In Putting Ultra-Orthodox Jews on Screen, Comedy Works Better Than Tragedy

Jan. 29 2019

Since its debut in 2013, the Israeli television show Shtisel, which revolves around a ḥaredi family in Jerusalem, has become a surprise hit, even generating an audience outside the country. It has been joined by Autonomies, a series set in the future, where Israel has been divided into secular and religious states. Recent years have also seen a number of films about Ḥaredim. Taking stock of some of these works, Sarah Rindner notes their relative successes and failures:

The 2017 U.S. documentary One of Us follows the paths of three young ḥasidic individuals who left the insular community in which they were raised. With brooding music and a disturbing storyline, the filmmakers paint a picture of a repressive, backward society nestled within multicultural Brooklyn. One plot line concerns a young mother who tragically loses custody of her seven children after she leaves her community. . . . The stories are devastating, but we are never told of the existence of ex-Ḥasidim who have warmer relationships with their families. . . . The filmmakers themselves seem to have neither the interest nor the tools to paint a more layered portrait of this community.

A refreshing contrast is offered in Paula Eiselt’s 2018 documentary 93Queen. The film depicts the trials of an all-female ambulance corps in ḥaredi Brooklyn, focusing on its dynamic leader Ruchie Freier. With a lively and evocative soundtrack, itself the product of a ḥasidic alt-rocker Perl Wolfe, 93Queen deals with a less conservative subset of the ḥaredi community than does One of Us and a considerably less fraught situation. [Therefore] 93Queen is able to explore [its characters’] subtleties because it does not paint the community as a monolith—rather, it is a real landscape upon which human life, in all of its variety, can play out. [In other words], One of Us plays as tragedy while 93Queen is a comedy; plenty may be askew, but people live within imperfect reality. Tragedy moves us, but comedy is a lot more like real life for most people.

Israeli cinematic treatment of ḥasidic culture is often in the comic spirit. . . . Shtisel, for example, is hysterical. Who can forget the joy of the grandmother when she gets a television installed in her room in a ḥasidic nursing home: “Master of the Universe, today there is everything!”? The new series Autonomy follows a more tragic line. In the future, ḥaredi political power results in a theocratic police state that is perpetually at odds with, but also a shallow reflection of, its secular, free Jewish counterpart. The extremist rebbe [who leads the former] receives secret shipments of Thucydides, which presumably influences his warmongering. Meanwhile the sympathetic ḥaredi protagonist abandons his family to have an affair with a jazz musician on the secular side of the sociopolitical divide.

The result, writes Rindner, reduces both secular and religious societies to shallow stereotypes.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Film, Israeli culture, Shtisel, Television, Ultra-Orthodox

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat