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by Esther Cohen
Reviewed in this article: Colliding Dreams, a documentary film by Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky. International Film Circuitm 2015, 134 minutes.
IT’S HARD just to say the word ‘Zionism’ without generating a heated conversation. Yet the terms of that conversation have dramatically changed in recent years, with the entrenchment of rightwing leadership in Israel, the decline of the Labor Party, the splintering of Palestinian leadership, and shifting world opinion. And the conversation has spread everywhere: The prominent Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, and the New Israel Fund have been co-sponsoring dialogues about Israel and Palestine at various spots around the U.S.; the current New Yorker has a fascinating, extensive article by editor David Remnick about the prominent Palestinian activist (and speaker at the Ha’aretz conference), Ayman Odeh.
Into this world of increasingly fevered dialogue, Oren Rudavsky and Joseph Dorman have contributed a comprehensive, ambitious, fascinating historical documentary, Colliding Dreams, meant to clarify the intentions of Zionism, to explain where the concept came from, and to measure its impact on the entire Middle East.
From the very beginning, Zionism and its successes resulted in conflicts in the Middle East that altered the destinies of Jews and Palestinians. The tragedy of this history is movingly described in the film by Israeli novelist Avishai Margalit and Palestinian scholar Sari Nusseibeh. They explain the notion of colliding dreams not as a battle between a right and wrong but between two rights, two very different visions.
Other speakers in the film come from many spheres. They are old and young and include writers, activists, politicians, scholars, Israelis and Palestinians. The film begins with Zionism’s origins in Europe; its development in the young yishuv (the early Jewish Zionist settlement in Palestine); the 1948 war, known alternately as the War of Independence and the Nakba by the two peoples; the Six-Day War of 1967; the West Bank settlement movement, and the present-day standstill.
Joseph Dorman, writer/director of Colliding Dreams, is the creator of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, one of the 2011’s highest grossing documentaries. He also directed the documentary, Arguing the World, about the sixty-year political journey of the City College alumni Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer, named one of the best films of 1998 by The New York Times. Oren Rudavsky, producer/director, is the creator of Hiding and Seeking, about the Holocaust and Jewish intolerance, which was broadcast on the PBS series POV and nominated as best documentary by the Independent Spirit Awards. He also created A Life Apart: Hasidism in America, which received an Emmy nomination for its PBS release in 1998.
I had the opportunity recently to ask the filmmakers to tell us why they made Colliding Dreams.
Joseph Dorman: We undertook the film because of a paradox that exists regarding Zionism and Israel today. On the one hand, Israel — Zionism’s creation — is a remarkable success story. Culturally, in high tech, it is blossoming as never before. On the other hand, Israel’s legitimacy has never been questioned so strongly or so widely. As supporters of a Jewish State, we felt it was time for a re-examination of the history of Zionism, of the idea behind a Jewish state and its importance, a history that would look beyond the present political controversies to why Zionism and Israel are important. We also wanted to include a Palestinian viewpoint in our film. And we did not want to shirk from looking at Zionism’s flaws. For years Israel was seen in an almost mythic light. When that changed, many in and out of the American Jewish community were disturbed. We believe that Jewish nationalism is no different than any other national movement. And it has made mistakes like all others. Yet it expresses a desire for independence and self expression and security that are absolutely legitimate.
Oren Rudavsky: I find it difficult to assimilate the contradictions between being a Jew with a deep concern for social justice and for the preservation of the Jewish people, and who believes in democracy, and the complicated equation that is Israel today. I love Israel and when I go there I delight in speaking Hebrew and being surrounded by Israeli culture. I find the people beautiful and friendlier than I ever found them before. Of course, the food and lifestyle rivals any Western society in the world, for those who can afford it. It’s a highly successful society. And yet, since I’m a filmmaker who has traveled to the other side of the Wall, and to Palestinian Israeli villages, I have seen the other faces of the Occupation and the second-class citizenship many feel. And that is difficult. My response, however, is not to fold up the tents, but to try to use my head and my heart and whatever skills I have learned as a filmmaker to confront the problem — which, in my mind, is that so few people, so few Jews, know the history of the idea that motivated a people to fight the good fight and to create, out of thin air, nearly, the State of Israel. Too few people know the idealism, determination, and desperation of Jews in the late 19th century through the catastrophes of the mid-20th. Too few know the stories of the dedicated idealists who gave heart and soul to build the institutions that created the state. So few can remember a time when there was no State of Israel, when boats were turned away, with immigrants, much like boats are turned away carrying homeless and stateless people today, with no country to take them in.
