Israel’s Filmmakers Take Aim at the Nation’s Moral Ambiguities
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At Christmas on the big screen at home, we watched a mass of tracked armor swarm up a hill toward a handful of defending tanks, from which heroic young crews blitzed the attackers like video game targets. It is a scene, a miracle victory, depicted in a thousand Hollywood epics, most often with the enemy wearing coal-scuttle helmets adorned with swastikas.
Yet this film was different: The tankers repulsing the hordes were Israelis, featured in the eight-part miniseries “Valley of Tears,” fighting Syrians in 1973. This is a Jewish “Band of Brothers” — the opening titles end on an image of a cluster of warriors silhouetted against the horizon, closely matching that of each episode of the 2001 Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks series about World War II.
Even as I watched the episodes last week, I read of new Israeli airstrikes against the Syrian port of Latakia. That war, which began in 1948, has never entirely ended. What has changed since 1973 is that the doings of the Israeli Defense Forces have in the 21st century become intensely controversial.
“Valley of Tears” is the latest in a barrage of biopics about Israel’s soldiers or spooks, which have won global audiences (you may have seen this one before me, because it first aired in Israel in 2020). Filmmakers in Tel Aviv have got the message that irrespective of politics, Israel’s army and intelligence agencies command fascination and respect.
Launched in 2015, “Fauda” — the Arabic word means chaos — portraying soldiers and undercover teams working in the occupied territories, is into its fourth season and has won praise for its reasonably sympathetic treatment of Palestinians, if not of their terrorists.
Sacha Baron Cohen did a terrific job in the 2019 miniseries “The Spy,” portraying the man who penetrated the highest circles of Syrian governance on behalf of the Mossad, Israel’s legendary foreign-intelligence service, sustaining his role in Damascus for four years before being unmasked and publicly hanged in 1965.
“Tehran” (2020), soon to return for a second season, portrays the Mossad’s men and women working in Iran amid a maze of betrayals, killings and hair-breadth escapes. (Also, “Golda,” a new movie set during the 1973 war and staring Helen Mirren — controversially, because she is not Jewish — as Prime Minister Golda Meir is likely to get to the screen this year.)
None of these series show the Israeli security forces as lovable. Yet they represent propaganda as well as entertainment, because they feature characters who are brave, effective, seriously smart.
“Valley of Tears” is an ambitious attempt to portray onscreen a battle in the Yom Kippur conflict, one of the most traumatic events in the history of Israel: For its first five days, the nation reeled on the edge of disaster. Every man, woman and child knew that while Arab nations could lose many wars, the Jewish state’s first defeat was likely to be its last.
The story the TV series tells has a special resonance for me, because I was there in 1973, as a young reporter. What I saw and heard in those weeks filled me with a love as well as admiration for Israel. I flew into Tel Aviv on Oct. 7, the day after Syria and Egypt launched their devastating surprise assaults across the Suez Canal and against the Golan Heights.
Like most of my media colleagues, I was imbued with a belief in the apparently superhuman qualities of the IDF, displayed to such effect in earlier wars. Thus we had no immediate understanding of how Israeli arrogance and carelessness had allowed the attackers to wreak devastation on both the Suez and Golan fronts. When General David Elazar, the military’s chief of staff, told journalists confidently “we shall smite them hip and thigh!” we believed him.
Ignorant of the perils, I bribed a taxi driver to take me up to the Golan Heights. Amid the prevailing chaos, the usual roadblocks to stop unauthorized journalists were missing. By sneaking up through kibbutz roads, within an hour or two we breasted the steep ascent onto the heights. We had seen none of the traffic that customarily clutters the rear areas of armies; only rural tranquility and a few armed kibbutzniks.
Then, with astonishing abruptness, we found ourselves on the battlefield, amid wrecked vehicles, sporadic shellfire, tanks rearming and refueling, plumes of smoke obscuring the horizon, blackened men at the extremes of exhaustion, and blackened armor being hastily prepared to fight again. In an instant, I understood that everything we had been told in Tel Aviv about Israeli dominance was nonsense. Here, at the strategic epicenter of the front, the nation’s forces were fighting with their backs to the wall.
My terrified taxi driver said: “You wanna stay here, you give me money. I go home.” I gave him money, and he went home. I stayed to talk to the tank crews, most of whom spoke in staccato mutters, as sleepwalkers do. One said: “It is very hard … too many Syrians … we’ve lost a lot of people … those bastards just kept coming. What kind of leaders do they have who will make them do this?”
I have given this account of my spectator’s role merely to explain why “Valley of Tears” has such a profound impact upon me. Not because the series offers an authentic, detailed narrative — its characters are risibly sensationalized — but because it shows young Israelis doing things that were indeed amazing, terrifying, often wonderful, in what became the biggest armored clash in history save the 1943 Battle of Kursk.
The Syrians had attacked with five divisions and 1,460 tanks across a 40-mile front, defended by only 200 infantry in forward positions and 177 tanks. The Soviet Union had equipped the Arab armies with a profusion of SAM anti-aircraft batteries, Sagger wire-guided antitank missiles and RPG-7 bazookas. In those first days, the Israelis were stunned by their losses.
Yet the Israeli tank crews, especially on the Golan, wreaked havoc among the Syrians through the speed and lethal accuracy of their shooting. A deputy battalion commander, Shmuel Askarov, aged 24, was credited with 35 tank “kills” in his own Centurion tank. When one of his fellow officers proved reluctant to order his driver to forsake dead ground and advance to engage, Askarov ran back, clambered onto the turret and put a pistol to the man’s head, saying “Get up there or I shoot.” He himself kept fighting until he was blown out of his turret by a Syrian shell, an experience he narrowly survived.
