I am not too much of a filmgoer, although that reflects more of a bias against being a goer than against film. My friends in the showbiz biz forward flicks periodically, in the hope that my rave will fill theaters from coast to coast and they can rake in their millions. More often than not the link sits in my inbox drying up like an old sausage link, stale and un-open-able by the time I finally make some time. This may explain why I have fewer and fewer friends in the industry as the years pass.
This one I had to squeeze in no matter what; they had turned one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time into a documentary! Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, and winner of multiple Oscars for Best Documentary, turned Yehuda Avner’s spectacular memoir, The Prime Ministers, into two documentaries, the first covering the Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir days.
The second one, due to hit a theater near you on November 6, entitled The Prime Ministers: Soldiers and Peacemakers, covers Avner’s employment as a scribe for the last two of his four Prime Ministerial bosses, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin. Rabin kept him on after succeeding Golda Meir, because why not? Avner was an Orthodox Jew, as Rabin decidedly was not, but Avner was a loyal leftist Labor Party foot soldier and Foreign Service attaché adept at phrasing diplomatic messages in English. A Romanian refugee to England as a child, Avner had emigrated to Israel as a young adult mere months before the declaration of the State and the War of Independence in 1948.
Avner passed away in March of this year, after completing his role as narrator of the documentary. He has a certain appeal on camera, but his charm is tempered by a temperament of natural reticence. A diplomat can never really buck the lifelong discipline of measuring every word, sounding it out for resonance and impact. The starry-eyed émigré does shine through periodically, the kid who cannot really believe he has traded the ghettos of Romania for the corridors of international power.
Yitzhak Rabin is introduced here to Americans in a way we have not met him before. He starts out as a stunningly handsome kid, with real movie star looks, yet he invests himself early in a life of substance. He becomes a great soldier and a brilliant analyst. His one bad decision, carrying out Ben-Gurion’s order to open fire on the Irgun ship Altalena, is not glossed over here, but he is offered a curious alibi of sorts: the claim that Ben-Gurion feared the weaponry aboard the ship would be used for a coup d’état. No one believes that story for a second, but we can excuse the old Laborite this feeble fig leaf over an act of historic betrayal.
Beyond that, honesty prevails. Avner admits that Rabin’s wife was indeed guilty of opening a bank account in Washington, D.C. when Yitzhak was posted here as ambassador. This was a violation of Israeli law and forced Rabin to resign as Prime Minister on the eve of the 1977 elections. (An enterprising reporter had spotted Mrs. Rabin performing a transaction in the bank. To investigate, he walked up to the teller a day later with $100 of his own, saying that Mrs. Rabin had asked him to deposit it into her account. When the teller gave him the account number, he ran with the story and brought down a government.)
We get a glimpse into Rabin’s persona and his style of leadership, including the incredible moment when he called Henry Kissinger a liar to his face. The episode involving President Gerald Ford, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yehuda Avner’s kosher meal is priceless and recounted here with greater flair than in the book. Far be it from me to play the spoiler: pony up a few bucks and you’ll learn a thing or two.
One caveat: the part of the movie devoted to Menachem Begin is edifying, and arguably sufficient to convey the greatness and unique quality of the man. However, an editorial decision by Rabbi Hier excises a key element of the book. Avner’s written presentation takes on great poignance as we watch him fall in love with Begin, the right-winger whose views he had always opposed.
The book concluded with the resounding verdict that Begin, the traditional Jew, the man who recited a blessing (“Blessed is God, our Lord, King of the World, who has let us live to arrive intact at this special moment”) when he finally won election after twenty-nine years, the hard-liner, the former “terrorist.” was the greatest of the four Prime Ministers Yehuda Avner served. Too bad the Los Angeles moviemakers shied away from letting that verdict echo in the theaters of a nation desperate to learn that truth.