That doesn’t happen to Jews these days — because we have a state, plain and simple. But now other bad things happen to Jews around the world, often for exactly the same reason — because they are Jews and perhaps because people now conflate Jews and the actions of the Israeli State.
Our film is no apology for Israel, nor is it an argument for a one- or two-state solution. It is an attempt to give ourselves and our young people some knowledge with which to struggle with difficult dilemmas, such as the conflation of Judaism with rightwing Zionism on college campuses, and some reason to keep supporting one of the most dynamic societies on earth, a society that is itself struggling to create something better of itself. It is my mission to educate, inform, and entertain, and to have as many people see and engage with the film as possible. It’s become a mission to do what I can as a Jew and as an American to tell the story honestly and coherently, and to ask the audience to think: Why Israel?
Esther Cohen: Colliding Dreams is a powerful title. What was the dream of the early Zionists? The early Palestinians?
Joseph Dorman: There are no easy answers to the question about the relationship between Jews and Palestinians. In a nutshell, Jews longed for independence, security and self-expression, and I believe that the Arabs in Palestine wanted no less. However, their stories are not parallel. They are two peoples with two different histories. There is no question that the Palestinian Arabs wanted their independence, first from the Ottomans and then from the British. In the early 20th century, there were Palestinian intellectuals, a small group of individuals who saw themselves as Palestinian. Small groups of Jewish intellectuals were responsible for Zionism as well. However, Palestinian nationalism as a mass movement took longer to develop — it resulted from borders drawn after World War I that separated the fate of the people of then-Palestine from the new states of Syria and Jordan and Lebanon, among others. I don’t see in any way this negating their desire for their own land, their own cultural space, but it did make things harder and more complex for them as they sought to organize and fight Zionism.
Oren Rudavsky: There were multiple dreams among the early Zionists, often in contradiction to one another — from the hope of Brit Shalom for a binational state, to the dream of a homeland built by Socialist labor for escape from Eastern Europe, to the hope of re-establishing a biblical land with the borders of ancient Israel, and many other dreams in between. I am not an expert on the early Palestinians, but there were some nationalists who feared early Zionist intentions. The idea of a Palestinian state was an idea that slowly developed and gained strength in the ’60s and ’70s. That idea has changed to include acceptance of a two-state solution in the 1980s and ’90s, an idea that may now be fading again.
Esther Cohen: How are those dreams different today?
Joseph Dorman: Again, a very complex question. Fundamentally, I don’t think they have changed. We’re talking about what has been a collision of two nationalisms, two national identities. At the same time, within both camps there are minimalists and maximalists, those willing to compromise and accept part of the territory, and those who insist on having it all.
Esther Cohen: What about the American Jewish community and its role in the creation and perpetuation of Zionism? The film shows very little of the American involvement. Why?
Joseph Dorman: Zionism is such a large topic that we barely had the space in our two-hour-plus film to deal with everything we had wished to cover. So we made a decision early on that our history would be told by those who live in present-day Israel/Palestine. American Zionism has a rich history and deserves a film of its own.
Esther Cohen: The film ends a few years back. Has the situation changed even more?
Joseph Dorman: We chose to end our film with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin because our film is about Zionism, and that moment represented a critical split within Zionism between those who wanted a minimalist state and those who insist on a maximalist state for religious and national reasons. That split remains today, and it must be resolved. That’s not to say that it is because of the Jews that there is no peace; the Palestinians have much to take responsibility for as well. And, indeed, much has changed in the last twenty years in terms of failed peace talks, a second intifada, and further wars, among other things. But although the political situation has evolved, the fundamental dilemma remains the same.
Oren Rudavsky: Just to be clear, the Palestinians need to take at least as much responsibility if not more for the failure of a variety of peace initiatives. But defining this is not what our film is about. That also is another film.
Esther Cohen: Do you see any hope for the region? What would that hope look like?
Joseph Dorman: Personally, I can’t live without hope. So I choose to be hopeful! But it is hard, at times. I still believe there is time for the two peoples to find a means of coexisting. I believe the best chance for this is two states for two peoples. That, I believe is the only road to peace.
Oren Rudavsky: We have all experienced hopelessness in our lives, and in the political life of the world there are often periods of hopelessness. But there is a State of Israel that is vibrant and thriving despite the conflict, and it is by far the most viable state in the entire region. The creative energy in that small state will come up with a solution that will work imperfectly for both peoples.
Esther Cohen, our magazine’s arts and events consultant, has had decades of involvement with the quest for a Mideast peace.