Jewish films build on humanist tradition

Wednesday, October 16, 1991

Uncle Moses
Directed by Sydney M. Goldin and Aubrey Scotto, 1932
Avanti Populo
Directed by Rafi Bukaee, 1986
Cup Final

Directed by Eran Riklis, 1991
Showing at the Festival of Jewish Film
Academy Twin and Walker Cinemas, October 5-19
Reviewed by Vivienne Porzsolt

Reflecting the differences wrought by massive historical changes, three films offering at the Festival of Jewish Film at the Academy Twin and Walker cinemas embody a continuing tradition of Jewish humanism.

That this tradition finds a home among Jews is not surprising, given their historic oppression as outsiders. For a people victimised in this way, the value of human beings and their mutual bonds of equality and solidarity, regardless of nationality, must rank high.

Uncle Moses, made in 1932, is set in New York just prior to World War I. It focusses on the Jewish immigrants who have fled poverty and persecution, seeking a better life, and have settled in the Lower East Side of New York.

Here they face a new poverty and exploitation in the sweatshops of the garment industry. Uncle Moses is a prosperous factory owner, handing out token charity while ruthlessly opposing union pay and conditions and the right to organise. He promotes the illusion that he presides over his fellow country men and women like a benevolent uncle. The family ideology is used to mask and mystify the exploitation.

Exploitation in the factory is paralleled by the sexual exploitation made possible by wealth. In addition, the family institution itself is portrayed as economically exploitative.

The family at the centre of the story pressure their daughter, Masha, to marry Uncle Moses against her own inclinations so that they can enjoy the material benefits.

Parallels are constantly drawn between the oppression of capitalism and the historic oppression of the Jewish people. Uncle Moses is described as Pharaoh, Tsar Nicholas and Haman; victory over capital is entry to the Promised Land; the leader of striking sweatshop workers is likened to the biblical Moses.

Choices are posed: between the alternatives of nostalgia, submission or revolt; and between greedy self-interest and concern for fellow human beings.

Avanti Populo is based on a true story of two Egyptian soldiers lost in the Sinai Desert following the Six Day War in 1967. In their wanderings, they find three Israeli soldiers, who reluctantly allow them to tag along.

The soldiers, Arab and Jew, are neither idealised nor demonised, but are presented as ordinary fallible blokes who find some comradeship and solidarity together. The film is heavy with Jewish irony. In a desperate effort to appease the Israelis, one of the Egyptian soldiers, who is an actor in civilian life, delivers a passionate famous speech from the Merchant of Venice: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? ... If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

While voted best Israeli film of the past decade by Israeli critics, Avanti Populo raised a political furore in Israel when it was released. Well it might, since the film shows members of the Israeli Defence Forces murdering in cold blood.

Both films affirm the solidarity of humanity and the mutual need of human beings for each other. In this, they are in the Jewish humanist tradition. Uncle Moses comes out of the revolutionary socialist strand of that tradition. The Holocaust succeeded in destroying millions of the carriers of these values. With the subsequent foundation of the state of Israel and the militant Zionism against the Palestinian Arabs, this Jewish universal humanism has sadly receded from the view of Jew and non-Jew alike. But it still exists, as films like Avanti Populo remind us.

Another of the films from the festival, Cup Final, inevitably invites comparison with Avanti Populo because both are set in Israeli-Arab conflict and centre on the relationships between captors and captives.

In Cup Final, the PLO are the captors. But both films deal with the theme of human solidarity across barriers of political enmity. Cup Final is a much better film technically and in subtlety of human portrayal.

In Cup Final, both Arab and Israeli are ennobled in their relationship. While it pulls no punches as regards the wrongs inflicted on the Palestinians, it tends to be seductive and indulgent in the human closeness it portrays. Avanti Populo is less sentimental, and its climax rudely underlines the barriers to be overcome before the human impulses can be realised politically.

The blurb tells us that Cup Final was the most popular film in the 1991 Film Festival in Jerusalem. It is interesting to speculate why this was so, and why Avanti Populo was more controversial. I have a hunch that Cup Final touched the hearts of Israelis because it is infused with the inclusive humanistic ethos which I noted above as a Jewish tradition. Cup Final's popularity may well be due to its touching the Jewish longing for inclusion and an end to alienation.

Paradoxically, this longing underlies militant Zionism, which seems incapable of recognising any interests other than those of Israeli Jews. The desperation of Zionism is a belief that the longing will never be realised, and that ruthlessness of a survivalist nature will protect the Jews.

However, the popularity of this film is most encouraging for all of us who hope for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine since it is evidence that the desire for reconciliation is not dead.

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