It’s been a banner year for Jews with guns. From Gaza to the Golden Globes, it’s suddenly de rigeur to talk about Jews and militarism in the same breath, as if the equation is a natural one. Reminder to the world: It’s not. A few months ago, at dinner with a centrist American-Jewish friend, at the beginning of a discussion about Gaza, he said: “Without Israel, in 40 years, we’ll all be back in death camps.”
I smiled wryly, and rolled my eyes, thinking he was kidding. He was kidding, right? Right? He glared, deadly serious. “I mean it,” he said. “Without Israel, we’d all be in the sea.”
Two months later, accounts of civilian abuse in Gaza began emerging, throwing my friend’s concern into sharp relief. How, I wondered, would he respond to these accusations? Would he (and the American Jewish community at large) be able to see them as anything more than blood libel?
The screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds this week at Cannes, arriving on the heels of the simultaneous release of Waltz With Bashir and Defiance in American theaters a few months ago may be able to offer the best answer. There’s something profoundly poignant about all three films and their underlying question: what happens when the world’s perpetual scapegoats are offered a chance to be on the other side of power, the other side of history? And can American Jews conceive of themselves as something more than victims?
These are valid and timely questions, and notable ones given that Waltz with Bashir was uneasily greeted by many American Jews. Why? Because they were uncomfortable seeing their Israeli brethren portrayed in such morally ambiguous light. This was in stark contrast to Israel, where, when Waltz with Bashir was screened over the summer–a good six months before recent events in Gaza–the film was wildly acclaimed.
Israelis, it seemed, were fully open to a film that portrayed an unromanticized version of war, and willing–if not relieved–to see themselves as both victims and aggressors. As my friend Udi, an IDF veteran said, “I think Israelis walk around with blinders on, that we can only live here by the sword and that justifies everything. And Waltz with Bashir showed the crack in those blinders–that there’s a price to be paid for us using force, and we’re compromising ourselves and our integrity and world.” He shook his head, and averted his eyes. That same day, Israeli troops were moving deeper into Gaza.
That these blinders are partly a result of narratives like Defiance is a fact. For decades after its founding, Israeli society recast the Holocaust as, in large part, a story about Jewish resistance. The partisans were treated with great reverence, and even today, many Israeli students visiting the Warsaw ghetto read aloud from the memoirs of leaders of the ghetto uprising, rather than the records of those who survived the camps. The medium is the message: Jews with guns, fighting back, are our forebearers, and their lives are instructive. We need to be able to save ourselves, because no one else will. Heroism is the trope, and blood is the price.
But for American Jews the narrative in Defiance is, by and large, unfamiliar. Jews in American Holocaust films are quintessential victims; which may be why, at the screening I went to in Brooklyn, there was a palpable frisson of excitement in the air each time a Jew shot a Nazi–an excitement that I’d never seen before at a “Holocaust movie.”
And in Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino, though flippant in his treatment of Nazis and the American-Jews who seek to scalp them, seems to know this: the real currency of both Defiance and Inglourious Basterds is the indulging of revenge fantasies, the fairy tale thrill when victim turns aggressor.
David Rittberg, the grandson of a woman who actually lived and fought with the Bielskis, suggested to me that the message of movies like Inglourious Basterds and Defiance–and the reason they may be so appealing to American Jews–is because they recast Jews as heroes, rather than victims: “For me,” he said, “the message [of Defiance] was that the Jews didn’t sit down and die. They fought and they fought to save each other more than they fought to kill Nazis. That’s what I learned from my grandparents.”
For American Jews, who carry a sense of our own victimhood like Israelis carry their power (uneasily, obsessively, and neurotically), the image of Israeli warriors is seductive, almost comforting.
But for Israelis, particularly those who accompanied me to Defiance, the story of Jewish heroics is overly, if not painfully, familiar, and comes at a cost. In the pivotal and most disturbing scene in the film (which, according to Rittberg’s grandmother, actually happened) when partisans lynch a Nazi, one of my Israeli friends covered her eyes. On the screen, Daniel Craig averted his.
It was an unbearable and terribly uncomfortable moment to watch, suggesting as it did that even during the Holocaust there was moral ambiguity. The line between victim and aggressor is–even in the times when the line between good and evil seems stark–blurry and shifting.
The only problem is that Defiance isn’t unbearable enough. It, like Life is Beautiful, makes the Holocaust palatable for an Oprah-fied America. In Defiance, we are left with a reasonably happy ending, given the possibilities. In Waltz with Bashir, the ending is shameful at best, absolutely wrenching at worst. Leaving Defiance, you need a moment or two to gather yourself, leaving the theater after Waltz with Bashir, language is altogether useless.
The friend I went with to Bashir (the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor) was on the edge of tears for 20 minutes after the credits rolled. In contrast, Defiance, while moving, is at times too easy to watch. It’s not unbearable enough. It makes being a partisan seem, at times, like something in a Kevin Costner film: redemptive, self-edifying, and occasionally, lots of fun. In reality of course, it was a terrible existence. “Based on everything my grandparents told me,” Rittberg told me, “it was absolutely unbearable.”
The Israeli friends I went to Defiance with seemed to know this. When we left the theater, the mood was somber, reflective and circumspect. It is not often that you see Jews on screen with the power to defend themselves, and to kill. (Ah yes, I like this much better. Thanks!) For me, the lone American, this felt like a fantasy, even a fairy tale. For them, it hit closer to home and begged the question: does power always have a price?
It’s a question that’s easier to ask than answer. But Defiance may, in the end, provide its own answer. At the makeshift funeral of two partisans, the Rabbi-cum-teacher of the community offering blessings over the dead riffed this prayer, likely based on Kadya Molodowsky’s 1945 Yiddish Poem, “El Khanun”:
“We have no more blood. Choose another people. Sanctify another land. Choose another people. Take back the gift of our holiness. Amen.”
It took everything we had not to say Amen.
Jordie Gerson is a newly ordained rabbi and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.