Throughout the summer, thousands of Israelis continued to protest against their government, even though the Knesset is in recess. Some Israelis are calling this period “the Yom Kippur of Democracy,” a reference to the 1973 October Yom Kippur War that almost brought about the end of the State of Israel. In that war, Israel, caught unprepared, was close to annihilation. As its 50th anniversary is approaching, many in Israel, seemingly a majority, fear that like then, the democratic Israel that they know and love might cease to exist.
With Guy Nattiv’s newly released film “Golda” now in theaters, we are reminded of how fragile Israel’s existence was in those first days of the ’73 war. Israel was caught by surprise as Egyptian forces moved across the Suez Canal into the Sinai desert, and Syrian tanks confronted ill-prepared Israeli forces on the Golan Heights. Despite high-level warnings, the film shows a complacent military leadership, still basking in the glory of a stunning Six Day War victory six years earlier, miscalculating intelligence. We watch a beleaguered Golda, played brilliantly by Helen Mirren, ill-prepared in security matters and totally dependent on Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Yet once the war began, Golda took control. Despite being in ill health and undergoing treatment for cancer, she rose to the occasion. Might Prime Minister Netanyahu also step up and move toward some accommodation, in effect extricating the nation from its current despondency?
That Yom Kippur has remained traumatic for Israelis who lived through it. Golda Meir’s leadership saved the country, though many Israelis to this day vilify her for the great loss of life in that war. The film “Golda” shows us just what it took to be a leader, a woman who climbed to the top of the ladder and took control when it was needed, despite misogynistic efforts meant to keep her down. When reckoning the missteps that were taken and creating a commission to review what happened, Golda Meir took responsibility and stepped down as prime minister. Should that serve as an example? There was no finger-pointing on her part, no blaming of others.
To this day, many feel that she was misunderstood and underestimated as a leader. She loved Israel and sacrificed her leadership and possibly her legacy for her beloved country.
What director Nattiv does so well in “Golda” is portray great stewardship in the face of botched military preparation for war. He uses his cinema to try to correct what he believes were historical misconceptions. Though Golda Meir is perceived here and in most of the world quite favorably, he sees this film as a way to help rehabilitate her legacy in Israel now, on the 125th anniversary of her birth. He wants to show an Israel at a turning point, a time when its deserved bravado, earned at its previous war, proved to be detrimental.
Has that swagger returned, allowing this government to miscalculate today’s situation? Nattiv has used cinema to delve into what some call Israel’s collective wounds, its wars. Filmmakers like him believe that digging deeper and exposing raw elements go a long way in creating a healthier nation, as movies can provide new perspectives.
But many in this current government do not share that thinking. Some moviemakers even claim that the government is trying to turn the film industry into a propaganda arm, noting that films that the country’s leaders deem as portraying Israel — particularly its military — in poor light should not be made.
As most Israeli filmmakers are dependent on government and foundation support to pursue their work, it is becoming increasingly harder to use film to wrestle with challenging and controversial issues. Film directors and producers say that they are being required to sign loyalty oaths. Nadav Lapid’s recent film narrative, “Ahed’s Knee,” is about this effort. Had that been the case in the past, exceptional award-winning films like “Waltz with Bashir,” “Foxtrot,” “Lebanon,” and “Beaufort” would never have been made. In fact, had Guy Nattiv relied on such funding, as most Israeli filmmakers must, “Golda” probably would not be in theaters now.
A new Jewish year begins next week. Rosh Hashanah, according to tradition, is a time when divine judgment takes place, commencing with a trial that lasts for 10 days and concludes on Yom Kippur. This trial is unique in that it not only weighs accountability for past activities, it also defines the trajectory of future actions.
Fifty years ago, many Israelis believed that they and their country were on trial and that final judgment had come, and Israel was doomed. Fortunately, Israel was able to recoup, and four years later Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, a visit that eventually led to peace between Israel and Egypt.
Today, we are experiencing an equivalent existential moment, as Israel and this government are up for judgment, not just for what it is doing now, but for the future. I hope that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers will channel Golda Meir’s leadership, on this eve of the High Holidays, and make needed compromises, heed the call of the people, allow free cinematic expression, and protect a world democracy that for the last 75 years has served, as the prophet Isaiah said, as a light unto the nations.
Eric A. Goldman of Teaneck is adjunct professor of cinema at Yeshiva University and host of “Jewish Cinematheque” on the Jewish Broadcasting Service. He is the author of “The American Jewish Story through Cinema.”