Children of the holocaust

Wednesday, December 4, 1991

By Peter Boyle

When progressive Israeli film maker Orna Ben-Dor Niv took her most acclaimed film, Because of That War, to the US, she found a reluctance among many more liberal Jews to come to the film.

They were suspicious that this was going to be another holocaust film that sought to justify what Israel was doing in the occupied territories. But Because of That War (which was screened recently in Melbourne and Sydney in the Jewish Film Festival) was not just another holocaust film. It was a personal story as reflected in the lives of children of victims of the holocaust.

"A lot of holocaust films made in Israel have the Zionist solution in them. Mine does not", Ben-Dor Niv, herself a child of holocaust victims, told Green Left. "If I had any message I wanted to bring out through this film, it is that we should be much more tolerant."

She is a firm advocate of a peaceful solution and an independent Palestinian state and an opponent of notions of a "greater Israel". She admires Palestinian leader Dr Hanan Ashrawi and thinks attempts to prosecute Ashrawi for having contact with the PLO are "ridiculous".

Ben-Dor Niv's family came from Romania. During World War II, her grandfather was taken to Siberia while her grandmother was taken to a German concentration camp. Those sent to concentration camps by the Stalinists were branded "Zionists" and those grabbed by the Nazis were called "communists".

When she was young, she never wanted to hear about the holocaust. "My father used to tell me stories — I'd have an hour of holocaust every day. All sorts of small things would remind him of the experience. But I didn't want to hear about it", she recalls.

The holocaust may be used as a powerful symbol in Zionist propaganda, but strangely, according to Ben-Dor Niv, in Israel it is very shameful to be a victim of the holocaust.

"In Israel, you have to be very strong, you have to be a hero, a fighter. And to be a victim, and to have not fought back was a shameful thing. I used to be ashamed that my father wasn't a partisan. But he was only a child in the concentration camp."

Now, as an adult, with children of her own, she wonders how her parents survived as children in the camps. Six years ago, at the age of 31, she met Yehuda Poliker, an Israeli rock singer and also a child of holocaust victims.

"Our experiences were so similar, we were like twins", she said. Their conversations made her start to think differently about the holocaust, Judaism and life in general. Because of That War is the story of Poliker, his parents and his lyrics writer.

During her high school years and while she did national service, she belonged to a small Trotskyist group. Later she tried to combine a liberal Zionism with feminism, and in her early film career was keen strong women in Israel's struggle for existence. But since then she has come to question Zionism while at the same developing a certain loyalty to Israel and a deep sense of "Jewishness".

However, she does not believe that every Jewish person, no matter where they live in the world, should have an automatic right to live in Israel, as current Israeli law allows. And the Jewish people who live in Israel, she says, should find a way to live together with the Palestinians.

"I do feel part of broader Jewish culture and destiny — if one exists." But Ben-Dor Niv realises that she has much more in common with Palestinians she grew up with in Jaffa than she has with Jewish people living elsewhere in the world.

"My Arab neighbours are second-class citizens in Israel, and their right to belong is questioned while someone who has never been in Israel is welcomed as a citizen.

"I also believe very strongly that Jews like my parents had nowhere else to go, so they have a right to stay in Israel; it is now their home and my home. It is a tragic situation because the Jews that came to Israel after the war really had nowhere else to go. None of the 'liberal' western countries wanted to accept them."

Another of Ben-Dor Niv's films shown at the festival was Sara, a television documentary.

Sara is a mythological figure in Israel — "a heroine that every Israeli girl once wanted to be". She fought in the first Jewish underground, against the Turks and for the British because she believed the British would help the Jews to create a country of their own. In the film, Ben-Dor Niv controversially tried to show Sara as a "human being with strengths and weakness, with feelings, with lovers".

"Israel is a very problematic place for women, let me tell you. It is a military society and of course a military society is a chauvinist society. Male soldiers are very much the centre of attention. We only have a handful women in parliament.

"Maybe if there were more women like Ashrawi, things would be much better".

She finished shooting Sara two hours before the Gulf War started. "It was very confusing for us because some of the Palestinians seemed very happy that the bombs were landing in Israel. Saddam Hussein was seen as a real threat to Israel — especially if he got atomic weapons. Some people thought that maybe it was better to have this war now and not in three years."

Israeli consciousness is very much shaped by a sense of being under siege, says Ben-Dor Niv."Holocaust survivors are very small believers, suspicious of other people. They are afraid and they are anxious people. But perhaps this is also true of our generation.

"Through history, a lot of Jewish people have been very humanistic. But the creation of Israel made a change. It was born in the midst of he people of Israel became very hard. It is a very tough country, very hard to live in.

"I would like Israel to be the most humanistic country. But there is a paranoia — a feeling that the whole world is against us, and this feeling works against us", she said.

Some Jewish people, especially some living outside Israel, are strongly against airing what they call Israel's "dirty linen" in public. "But there is a problem with this view — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not an 'internal' problem. It is an international problem."

Ben-Dor Niv hopes that some settlement will come out of the current Middle East peace conference. "You don't read it in the papers, but a lot of Israelis are really tired, and even if they are not great friends of the Arabs, they believe that a Palestinian country will be created sooner or later. I only hope that many of our politicians are equally tired of war."

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