In the southern sector, 20-year-old Lieutenant Zvika Greengold hitchhiked to the front from leave, took over three repaired Centurions from which the blood had just been washed out, and assumed command of “Force Zvika,” which achieved prodigies on the so-called Tapline Road. In darkness, hampered by lack of night-vision aids such as the Arabs possessed, he destroyed his first Syrian T-55 tank at a range of 20 yards, and after the electronics failed on his own tank he assumed command of a second, which faced down a Syrian brigade. Captain Eli Geva’s company destroyed 30 tanks, losing just one of its own.
There were many sacrificial moments, such as the fall of a strongpoint on Tel Saki hill manned by paratroopers whose commander, Lieutenant Menachem Ansbacher, radioed his headquarters to report Syrians outside in overwhelming strength: “Say goodbye to the guys. We won’t be seeing each other again.” And they did not. In all, the war cost the IDF 2,656 dead.
The TV series, named for the killing ground on the southern Golan where hundreds of Syrian and some Israeli armored vehicles were reduced to smoke-blackened twisted steel, gives a vivid visual impression of what those battles looked like. It is less honest, as often also is Hollywood, about those who performed less well.
More than a few defenders fled the battlefield, and refused afterwards to return, even when the tide turned — this was Israel’s first war in which thousands of its casualties were attributed to combat fatigue. Several senior officers broke down beneath the stress of apparent defeat.
Mount Hermon was a key intelligence outpost, stormed at 2 p.m. on the first day by helicopter-borne Syrian commandos because it was shamefully ill-defended — just 12 infantrymen posted to protect more than 40 intelligence personnel. The latter were privy to Israel’s most vital secrets, especially about its interception of Arab command networks. Eleven men escaped, but 13 were killed and 31 taken prisoner.
In the TV version, a fictionalized young intelligence geek behaves heroically even when in Syrian hands and facing torture. In real life, his most plausible model, Lieutenant Amos Levinberg, admitted on Israeli TV in 2016 that although he had not been tortured, he had told his captors everything he knew because he believed that Israel had lost the war.
On repatriation afterward, he told his chiefs despairingly it would take 20 years to repair the damage he had done. Moreover, Soviet and East German technicians were able to dismantle and remove state-of-the-art electronic equipment left intact in the Hermon bunker when it was abandoned.
Such failures are common to all nations in all wars. The overarching reality of Yom Kippur is that, after suffering crippling losses in the early days, the Israelis made a brilliant recovery to finish the conflict within artillery range of Damascus, and with the Egyptian divisions on the east bank of the Suez Canal utterly at the mercy of encircling Israeli forces.
My own dispatches reflected awe at what I had seen the IDF achieve on both fronts. They prompted a thoughtful letter from James Cameron, a great British reporter who covered Israel’s 1948 war of independence, the 1956 Sinai campaign and the 1967 Six-Day War. He wrote kindly about my writing, then said: “I know precisely the emotions behind it, having experienced them almost identically. It is quite impossible to work in combat with the Israeli Army without this response, if you have any sense of history and drama.”
“I have sometimes wondered whether this irresistible military mesmerism hasn’t clouded for us some of the political falsities,” he added. Here, Jimmy touched on something I barely understood then, but certainly do now. I had been privileged to witness what I would call Israel’s finest hour, many echoes of which resonate through “Valley of Tears.”
But in the five decades since, the world has seen Israel exploit its military dominance to treat the Palestinian people with a harshness that cannot be justified merely by rehearsing the wickedness of terrorism. It was a former head of Israeli’s Shin Bet intelligence service who said, in the powerful 2012 Israeli documentary “The Gatekeepers”: “Occupation has made us a cruel people.”
Another former Shin Bet chief said in the same film that since the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, successive Israeli governments had made no serious political attempt to secure peace, relying instead on the army and intelligence services to hold down the occupied territories. Whether or not this claim is entirely valid, it seems significant that an intelligence chief made it.
I still cherish the memory of my love for Israel. How can one not admire what those extraordinary people have carved out of the barren land of Palestine? I respect many individual Israelis. Yet I recoil from the systemic ruthlessness epitomized by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and reflected in the relentless expansion of Jewish settlements across the West Bank.
When I last visited Gaza, in 2007, the Israelis manning the exit held me under the sun for two hours in a cage-like checkpoint, and strip-searched my Palestinian interpreter, merely to parade their disgust toward a foreigner who trafficked with Gaza’s inhabitants.
The great Israeli peacenik Amos Oz said to me back in 1980, when I bemoaned some perceived misdeed of Menachem Begin’s government: “People like you have loved Israel as a European country. You are going to be disappointed in future, because it is becoming instead a Middle Eastern country. I hope that it will not behave worse than other Middle Eastern countries. But you should not expect it to behave better.”
A British academic friend of mine, who has conducted a dialogue with Israeli counterparts for decades, recently online, observed sadly a year or two ago that he finds them increasingly uninterested in what the outside world thinks of their country’s doings; ever more inward-looking in their judgements.
A supporter of the right-wing Likud Party once chastised me: “People like you liked us when we were losers, when you could feel sorry for us. You are turning your backs on us now that we are winners!”
I hope he is wrong about that. Israel remains one of the most fascinating countries on earth, in many respects a showcase for the indisputable genius of its people. Yet I cannot help lamenting the loss of some of the greatness of spirit that I saw there for myself half a century ago, and which achieved in the Valley of Tears one of the most remarkable military triumphs in history.
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Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."
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