Body and Soul: The State of the Jewish Nation
"The Hebrew Bible is the blueprint of Jewish civilization. And it's the foundational document of some of the best in civilization as we know it. There in the Bible is the pledge of the Jewish people, 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.' And then, in our lifetime, that pledge was realized, when the Jews regained their sovereignty in the land of Israel, after it had been under foreign domination for almost 2,000 years. And what's more, they did it in the 1940s, in the same decade when one-third of the entire Jewish people had been eradicated in Europe. Now that is a miracle of truly biblical proportions."
Thus, with great solemnity, Ruth Wisse of Harvard introduces Body and Soul: The State of the Jewish Nation, the latest documentary by Gloria Greenfield and her company, Doc Emet. The film, which will have its premiere later this month in numerous American and Canadian cities, as well as in Jerusalem, is an intensely moving experience, documenting -- one is tempted to say "once and for all" -- that Israel is, was, and always will be, the land of the Jewish people.
Greenfield deftly uses the format developed in her previous films, a succession of prominent "talking heads," their authoritative commentary accompanied by historic photographs and films, paintings, and archeological objects, all conducing to the ocular proof of Israel's history in its own promised land.
Wisse leads off the film's chronological format with the longest and richest section of the film, the biblical evidence, "In the Beginning." Wisse is succeeded by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of the UK, who tells us that "Jewish identity is born in the land of Israel. It begins with two momentous journeys, of Abraham and Sarah from Mesopotamia, and the other, several centuries later by Moses and the Israelites from the Egypt of the Pharoahs; and ever since, in a sense, to be a Jew has meant to be on a journey to the Promised Land."
The story continues. Author and historian Robert Wistrich points to the fact that though it is hard to document exactly when the special relationship of the Jewish people with the land began, it was at "the very minimum close to 3,000 years" ago, and possibly much longer.
Archeologist Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University buttresses the biblical evidence with extra-biblical texts and with archeology. An example he uses is that of Shalmanesser III of Assyria, "a great monarch of the ninth century before the common era," who describes how he fought against a "coalition of Levantine monarchs led by Ahab the Israelite, who went to war with 2,000 chariots."
And Aren Maeir of Bar Ilan University defends biblical history as but one type of evidence that, when studied critically, can reinforce other clues -- from the Assyrians and the Greeks, for example, and their descriptions of this region in the Iron Age, thus giving us a "clearcut picture" of the early history of the Israelites and Judahites in the land during the Iron Age. [ca.1200 BCE---mid-6th century BCE.]
Wisse returns with the story of the temporary exile of the Jews, driven out by the Babylonians six centuries before the Common Era. Though they lived for 50 years outside their land, this "defeated" people was not broken by exile, but assuming they had somehow not fulfilled a contract with God, they waited and they prospered, and "sure enough, they were returned by Cyrus to the land of Israel to reclaim their sovereignty."
The chronology of Jewish nationhood continues with Isaiah Gafni of the Hebrew University, who tells of the establishment of the Second Temple in Jerusalem; and Aren Maeir discusses the continuity between the Iron Age and the post-Iron Age: "We see various hints in names, cults, traditions"; even the focus on the area where people settled, Jerusalem, retaining the centrality of the Kingdom of Judah from the Iron Age.
Finkelstein then reminds us of the connection between the Temple of Solomon and, jumping ahead, the Temple of Herod the Great. When we go to Jerusalem, he says, we see this "amazing box" built by Herod in the first century of the Common Era. That "box" contains a wealth of archeological evidence, such as the Herodian gates standing to this day fully intact. The placing of the temple, too, like its predecessors on the highest promontory in Jerusalem, is a fact that links it with Iron Age building practice.
Gafni describes the duality of the Second Temple period: a large Jewish center in the land we call Israel, and contemporaneous with that center, a "thriving, assertive" Jewish diaspora outside the land, but identifying strongly with the center. Indeed, we have much evidence, says Israel Bartal of Hebrew University, of that diaspora in the Second Temple period, and evidence moreover, that Jewish pilgrims came to worship in Jerusalem from North Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Italy, and Asia Minor, all those people "united by the centrality of the Jerusalem Temple."
James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, reminds us that residing in the Museum's Shrine of the Book are the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran, the "oldest recorded Hebrew manuscript texts from the Bible, and related texts." Here indeed is a connection, a touchstone to the Second Temple period, written between about 250 BCE and 68CE, when the Romans devastated Qumran on their march of destruction to Jerusalem.
