It is by far the best movie of the year. It is a filmic tribute to human will, perseverance, and freedom. And it serves, whether intentionally or not, as an excellent analogical parallel to what faces the state of Israel as that nation prepares for pivotal elections next Tuesday.
The movie is Defiance, and it is a tour de force. And it perfectly captures the spirit of admirable defiance that has kept the Jewish people and the Jewish state alive all these years against perilous odds.
The movie tells the largely true, well-documented story of how a small group of Jews in what was then eastern Poland (now part of Belarus) escaped Nazi ghettoes and massacres and set up a resistance movement in the woods — and then, unlike most purely military resistance movements, how the group actively recruited other refugees, including the old and the infirm, and carried on the tasks not just of survival and paramilitary action but of civilization as well. Surrounded by enemies or nasty allies of convenience only, hunted and attacked, the Bielski partisans not only repeatedly sabotaged Nazi installations and carried out raids, but also built workshops, established a rudimentary medical clinic, and set up their own synagogue and school. Beginning with about 40 people, the community took in more and more stragglers, often injured or ill, and turned them into integral members with useful skills — eventually saving 1,200 Jews from the Nazis.
Then again, there is nothing new about Jews surviving. For some three thousand years they have survived as a recognizable people despite being hunted, hated, abused, abandoned, persecuted and slaughtered. The Holocaust was different in degree only, but not in kind, from the fairly frequent pogroms in which Jews have been killed for centuries, just for the supposed sin of being Jews. One of the great and terrible mysteries of human civilization is why the Jews have been treated this way. Left alone, or better yet welcomed into the broader polity, the Jewish people almost always have contributed to the advance of civilization and learning through remarkable industry and philanthropy.
After the loss of some six million souls in the Holocaust, the Jews surely weren’t asking for much in wanting a state of their own in a land where hundreds of thousands of them already lived. In return, the United Nations offered the non-Jewish natives a nation of their own as well — but those other natives, claiming the name of Palestinians, rejected the offer.
For 60 years, though, the Israelis have asked only to be let alone. Surrounded by enemies or nasty allies of convenience only, hunted and attacked, Israel has built a modern democracy, a land of freedom, learning, and technology. Just as a biographer wrote that the eldest Bielski brother, Tuvia, “would rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten German soldiers,” so too the state of Israel has never attacked for conquest but only in defense, only to save rather than to destroy.
To carry the Bielski analogy one step farther, consider a letter from one of Israel’s greatest heroes, Jonathan Netanyahu, written at the age of 17 about a “scout troop” he had led in Israel before temporarily moving with his family to the United States. “Little by little,” he wrote, “as the months passed, I saw how twenty children turned into 40, and then into sixty, eighty, and finally into more than a hundred. I saw how near-infants [emotionally] were transformed into a force which had to be treated seriously and respectfully…. If you feel that you’re creating something, that not a day slips by without your making some contribution, if you feel you’re needed — then I’m sure you’ll continue.”
The letter could just as easily have described the Bielskis’ civilization in the woods. And it — the letter — was one of some 330, written over a 13-year period, all of them private, that was collected by his family and published after Netanyahu became the only Israeli soldier killed during the famous rescue mission at Entebbe, Uganda, in which a commando force led by Netanyahu saved 103 Israelis whose plane had been hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists. It was the last act in an already heroic career, one in which the Harvard-educated “Yoni” (his nickname) had already become one of the most decorated soldiers in his nation’s history.
The letters are a self-portrait, never intended for public consumption, of a man of integrity and a patriot. This was a man who loved his native land. “I yearn,” he wrote from his American high-school sojourn, “for a place that’s narrow, hot, rotten, filthy — a place that’s more than 60 percent desert and that one can scarcely find on a map of the world; a place full of special problems…. [yet still] the beloved Land, its dear people, fathers and sons, etc.”
That was in 1963. Eleven years later, after valiant service in two wars defending that homeland, he wrote: “I feel profoundly apprehensive about the future of the Jewish state. Shedding illusions, I see that the process aimed at annihilating us is gathering momentum and the noose is tightening. It won’t be a rapid process, though….”
This brief synopsis cannot possibly capture how moving Yoni’s letters are, how insightful, how full of integrity. And they clearly served as inspiration for his younger brothers, Benjamin and Iddo, who accurately captured their meaning and import in an eloquent Afterword to the volume published not too long after his death. Even then, the brothers noted a concern of Yoni’s that they summarized thusly: “The global policy pursued by the United States was likely, he thought, to bring her by degrees to a point where she would abandon Israel entirely. He saw the efforts of the United States to force his country time and again to concede vital assets and positions as part of an ongoing process, with no sign of let up…. [In response to that concern], he asked himself whether, in the path he had chosen, he was employing his full strength and potential to make his best contribution to the continued existence of the Jewish people.”
If that American attitude sounds like that of Bill Clinton and of Barack Obama, then it is no wonder that Israelis are more than a little concerned as they consider their upcoming election.
Yoni’s brother Benjamin is, of course, the hawkish, conservative, free-market-loving, anti-Communist leader of the Likud Party, now a former prime minister who is leading (slightly) in the polls for next Tuesday’s election in which he hopes to regain the prime ministership. While Benjamin Netanyahu is often portrayed as overly militaristic, it’s worth noting that his record is that of a careful diplomat and statesman: In his first stint heading the government, from 1996-1999, he negotiated the cession of most of Hebron to the Palestinians in a bid for peace. Like Tuvia Bielski, Benjamin Netanyahu certainly will fight and fight and fight — but he would rather save a Jewish woman than kill ten of his adversaries.
Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this Netanyahu consistently has expressed greater fondness for the United States than did his brother — but, like his brother, knows better than to rely on the United States for his nation’s survival rather than to demonstrate Israeli self-sufficiency. A soldier, a scholar, and a patriot as well, Benjamin Netanyahu tries to carry on the millennia-old tradition of keeping the Jewish people alive in a hostile world.
Americans should be able to appreciate all of that — including the patriotism. It is a virtue that, pray God, we Americans ourselves haven’t lost. It was a virtue we especially celebrated, with great fanfare, on the occasion of our Bicentennial as a nation. For those of us above a certain age, the date of that American expression of patriotism will shine forever in our memories. It was, of course, July 4, 1976.
That very day is one Israelis still remember too, as an occasion of one of their greatest triumphs that nevertheless was marked by sorrow. It was on July 4, 1976, that Jonathan Netanyahu fell to a Ugandan sniper’s bullet — fell, appropriately, while saving his people.