Sunday, September 23, 2007

A New Op-ed Article on nthe Altalena Docudrama

Take liberties with history, and you can fool millions

Sep. 19, 2007

At the Venice Film Festival early this month, British director Peter Greenaway spoke of his latest effort, Nightwatching, a movie about Rembrandt van Rijn. The film, in the style of docudrama, zeros in on three women in the painter's life.

"I can't prove every single fact, but you can't disprove it either," Greenaway told a press conference.

Maybe you can get away with that kind of approach on a Rembrandt docudrama and just hope for the best, but what if elements of Israel's history were portrayed on the basis of the "but you can't disprove it either" school of thought?

Israeli playwright Motti Lerner has shown he has no problem with taking just that line.

Lerner, the grandson of one of two woman presumed to have revealed to the Turkish authorities the spying activities of Sarah Aharonson in Zichron Ya'acov in 1917, leading to her arrest, torture and eventual suicide, is a theater personage of note. He has previously staged Messianic Pangs, The Murder of Isaac - with its infamous urination scene - and Bus 300, as well as Kastner's Trial among others.

In A Battle in Jerusalem, a television drama shown over Channel 1, IDF soldiers during the 1948 war are assigned to take an Arab position near Jerusalem. After a day of difficult fighting they retreat, but blow up the position with their wounded in it.

IN DESCRIBING the plot of The Murder of Isaac, Lerner explained that he sought to inculcate into his art the idea "that religious fanaticism was and is grounds for innumerable wars; and the fact that nationalistic and racist fanaticism still constitute[s] a central component of our culture."

The play was refused a stage in Israel, so Lerner took it to Germany for production. But it was the Kastner play that attained for him a place in all Israeli law schools - and no small amount of notoriety - when the subject of "freedom of expression" is taught.

In its script, produced for Channel 2 television more than a decade ago, Lerner takes liberal license with his Hannah Szenes character and suggests she handed two Palestinian Jewish parachutists over to the Hungarian police.

The incident not only didn't take place; it couldn't have. Szenes was already imprisoned when the parachutists arrived in the Hungarian capital. The scene was a figment of Lerner's imagination.

High Court president Aharon Barak decided, in the majority opinion, that an artist's right to freely express himself even if he actually falsifies what happened is protected from libel action. Justice Mishael Cheshin passionately dissented, arguing that the historical truth must take precedence.

LERNER, as he's written in a paper presented at Brandeis University, believes that Israeli society suffers from a "disease" - "that most Israelis do not recognize the simple and clear truth that there is a Palestinian people… [this] disease is the total denial of the Palestinian narrative… we, Israelis, must admit that this disease, which I've just described, is not very different from the same old racism that we suffered from for more than 20 centuries."

Now Lerner has a fresh project. Channel 2 will soon be showing a Lerner docudrama that purportedly portrays what happened when the Altalena arrived in Israel in June 1948.

Already, evidence is mounting that Lerner will be taking liberties with history. Yoske Nachmias learned that his character in the series will be firing a submachine gun at IDF soldiers at the Kfar Vitkin beach, a clash that occurred a day prior to the shooting that took place off Tel Aviv's beachfront; and that Menachem Begin will be hiding behind the Nachmias character, trying to protect himself.

The real Nachmias observes that this scene is completely fabricated. But neither the producer nor scriptwriter, as far as we know, appear to be interested in correcting the distortion.

WHATEVER the distortions of the past, Lerner's future crimes against history can still be corrected. In the first instance, the series should contain a prominent and explicit disclaimer stating that this is a work of fiction, and that any similarity with actual events is purely coincidental. If Law and Order can do it, Channel 2's Keshet franchise surely can.

Secondly, instead of calling the ship the Altalena, why not call the boat Shimshon?
Haim Hazaz published a book entitled In One Chain about the Irgun's Meir Feinstein and the Lehi's Moshe Barazani who, sentenced to be hanged, preferred to blow themselves up with a smuggled primitive hand grenade. All the names of the characters, major and minor, were changed. It did not detract from the story, and made it clear that Hazaz was interpreting a historical reality in a fictitious manner.

He could not have known what conversations transpired between the two heroes. But his approach emphasized that history and theatrical interpretation are two different things.

Only about 100 people who were involved in the Altalena incident are still alive. But millions may eventually accept the Motti Lerner docudrama take on the Altalena incident as genuine history. Very few will likely go on to read a genuine history book that would present an alternative to Lerner's narrative.

The medium of docudrama is subtle and facile and prone to convincing an unwitting audience that what they see is real and true.

Given Lerner's propensity for ideological antipathy to many of his subjects, as well as his record of playing fast and loose with history for (questionable) dramatic worth, the playwright should be forced to make these small alterations before his latest work airs on Israeli television.
The writer comments on political, cultural and media themes and blogs at