Through an American Lens: Dreaming Utopia in Early Israeli Cinema
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Through an American Lens:
Dreaming Utopia in Early Israeli Cinema

Every age has its official preachers and prophets who castigate its vices and call to a better life. Yet it is not by them that its deepest malaise is revealed, but in the artists and thinkers dedicated to the more painful and difficult task of creating, description and analysis—it is they, the poets, the novelists, the critics, who live through the moral agony of their society in their own personal experience; and it is they, their victories and their defeats, that affect the fate of their generation and leave the most authentic testimony of the battle itself for the benefit of interested posterity.

Isaiah Berlin Russian Thinkers

Alive with messages for Americans, Otto Preminger's 1960 film, Exodus, identified Jewish Palestine with the drama of "rescue." Preminger embedded this drama within a context that embraced ancient as well as recent Jewish suffering, naming the film—like the novel on which it was based—for both the biblical rescue of the Jewish people from its slavery in Egypt, and the battered ship that carries Holocaust survivors in the film to Palestine.1 Opening credits appear against a night sky in which, as in the biblical wilderness, a single pillar of fire gleams—like a beacon. But just before the story begins, this flame multiplies and fills the screen: it is not a beacon any longer, but a holocaust. Like the title, the image links the rescued remnant of European Jewry to the ancient rescue and liberation of an enslaved people.

As this visual link becomes thematically important, it strengthens the film's appeal to an audience that remembered America's role in the liberation of occupied Europe and the concentration camps. The film, which locates familiar American virtues within gallant Palestinian Jews, became extraordinarily appealing.2 Neatly dividing humanity into good guys and bad guys, Exodus transplanted the heroic possibilities of G. I. Joe and the American cowboy to a land as photogenic as Montana—but [End Page 26] saturated with a biblical past. To American Jews, given the long shudder induced by the suffering and extermination of European Jewry in the camps and ovens of a darkened Europe, the sunlight of Palestine, the toughness, strength, and resourcefulness of Jews born in that land were irresistible. To at least one Israeli critic, Exodus looked like a "conscious cinematic attempt to turn history into a contemporary Zionist myth" (Loshitzky 2). But to Americans, the film offered a mythic figuration of cherished American virtues emerging within the cultural history of Palestine/Israel.3

In the popular American imagination the promise that these virtues were not only attractive but also transformative was concentrated in one Palestinian phenomenon in particular: the collective agricultural settlement called "kibbutz." Recognized even today as "one of the grand social experiments of our lifetime," (Mort and Brenner x), the kibbutz in the early decades of the century seemed to be a powerful primary agent of rescue and redemptive transformation. It appeared to be capable of healing and redeeming into new life a people oppressed by long exile and by recent victimization by the Nazis; a barren, neglected land; and the very nature of the Jew. In what contemporary researchers see now as a "romantic vision," observers saw then "the only example of pure voluntary communism in the twentieth century" (Mort and Brenner x). That vision became, in time, darker and more complex. Israeli cinematic treatment of the kibbutz between 1935 and 1967 constructs its initially "romantic" image and then slowly explores its subtext, revealing the conflicts beneath its shining surface.

American Jews, of course, knew the virtues of the kibbutz well before Exodus. As early as 1852,4 American Jewish newspapers carried sympathetic reports of agricultural enterprise in Palestine. By the 1930s newspapers like the Jewish Exponent were associating the pioneers who settled in the early kibbutzim with heroic virtues that appear also in films made both in Palestine and America in that decade.5 American Jews understood that the people who settled in the earliest communities of what became the kibbutz movement were driven in part by the need to escape pogroms in East Europe...


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