Features & Opinion

Minority View: Israel, Anti-Semitism, Günter Grass and Waltz with Bashir

By MK Raghavendra • Published on April 15, 2012

[A]ri Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008) is an animated Israeli film which is nearly four years old but, to my mind, it has become relevant in an unforeseen way with the recent controversy over Günter Grass’ poem about Israel. Grass is a celebrated Nobel Prize winning novelist and his recent poem ‘What Must be Said’ apparently questions Israel’s innocence in the nuclear conflagration developing in the Middle-East, treating both Israel and Iran as equally dangerous. This has led to huge criticism of Grass across the liberal West. For instance, a French ‘philosopher’ Bernard Henri Levy, writing in The Huffington Post, wonders if Grass has nothing better to do than to publish a poem in which he asserts that a serious threat hanging over our heads comes from a ‘tiny country, one of the smallest in the world, one of the most vulnerable as well and, by the by, a democracy: the State of Israel’.

The outcry against Grass across the world is so severe that one finds oneself consulting the Wikipedia about Israel’s nuclear capability. Here is the Wikipedia on the subject: “Although no official statistics exist, it has been estimated that Israel possesses from 75 to as many as 400 nuclear weapons, which are reported to include thermonuclear weapons in the megaton range. Israel is also reported to possess a wide range of different systems, including neutron bombs, tactical nuclear weapons, and suitcase nukes.” In contrast, Iran, according to the same Wikipedia, is not only known not to currently possess weapons of mass destruction but has, unlike Israel, also signed treaties repudiating the possession of weapons of mass destruction including the Biological Weapons Convention, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.Israel has also already moved against Iran because according to Time Magazine, Western intelligence sources name the Mossad as behind the assassination of four of Iran’s nuclear scientists. If these aspects shed doubt on Israel’s ‘vulnerability’, this essay is more concerned with another aspect – the notion of ‘anti-Semitism’ as understood by Israel because Günter Grass’ poem has been widely condemned for being anti-Semitic although reading the actual poem hardly confirms his culpability (http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/guenter-grass-poem-16097570).

Anti-Semitism has been a persistent charge made by Israel against its critics and the implied reasoning is that if one is against Israel’s policies and practices, one is an admirer of the Nazis. While Israel’s propaganda machinery has been even Goebbelsian in this insistence, the ‘anti-Semitism’ invoked by Israel deserves deeper investigation and it is here that Waltz with Bashir becomes useful. This is primarily an examination of Ari Folman’s film which, wittingly or unwittingly sheds light on the subject of ‘anti-Semitism’ from a different perspective – that of Israel’s citizens underneath the rhetoric of their leaders.

By and large, it can be argued that a popular film from any milieu mirrors the dominant sentiments in the milieu and Waltz with Bashir has apparently been named the third most popular film of all time among Israelis. The film has also been widely praised/ awarded internationally and, hence, touches a chord with both the Israelis and their sympathizers. Waltz with Bashir tries to take an honest/objective view of Israel’s complicity in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982 after the assassination of Bashir Gamayel, Lebanon’s Christian President when members of the Christian Phalangist militia were let into Palestinan refugee camps by the Israeli military and they massacred hundreds of helpless people. In 1982, the director Ari Folman was a 19-year-old infantry soldier and the film deals with his recollection of his experiences of the events in 2006 – when he meets a friend from his army service period. Folman is surprised to find that he does not remember a thing from that period although he has a vision of the night of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the reality of which he is unable to estimate. In his memory, he and his soldier friends are bathing at night by the seaside in Beirut under the light of flares descending over the city.

After the vision Folman meets another friend from his army service, who advises him to discuss it with other people who were in Beirut at the same time in order to understand and revive his own memories. Folman talks to friends, to a psychologist and a reporter who was in Beirut at the time. He realizes that he was among the soldiers surrounding the camp, and that he was among those firing flares into the sky to illuminate the camp for the Phalangist militia which was being allowed to carry out the massacre of refugees inside. Folman concludes that his amnesia stemmed from his feeling of guilt for the massacre. The film ends with the animation dissolving into actual footage of the aftermath of the massacre.

