For a fractured Israel, film offers ominous lessons from an ancient past


JERUSALEM – A gripping political thriller hit movie screens in Israel this summer, the film sparking heated debate and striking a chord with Israel’s precarious new government.

Right-wing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urged lawmakers to see the film during a recent stormy session of Parliament. The new president, Isaac Herzog, former leader of the center-left Labor Party, said that if he could, he would screen it for every child in the country.

The epic and animated drama, “Legend of destruction, ”Is widely presented as an edifying tale for a deeply polarized society. The impact of the film is all the more surprising as it depicts calamitous events in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

By this time, the first Jewish revolt against the Romans had turned into a bloody civil war between rival Jewish factions, culminating in the sacking and destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and their recapture of the holy city.

The bitter civil war changed the course of Judaism and spawned the Talmudic concept that the fall of Jerusalem was caused by infighting and “sinat chinam,” a Hebrew term generally translated as baseless hatred.

A graphic and disturbing representation of the existential danger posed by such an internal conflict, the film provokes an introspection among its audiences – and the country’s new leader urges that its lessons be heeded.

After years of toxic and divisive political rhetoric, Mr Bennett declared national unity as the mission of his diverse coalition, which seized power in June and is made up of center, right and left parties and, for the first time, from a small Arab Party.

And he uses the temple parable to warn his detractors, led by his notoriously confrontational predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to tone down the vitriol and efforts to delegitimize his new government.

“You are not against the government,” Bennett told opposition lawmakers before recommending that they see the film. “You stand against the state, against the good of the nation. “

The film opens in AD 66, with the Jewish multitudes prostrating themselves in the courtyards of the temple atoning for their sins on Yom Kippur. Four years later, the temple stands in smoldering ruins. The Romans recapture the city to find the Jewish population exhausted by internal strife, miserable and starving after their rival warlords burn down each other’s grain stores.

His pervasive sense of apocalyptic doom speaks to the fears of Israelis at a time when internal conflicts seem more threatening than external enemies. Ideology has given way to identity politics and social schisms. The country is torn apart by religious-secular tensions; ethnic friction between Jews and Arabs and Jews of Middle Eastern and European origin; and, in recent years, a growing chasm between supporters and opponents of Mr. Netanyahu.

Israeli leaders have increasingly drawn lessons from Jewish history, noting that Jews enjoyed two previous periods of unified sovereignty over the country in ancient times, but both are said to have lasted only 70s or 80s. years or so – a poignant reminder to the modern world. which, founded in 1948, has passed the 70-year mark.

“This is the third case of having a Jewish state in the Land of Israel,” Bennett said in a recent interview. “We’ve messed it up twice before – and mostly because of national polarization.”

Even before seeing the film, in its inaugural speech in June – rendered almost inaudible by constant heckling – he referred to past disputes that “burned our house down on us.”

And in a speech marking Israel’s 73rd Independence Day, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Chief of the Military Staff, spoke of the disastrous lack of solidarity in the past. “As Titus’ troops gathered outside Jerusalem,” he said, referring to the forces led by the future Roman emperor, “the Jewish fighters refused to unite inside, and when factionalism won over patriotism, the Romans won over the Jews.

Despite years of preparation, the July release of “Legend of Destruction” could not have been more timely. Its director, Gidi Dar, began working on it as the Arab Spring turned into winter and civil war tore neighboring Syria apart. As it progressed, he said, it became more and more relevant to Israel.

In May, a deadly flash of collective violence between Arabs and Jews raised the specter of civil war. In June, after four inconclusive elections in two years, Bennett formed his fragile coalition, which is only in its first 100 days and governs by a very narrow majority.

“You flourish, then you crash,” Mr. Dar said. “The dangerous moment is now. We are right there.

A secular Israeli, Dar believes the country is in a spiritual crisis, lacking in vision and purpose.

Referring to what he called the “super violent rhetoric” in politics, society and the Internet, he said, “the point is to sound the alarm before it happens, not after. . It is as if our ancestors told us through thousands of years, “See what happened to us. Do not be complacent.

The film uses an innovative technique, consisting of 1,500 paintings. Top Israeli actors recount their roles on a haunting soundtrack of imaginary temple music. Without taking sides, he tells the story of the Civil War largely through the eyes of a young zealot motivated less by religious fanaticism than by loathing for social injustice and corruption.

Israelis on the left and right hailed the film as an argument for a new atmosphere of tolerance. But not everyone agrees with the message.

At least one former far-right lawmaker took issue with the self-destruction narrative, arguing that the Romans were to blame, not Jewish internal struggles. Others doubted the film would have a lasting impact.

Ideological conflicts are not new to Israelis, said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on democracy in the information age at the Israel Institute of Democracy, a research group in Jerusalem. But now, she said, the disagreement had turned into hatred, amplified by social media. “You can force every teenager in Israel to watch this film, but everyone would find it a reinforcement of their current ideas and beliefs. ”

Mr. Netanyahu’s allies continued to denounce Mr. Bennett’s government as fraudulent, based on “stolen” votes from the right and dependent on “terrorists,” that is, Arab lawmakers.

And after a Palestinian activist shot dead an Israeli soldier along the Gaza border last month, Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters sought to capitalize on the event, describing the army commanders as weak and restrained and Mr. Bennett as having the soldier’s blood on his hands.

The public attack on the legitimacy of the army prompted General Kochavi, Chief of Staff, to publish a special statement in support of its troops with a ominous warning: “A society that does not support its soldiers and commanders, even when mistakes are made, will find that there is no one left to fight for it.” “

Before Yom Kippur, which falls on Thursday, some Israelis viewed their government as a final experiment in whether the right and the left, Jews and Arabs, could work together.

Failure would be “a disaster,” said Micah Goodman, philosopher and popular author with whom Bennett consults.

Viewing internal division as an existential threat was new to Israelis, he said, and likely sparked by the global problem of growing polarization as well as a new sensitivity to Jewish history.

The problem, he said, was what he called “the demonization of the government that is trying to end the demonization.”


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