The goal of this terrible march was of course the extinction of Jerusalem -- and the Temple -- in 70 CE. Some years after the catastrophe, as Gafni says, there was a major Jewish uprising in the province of Judea led by the Jewish general, Bar Kochba. "That uprising, the last Jewish uprising of antiquity, failed," and many thousands of Jews were killed or taken abroad as slaves. The Roman emperor Hadrian, says Wistrich, built a new pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the rubble of Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba revolt (for Rome, the renaming of a conquered city, and the land itself, was an unprecedented punishment), and Jews were not only forbidden to live in Jerusalem, they were not even permitted to look at it from afar. Despite that, Wistrich stresses an extremely significant fact:
We need to remember that there was never a single period, in the whole of this 3,000 years…when some Jews were not…a physical, living presence in Zion.
With the ruins of Jerusalem Greenfield turns to the next section. Here Wistrich recounts the bleak history of the land after the destruction, which consists of a series of conquests:
In antiquity, we had the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, then the Greeks and the Romans. Later the Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Mamalukes, the Ottomans, and finally the British in the 20th century, before the rebirth of Israel. None of these peoples were able to establish themselves, or in any way turn the country into a homeland…. It's very interesting that the land was always a mere outpost, a far-flung province ruled from afar.
When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, says Wistrich, they expelled or massacred most of the Jews. Despite that, the Jewish presence in the Latin kingdom was extensive. A very significant Jewish presence existed in places like Akko, Haifa, the Galil, and many different towns across Crusader Palestine.
Meanwhile, beyond Israel, Jews never lost their connection, their hope of return. Those who could, came as pilgrims, and were hosted in Jerusalem by Jewish families, according to Bartal. Then there were the refugees, even a mass aliyah in 1211 of French rabbis, says Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, and after the Spanish expulsion, the refugees who established a Sephardic community in Safed. According to Wistrich, at the end of the sixteenth century there were as many as 30,000 Jews in Safed. And in the four holy cities in the Palestine of this period -- Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias -- the Sephardic population was considerable. And here Wistrich emphasizes yet again:
Remember that from the 1840s onwards, Jews were a majority in Jerusalem, outstripping Muslims and Christians. From then to now, that never changes.
Greenfield's next section deals with the beginnings of Zionism. Zionism arose in Europe in the nineteenth century with religious thinkers, says Lord Sacks, but then it became a nationalist phenomenon in which, as it were, Jews heard the call of God. When, in 1881, vicious pogroms broke out in more than 100 Russian towns, "It was no longer the idealistic pilgrimage of the few; it was the practical necessity of the many.
"The first three great secular Zionists," he continues, "Moses Hess, Yehudah Leib Pinsker, and Theodor Herzl, were all driven by successive phases of antisemitism," in Germany, in Russia, and on the streets of Paris during the Dreyfus affair. So "there was the pull of religion and the push of antisemitism."
Once again, Ruth Wisse:
The Irish, the Italians, the Poles -- so many people trying to reclaim or claim their national sovereignty…and so it was perfectly natural for the Jews to see themselves in that same light. As Moses Hess did: His example was Rome. He wrote Rome and Jerusalem, and by Rome he didn't mean ancient Rome; he meant Garibaldi, he meant the risorgimento.
Yoram Hazony of The Herzl Institute agrees that of course Herzl saw terrible things coming in Europe, but Herzl "was a much deeper thinker than that. His idea of the Jewish state was the internal unification of the individual Jewish person, the Jewish man, the Jewish woman."
Herzl understood too, says Wistrich, that the alternatives being discussed at that time, such as Argentina or Uganda, had no historical, spiritual, religious, or cultural meaning for Jews. Return meant language, culture, land and sovereignty -- in short: Zion. Similarly, Anita Shapira of Tel Aviv University sees the phenomenon of Zionism as a triangle: "The people, the Book, and the Land -- three inseparable entities."
Wistrich adds another factor: messianism. "A majority of the Jews who came home came from one part of the Middle East to another." Why did most of these Middle Eastern Jews, who had lived for centuries in Arab lands, such as the Jews of Yemen, choose Israel? "They found, within Judaism itself, a very ancient aspiration, a profound messianic component."
And no discussion of Zionism is complete without speaking of the poet-fighter Vladimir Jabotinsky. Wisse remarks how little attention was paid to self-protection; you might think, she says, "that one of the first things they would pay attention to would be the army, armed might." Not so. "It was only when they were forced to do so by the Arab riots, by the increasing ugliness of the Arab pogroms…."