There is little doubt that Waltz with Bashir has been made with remorse for Israel’s doings in Sabra and Shatila but one is still made uneasy by some of the films covert significations. That the film is stressing Israel’s ‘passivity’ when former Israeli President Ariel Sharon was indicted for much more direct involvement (when he was a general) is perhaps acceptable because the actual events are clouded in doubt. But the way in which the Lebanese and the Palestinians are portrayed – in relation to the Israelis – leaves one less sympathetic.

The film makes interesting use of animation – since much of the film is in the form of interviews/ exchanges between the filmmaker and his friends – former Israeli soldiers – it films actual people and turns them into ‘drawn’ figures. The interviewees and interviewers become people who are trying to reflect, people trying to remember and ponder. This intensely humanizes those who are recollecting and remembering. We are human because of our ability to reflect, remember and ponder, after all. The Lebanese and the Palestinians, on the other hand, are standard animated figures all drawn in the same way and given a darker skin color to distinguish them from the Israelis. Since Lebanese and Palestinians are ‘Semitic’, it would appear that the Israeli soldiers are being portrayed as racially ‘white’ rather than ‘Semitic’.  The victims of the massacres are also portrayed as ethnic types and grouped together as the perpetrators are. Since the film tells its story from an Israeli perspective those marginal to the account could be legitimately bunched together, but there are also sequences at night clubs and parties in Tel Aviv in which passers by and revelers are shown as distinct individuals through the way they are drawn. Race therefore appears the real basis for deciding whether a person is an individual or part of an undifferentiated mass.

When Folman visits a psychiatrist friend, the latter is also a former soldier. This friend tells him something about human memory and describes a scientific experiment which is illustrated by a bit of animation in which a fairground figures prominently. Since the scientific experiment illustrates aspects of ‘human’ conduct, it is interesting to note how ‘humanity’ is represented. The fairground in the experiment is European and it would appear that Europeans are the model for ‘humanity’ to the Israeli psychiatrist. Or, rather, since the psychiatrist is talking and it is the filmmaker who is illustrating it with pictures, Europeans are the model for ‘humanity’ to the filmmaker-narrator. Another clue may be found in a sequence set in a deserted Beirut mansion which emphasizes the aimlessness of war. In this scene an Israeli officer watches a pornographic film. The argument here is that pornography, like scientific experiment, is ‘human’ in the sense that it obliterates class and race. Pornography, like science, is broad enough to embrace ‘humanity’. One does not, for instance, particularly attach race or nationality to the participants in a pornographic film. It is interesting that in the pornographic film watched by the officer the participants are all white and apparently European, once again suggesting an association between the white race and ‘humanity’ – as in the scientific experiment dealing with human memory. It should be self-evident that when a person tries to imagine ‘humanity’, he or she tends to imagine his or her own kind.

There is little doubt that the film is Eurocentric and Europe is a stand-in for ‘humanity’. By the evidence of Waltz with Bashir the distinction between Israeli and Palestinian or Lebanese is racial and not religious or political. Israelis are Europeans ostensibly with Semitic roots while the Palestinians and Lebanese are local and therefore Semitic in every sense. This Eurocentric aspect of the film draws attention to its use of Hebrew because Hebrew emerges as an artificial language which has been used to construct a unity among people of different races. It is a language used to create the sense that those united by it belong to one race. But Europeans apparently exert hegemony within this single constructed race.

Israel is a nation in which the dominant group is ‘Ashkenazi’ and not ‘Sephardic’. Ashkenazi Jews are Jewish people largely from Central and Eastern Europe and they were the ones who bore the brunt of the Holocaust. There are various accounts of how people of Central Europe embraced Judaism and there has been a huge amount of anti-Israeli propaganda insisting that they are not Semitic. But the important point is they were taken to be Semitic by Hitler, suffered on this account and this was responsible for the creation of Israel. Sephardic Jews are racially different from the Ashkenazi Jews and they are mainly from the Middle-East, Spain and Portugal. Sephardic Jews are racially closer to the Palestinians and the Lebanese than the Ashkenazi Jews. With the resettlement of Israel by people from Europe the Askenazi Jews have dominated the country’s polity and Waltz with Bashir provides evidence that the dominant view of Israel’s citizenry is that they are white and European rather than ‘Semitic’ in the way of the local Palestinians and Lebanese. It is in this context that the charges of ‘anti-Semitism’ against Günter Grass by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become so complicated.

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