September 20, 2007

Firing Away, Again (on the new Altalena DocuDrama)

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:03 am by yisraelmedad

Firing Away, Again


By Yisrael Medad


(this is the original version of an op-ed, before editong, published in the Jerusalem Post)

   At the Venice Film Festival early this month, British director Peter Greenaway spoke of his latest effort, “Nightwatching”, a movie about Rembrandt van Rijn. The movie, in the style of docu-drama, zeros in on three women in the painter’s life. “I can’t prove every single fact, but you can’t disprove it either,” Greenaway told a news conference.  Words, I would presume, with which Israeli playwright Motti Lerner would agree. Lerner, grandson of one of two woman presumed to have revealed to the Turkish authorities the spying activities of Sarah Aharonson in Zichron Yaakov in 1917, leading to her arrest, torture and eventual suicide, is indeed a theater personage of note.  He has previously staged “Messianic Pangs”, “Death of Yitzhak” (in English, though, it is “Murder of Isaac”) with its infamous urination scene, and “Bus 300” as well as “Kastner’s Trial” among others.  In his “A Battle in Jerusalem”, a television drama shown over Channel One, 20 soldiers during the 1948 war are sent to take an Arab position near Jerusalem. After a day of difficult fighting they retreat but blow up the position with their wounded in it. In describing the plot of “Death of Yitzhak”, Lerner explained his basic beliefs which he sought to inculcate into his art “that religious fanaticism was and is grounds for innumerable wars; and the fact that nationalistic and racist fanaticism still constitute[s] a central component of our culture”. (1)   Incidentally, the play was refused a stage in Israel so Lerner took it to Germany for production.  But it was the Kastner play that attained for him a place in all Israeli law schools – and no small amount of notoriety if not disrepute – when the subject of “freedom of expression” is taught. In its script, produced for Channel Two television more than a decade ago, Lerner takes license with his Hannah Szenes‘s character and suggests she handed over to the Hungarian police two parachutists from Eretz-Yisrael.  The incident not only didn’t take but it couldn’t have.  Szenes was already imprisoned when they arrived in the Hungarian capital. The scene was a figment of his imagination.  High Court President Aharon Barak decided, in the majority opinion, that an artist’s right to freely express himself, even if he not only takes license with historical fact but actually falsifies what happened, is protected from libel action.  Barak awarded him, then, the right to slander.  Justice Mishael Cheshin passionately disagreed writing that this is not a situation of two equal rights but of a primary right, the truth, which perforce must take precedence. As Sarah Honig wrote in these pages back in 1999: Lerner’s MO is to smite idols.  Another of his targets was Dov Gruner.  Irgun underground fighter Gruner, captured after a successful arms raid in Ramat Gan in 1946, was executed by the British, after adamantly refusing to ask for clemency. In an ITV docudrama, Lerner shows him as having been callously brainwashed by his heartless IZL commanders, including Menachem Begin. Honig continued that Lerner preferred that we TV consumers learn his version of history, that “Gruner was no hero. He was a stupid dupe”.  She concluded that Lerner deals in pseudo-history. Lerner, moreover, has a current political agenda and not just one that readjusts the past.  As he has written in a paper presented at Brandeis University, he believes that Israeli society suffers from a “disease”.  This disease is “that most Israelis do not recognize the simple and clear truth that there is a Palestinian people…his disease is the total denial of the Palestinian narrative…we, Israelis, must admit that this disease, which I’ve just described, is not very different from the same old racism that we suffered from for more than 20 centuries.” (2) In a short while, Channel Two will be showing a new Lerner docu-drama.  This time it will purport to portray what happened when the Altalena arrived in Israel in June 1948.  Already, evidence is mounting that, once again, Lerner is taking liberty with history.  Yoske Nachmias learned that his character in the series will be firing a submachine gun at IDF soldiers at the Kfar Vitkin beach, a clash that occurred a day prior to the shooting that took place off Tel Aviv’s beachfront, and that Begin will be hiding behind him, trying to protect himself.  Nachmias informed the “but that never took place.”  He could only reply, with a shrug of the shoulders, that that was how the script is written.  Indeed, the responsibility lies with the producer and the scriptwriter.  But Lerner’s future crimes against history can be corrected.  In the first instance, the series should contain a disclaimer prominently stating that this is a work of fiction and that any coincidence with fact is not intended.  If “Law and Order” can do that, Channel Two’s Keshet concessionaire surely can.   Secondly, instead of “Altalena”, why not call the boat “Shimshon”?  Haim Hazaz published a book entitled “In One Chain” about the Irgun’s Meir Feinstein and the Lechi’s Moshe Barazani who, sentenced to be hanged, preferred to blow themselves up with a smuggled primitive hand grenade.  All the names of the characters, major and minor, were changed.  It did not detract from the story and made it clear that he was interpreting in a fictitious fashion an historical reality.  He could not have known what conversations transpired between the two and so, he emphasized that history and its theatrical interpretation and two different things. Except for perhaps some 100 persons or less, no one who was involved in the Altalena incident is now alive.  Upwards of several millions eventually will “learn” what supposedly happened from Lerner’s version.  Very few will read a book that would present them an alternative narrative.  The medium of docu-drama is subtle and facile and prone to convincing an unwitting audience that what they see is real and true.  I might even suggest that the TV screen is too small a platform for the large expanse of history that the Altalena represents.   Given his propensity both for an ideological antipathy to his subjects as well as his proven record of twisting the truth for its questionable dramatic worth, Lerner should be forced to make these small alterations. ———-Yisrael Medad comments on political, cultural and media themes and blogs at ——————————  Notes:(1) (2)