashir” (Ari Folman, 2008) and “Lebanon” (Samuel Maoz, 2009) deal with the First Lebanon War. Both films offer unique cinematic expression that sharpens the intensity of the soldiers’ trauma and the continuing difficulty in telling the story. Foman weaves segments of animation into his docudrama and, in fact, all the memories of Lebanon are animations. In an interview, he said that without animation, he wouldn’t have been able to create the film or to deal with the Lebanese sore. Most of Maoz’s film (except for its opening and closing scenes) was shot inside a tank; exterior views are shown through the tank’s gun sight, an artistic choice that expresses the claustrophobic pressure and the trauma its crew, and the director himself, experienced. Ron Leshem’s 2005 book, Beaufort, is another prominent work based on the Lebanon experience. It deals with the final months of the Israeli presence in Lebanon and describes the lives of the soldiers assigned to Beaufort Castle, who are preoccupied with the question of who will be the last to die in Lebanon. Joseph Cedar’s film, “Beaufort” (2008), a cinematic adaptation of Leshem’s book, describes the claustrophobic atmosphere in that isolated position.
National traumas and wounds are recurring themes in Israeli culture. Yaron Zilberman’s 2019 film “Days of Awe” deals with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.1 It describes the events leading up to the murder from the point of view of the assassin, Yigal Amir. The film, retitled “Incitement” for its international release, won the 2019 Ofir Prize for best drama and was nominated as Israel’s entry in the best international film category of the 92nd Academy Awards.
The television series “Our Boys” (2019) by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfiq Abu Wael (a co-production of Keshet International and HBO) also deals with trauma. The series opens with the kidnapping of Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaer, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrah in the summer of 2014 (the onset of the events that culminated in Operation Protective Edge in Gaza), and continues with the kidnapping and murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, an Arab youth whose death was planned to avenge the Jewish boys’ murders.
Unlike the works previously mentioned here, “Our Boys” generated a complex public reaction in Israel. The film was condemned by both the right and the left. On his Facebook page, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the series anti-Semitic, and various critics on the left claimed that it was too forgiving of the Jewish murderers and did not adequately describe Palestinian suffering.2 The series name, “Our Boys,” aroused anger among viewers who believed that it would deal exclusively with the kidnap and murder of the three Jewish boys.
The fact that the series was made in partnership with HBO and was marketed in the United States raised questions. Some claimed that the foreign viewer cannot understand the conflict’s complexity and that, for this reason the series plays into anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hands.
The series won the appreciation of the judges at the Israeli Television Academy ceremony, earning 14 prizes, including for best series. The Arab actors, Ruba Blal-Asfur and Johnny Arbid, boycotted the ceremony because it was held on Israel’s Independence Day (which they mark as Naqba Day, after the Palestinian “calamity”). Blal-Asfur , who refused to accept the prize, condemned the event.
Lindbergh and Trump
In March and April 2020, HBO broadcast “The Plot Against America,” a six-part mini-series adaptation of the late Jewish author Philip Roth’s famous book. The series was produced by David Simon, himself one of the most important television creators in the Jewish world. The story is told from the point of view of the Levin family of New Jersey, which is portrayed in the image of the Roth family, and describes a fictional world in which the aviator, Charles Lindbergh, who identified with the Nazi movement in the 1940s, is elected President of the United States instead of Franklin Roosevelt. Following the election, the United States becomes fascist and virulently anti-Semitic.
The series, like the book, won plaudits. In various interviews, Simon emphasized the link between the fictional events that Roth described and the situation in the United States today (rising anti-Semitism and xenophobia). Simon even compared Trump to the Lindbergh character in the book and the series, a comparison many American Jews accept. There are, though, other voices too in the Jewish discourse. Prof. Ruth Wisse, in a lecture on liberalism and anti-Semitism, rejected Simon’s comparison as erroneous and misleading.3 To her, the focus on Trump and movements on the right is mistaken and that the true danger to the Jews comes from the liberal left that works to delegitimize Israel and Zionism.
Another notable series dealing with Jews in the United States was “Unorthodox” (Maria Schrader, 2020), the first Netflix production in Yiddish. The series is based on the true story of Deborah Feldman who was raised in Satmar Hasidism in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and later disavowed it.4
The series, which stars the Israeli actress Shira Hass (nominated for an Emmy Award) and features a large cast of Israelis and was shot in New York and Berlin, describes the difficulties of disconnecting from a closed Haredi society. It also has a feminist angle, of course, which corresponds with another series, “Miss America,” which portrays the struggle of feminists, most of them Jewish, in 1970s America. For more about the series, see page 176.
Reactions to “Unorthodox” have varied. Some of the most interesting came from within the Haredi world, like that of Rachel Freier, a Haredi judge from Brooklyn. Freier stated that the series distorts the Haredi reality, with its emphasis on sexual relations.5 Her reaction was similar to previous cases in which Haredi leaders reacted to works that deal with the community from the outside. An exception to this is “Shtisel,” which features strong and opinionated Haredi women without explicit sexual content and was more sympathetic in its portrayal of daily human life in the Haredi world. Of course, any comparison between the two series must take into account the differences between the two communities they portray, the Satmar in Williamsburg versus the Haredim of Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem.