Summer 2012

Israeli Cinema: Perverting the Image of Holocaust Survivors

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The Zionist Agenda

Dr. Liat Steir-Livny
Dr. Steir-Livny's research analyzes Israeli cinematography and the Holocaust experience by considering genres and time periods. She looks at narrative fiction vs. documentary film, each of which represents a different way of presenting memory, and she examines six time periods – 1945-1961 (until the Eichmann Trial); and the subsequent five decades.

In the early days of the State, both narrative fiction and documentary films were created with a very specific objective in mind: to advance the building of the country. "Most of the films, whether narrative fiction or documentary, made from the 1940s through the early 1960s, were pro-Zionist, with simplistic, often English language scripts (they were geared to donors). The story line usually went like this: a problem-ridden young survivor comes to Israel and cannot adjust to the new reality but Israeli society's warmth and embracing attitude is what 'cures' the survivor."

Most film researchers agree that this is true, at least until the Eichmann trial. The trial, with its 110 public testimonies, brought to the public's consciousness for the first time, in graphic detail, the story of the Holocaust and the individuals who survived it. As such, Israeli documentary and narrative fiction films reflected this new 'understanding' vis a vis Holocaust survivors.

But Dr. Steir-Livny disagrees. "Based on my research, I find no such indication. The negative stereotypes of Holocaust survivors continued to dominate Israeli narrative fiction films. The only change that did occur was with documentary films. In the latter part of the 1960s documentary films began to describe the Holocaust itself, and not only its Zionist lesson."

Dr. Steir-Livny also repudiates the notion that narrative fiction films in the 1980s and 1990s made an effort to correct the negative image of the Holocaust survivor.

"When you examine Israeli fiction films from this period – such as the award winning "Summer of Aviya" – you find here, too, that filmmakers had an agenda. Instead of promoting Zionism, as was the agenda in the 1940s and 1950s, their agenda was to criticize how poorly veteran Israelis treated Holocaust survivors. And, while this may have been true, their films use Holocaust survivor's misery in order to criticize the veterans: stereotyped Holocaust survivors are portrayed as living on the sidelines of Israeli society, without undergoing any process of change. This is just as damaging, or even worse than the early films, which at least ended with the survivor integrating into Israeli society."

What accounted for the more positive documentary cinematic view of Holocaust survivors and their contribution to the State? According to Dr. Liat Steir-Livny – "second and third generation Holocaust survivors," and she counts herself among them.

A Personal Agenda

Dr. Steir-Livny began her undergraduate studies on Israeli cinema largely due to the subject matter and its personal affinity to her own life story. A third generation Holocaust survivor, her life had been filled with stories from her maternal grandparents; to this day, her 95-year old grandfather continues to share many of his memories.

In the 1980s Israeli documentary film began its most dramatic changes. "It was during this period, when most filmmakers were second generation Holocaust survivors, that stories heard at home or in the neighborhood began to find their way to the screen. Story lines, rather than suffering from the superficiality of previous films, now engaged in a serious discussion about survival, the scars and the trauma."

Yet, the narrative fiction films still remained wedded to one ideology or another, and extraordinarily simplistic in their approach. One exception is Eitan Fuchs' 2004 film "Walk on Water," in which a Holocaust survivor holds an important position within the Israeli establishment.

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