Attorney General John Ashcroft recently spoke at the Stand for Israel conference, a partnership of Jews and Christian fundamentalist who lobby on behalf of conservative Israeli interests. The Christians, for their part, believe that Biblical Israel’s full restoration (which includes territory not currently under its control) is required in order for Armageddon, the rapture, and Judgment Day to commence post haste. It’s an odd shack up, especially when one considers that the annihilation and/or conversion of the Jews is also part and parcel of the prophecies that the Christians are so horny for. No matter how postmodern our times may seem, the Arab-Israeli conflict reminds us we’re still trapped by age-old blood feuds.
A Nation is Born begins with the rise of Nazism and ends with Clinton’s lame-duck lunges toward peace. With few exceptions, the documentary follows the standard method of splicing incredible archival footage with witness testimonies. This is not a people’s history, but rather a history of the political maneuvering and military acumen that sustained a fledgling nation embedded within its enemies.
Narrator and commentator Abba Eban brings his own history, as Israel’s representative to the United Nations during the 1948 negotiations for independence, and later as Ambassador to the U.S. and Israel’s Foreign Minister. His insider’s grasp of detail and eloquence make his glosses on events particularly engrossing; he also breaks up the documentary’s serious tone with catty asides, like his comment about former Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles: “Not that he had enemies, but that this friends were not very fond of him”.
As the choice of Eban indicates, the documentary is not a multi-faceted view of Israel’s history. Still, it offers startling facts and observations in the interests of preventing a lapse into maudlin hagiography. Given that the current conflict is frequently framed as “Israelis versus terrorists,” it’s perhaps useful to be reminded that, during the British occupation of Palestine, the Haganah (one of the Jewish resistance groups) was portrayed in the international press as a terrorist movement. The Haganah killed civilians as part of their strategy to remove the British—when they blew up the King David Hotel, 76 people died.
Eban also notes that one of the suspected terrorists, Menachim Begin, went on to serve as an Israeli Prime Minister. Although not exactly objective, A Nation is Born also features stories of Israeli subterfuge and illegal acquisitions of land. Still, there are noticeable omissions, namely Arab perspectives and commentators. Like it or not, the history of Israel cannot be separated from the history of Arabs in the region. Anwar Sadat appears briefly, but only to offer somewhat begrudging allegiance to Hitler as the “enemy of my enemy.”
Israelis, from the socialist founders to the right-wing settlers of Likud, represent a broad political range. In the interest of presenting Arabs with similarly complex and wide-ranging views, the documentary might have included people such as Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi, who famously disagree with the historical record presented here. Most importantly, neither of them is a frothing anti-Semite.
The documentary is most invested in showing how Israelis have struggled to create, protect, and sustain their nation. From the Holocaust to the wars with their surrounding neighbors, there have been very few years of Israeli life where normalcy could actually take root. Yet, A Nation is Born consciously takes a hopeful tone, highlighting the repeatedly resurrected peace processes.
The birth of Israel is so recent that it appears difficult to pose stable questions, let alone answers, about its future. The lands and identities that forged this young nation are still in bitter, bloody dispute, peppering our nightly newscasts with new horrors and new efforts for peace.