‘The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers’

‘The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers’

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and defense minister Moshe Dayan meet their troops on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, on October 21, 1973. Israeli Government Press Office

Long ago, leaders of religious institutions in the United States realized that cinema was a compelling way to tell their story. This year you can expect to see many such stories. Interestingly enough, Jews, who are so much a part of Hollywood filmmaking, never seem to fully grasp this potential – except, that is, for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The Los Angeles-based center created Moriah Films in 1982; over the years it has reached out to members of the movie community to provide narration in their 13 films. Some of the documentary films they produced have been stronger than others, but the care and dedication paid to the project by Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Moriah Films staff, and producer/director Richard Trank deserves not only our attention but our thanks. The center has produced such Oscar-winning films as “Genocide” and “The Long Way Home,” as well as last year’s “It Is No Dream” about Theodor Herzl. Its newest film is “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers.”

The film is based on Shlomo Avner’s book, “The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership,” and it is the first of a two-part project to adapt Avner’s work for cinema. Avner was a British immigrant to Israel in 1947, who worked his way up in the Foreign Ministry, where he served as an aide and speech writer and witnessed first-hand interactions between the key figures who helped shape the state of Israel. The film begins with his wonderful insights into Levi Eshkol, who followed David Ben-Gurion to become the third Israeli prime minister – it was Eskhol who led the country during the Six Day War. In the long list of 1960s Israeli personalities that includes Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yigal Allon, Eshkol typically gets little notice. We think of Dayan or Rabin as the heroes of that war, and Eshkol as a bureaucrat who somehow found his way to the top. But the film provides an insightful portrait of the man, his warmth, love of Yiddishisms, and ability to control a cabinet pushing him to go to war.

After Syria attacked and Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israel’s south in the spring of 1967, Eshkol chose to use diplomacy to tackle the threat to Israel. Avner points to these various failed attempts to get the world powers involved on Israel’s behalf when Eshkol and his cabinet finally attacked, on that fateful morning of June 5.

Avner, who would later represent Israel as ambassador to Britain, Ireland, and Australia, offers some fascinating anecdotes. He talks about Yitzhak Rabin’s early months in Washington as Israel ambassador to the United States, and the frustration Foreign Minister Abba Eban felt because Rabin, not he, became Eshkol’s spokesperson. Avner tells how Charles de Gaulle instituted an embargo against Israel on the first day of the Six Day War, cutting off Israel’s ability to acquire spare parts for the armaments and planes that France had sold to Israel. After the war, knowing full well that he needed a new supplier of arms for Israel, Eshkol flew to Texas to meet with President Lyndon Johnson. The rapport between the leaders had not been great until the two of them – the rancher and the former kibbutznik – were on their knees in a barn on Johnson’s ranch, discussing cows. At that point, Israel found a new friend and arms provider – the United States of America.

Avner tells his story on camera, and it does take a while before the narration brings you in and makes you feel as if you are part of this epic. Once it does, Trank does a fine job weaving the storytelling Avner into the footage that he puts on the screen. There is a good balance between anecdotes and history, and eyewitness Avner is masterful in showing how these various encounters influenced events. One of the more interesting stories is how Menachem Begin, then the Knesset’s opposition leader, was brought into Eshkol’s cabinet on the eve of the Six Day War. There he was, sitting around a table with his political enemies, and once Jordan had entered the war he asked his colleagues to authorize sending troops into the Old City of Jerusalem.

Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, hero of the 1956 Sinai campaign, believed such a foray to be too dangerous. But as Avner described it, Begin “had a sense of Jewish history,” and he pushed his case for taking control of the Temple Mount, and Dayan and Eshkol finally agreed. We know the rest of the story; Avner tells us how he delayed his departure for the United States long enough so he could be at the Western Wall, newly back in Jewish hands.

Avner continues with a look at Golda Meir. As endearing as the first part of the film was, I wanted more about Golda. The film does focus on the special relationship forged between the two Jews, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the prime minister, but some of the intrigue between Golda and Richard Nixon was missing. I wanted a broader picture of the woman, and a deeper understanding of how she coped with the growing dissatisfaction with her leadership. These were some of the moments that made “A Woman Called Golda” so mesmerizing.

In watching “The Prime Ministers: The Pioneers,” you are made to feel a part of Israel, its history, and how its leaders believed they were representing the entire Jewish people. It is a fine effort. Leonard Nimoy provides the voice of Levi Eshkol, Sandra Bullock is Golda Meir, Michael Douglas is Yitzhak Rabin, and Christoph Waltz is Menachem Begin. The film opens today at the Quad Theater in New York.

Eric Goldman of Teaneck is the author of “The American Jewish Story through Cinema.”

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