It was Jabotinsky, says commentator Rick Richman, who instinctively knew that it was not enough for Jews to be smart and clever and educated; they needed to learn to shoot. Jabotinsky, who formed the British Legion, the Haganah, inspired the Irgun and led Betar, "wanted not only that the rattlesnake be killed; he wanted it killed with Jewish bullets."
Among the horrors of the twentieth century, Greenfield includes the inspiring story of the huge numbers of Yemenis, Russians and Ethiopians who made it to Israel. From Yemen, relates Wistrich, "the most backward country in the Arab world, in 1948 we had the famous Magic Carpet operation," in what Yossi Klein Halevi of the Hartmann Institute calls the "re-indigenizing" of an entire people. And then "the largest-ever aliyah, or mass exodus of Jews in history" says Wistrich, "occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed." At that point, one million Jews -- Russian, Ukrainian, some from the Baltic states and from Central Asia -- "after seventy years of Communist indoctrination, of state-controlled atheism, people who had no knowledge of Jewish history or religion…insisted on their repatriation to the Jewish homeland."
And in one of the truly joyous sections of the film, we encounter the Ethiopian Jews through the eyes of Rev. DeeDee Coleman of Detroit. She exults, "I had never seen black Jews before. The beautiful Ethiopians, those beautiful children…. When I saw them…the babies were holding on to my legs and I was holding onto my chest.… I think the reason I was so overcome was that they were black, they looked like me! And yet they were Jews, and when they were found in Ethiopia they were practicing their faith! Israel found its children and brought them home."
One is grateful to Greenfield (and Rev. Coleman) for this pocket of joy. But by 1945, as Wistrich notes, "the Jewish people had hit "the nadir, the absolute bottom, the pit" of human existence. And yet, within three years they succeeded in the impossible: they established a Jewish state.
Anita Shapira adds an interesting twist: "I think the State of Israel was established despite the Holocaust and not because of it, because the great reservoir of the Jewish people…" the potential citizens of the Jewish state, had perished in the Holocaust. The Holocaust, however, did galvanize the American Jewish community around Zionism. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University agrees: "American Jews knew that those millions who had been wiped out in Europe might have been alive…had there been a Jewish state, a place where when Jews came they had to be admitted." And they "felt dearly" how their own country had failed in this regard.
Tales and pictures tumble ahead, with the Mandate, the betrayal and perfidy of the British, the Arabs' 1948 attack on the nascent Jewish state, when, as Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern School of Law notes, "not a finger was lifted by the UN or anyone else to help Israel," followed by Jordan's takeover of the "West Bank," and killing or evicting all its Jews. Nineteen years later the world witnessed the miracle of the Six-Day War. However, it only took eight years for the UN to pass its iniquitous Zionism=Racism resolution. Though later revoked, this was an ominous marker of what lay ahead: a frightening resurgence of anti-Zionism and antisemitism -- what Halevi calls a "profound social pathology" -- and the notion that Jewish nationhood is somehow inherently evil.
Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School discusses in this context the Yassir Arafat lie: "That the Jews never lived in what is now Israel, that it is all a myth, that the Jews really come from Eastern Europe, that they have no Middle Eastern DNA…and he sold that bill of goods to many, many Palestinians."
Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch [palwatch.org] illustrates the extension of this "bill of goods." "One of the goals of Palestinian historians, begun in the 1990s, is to write a history of Palestine that won't allow for the existence of any other people in the land” -- what Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution calls a “pseudohistory.” The Palestinian Authority, continues Marcus, "often cites the persecution of Jews in European countries as proof, not that the Jews were persecuted, but as proof of the Jews' evil nature."
And once this pseudo- or mythic history is indoctrinated, the academics make the necessary adjustments, says Hanson, and then will collect the material rewards. Marcus adds that if, according to the Palestinian Authority, Jesus was a Jew, then the Jews lived in Israel. So what they have done is turn Jesus into a Palestinian, indeed into a Muslim, and thereby denied Christian history.
And finally, says Simon Samuels of the Simon Weisenthal Center, the UN is recognizing Palestine as a legitimate state (a claim, says Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, that paves the way for even more dangerous claims to come -- from Iran, for instance). Palestine is voted into UNESCO, continues Samuels, and they begin their work of inventing their heritage, claiming the archeological sites: the Church of the Nativity, the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel's Tomb, Hebron, and believe it or not, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Greenfield's film, then, of necessity has a darker ending than we would want. But with advocates like the ones she has ingathered for us, it is hardly without hope. It is a must-see film.