Israeli Pessimism

Israeli Pessimism

By Oron Shamir
Achbar Ha'ir Online
March 7, 2008

Eyes Wide Open takes a look at American Jews and their attitude toward Israel, and, in the process, also focuses on the gap between Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

No matter where you live in Israel, the chances are that you will run into waves of American tourists. If you live in Jerusalem, it's a sure thing. Especially during what Americans call "holiday season", around New Year's. Then it seems as if all of Brooklyn has temporarily moved to the capital. But we locals don't really know what these temporary olim feel about Israel. That is the fundamental question which "Eyes Wide Open" explores; in addition to the wide range of answers provided, new, complex issues are raised.

The idea to make a documentary about American Jewish tourists was the brainchild of Jon Lopatin, who later produced the film. He took the idea to filmmaker Paula Weiman-Kelman, who considers herself an Israeli and Jerusalemite, as so much time has passed since she exchanged French fries for humus, fries and salad. Contrary to the usual procedure followed when making a film, the script was written only after the 200 hours of footage were condensed into an hour-long documentary. The story took shape with the assistance of Stuart Schoffman, a journalist and scriptwriter who came to Israel many years ago. He is the third component of this triangle of Jewish filmmakers who are originally from America, and who all have a strong connection to Israel.

The film, which is divided into several parts, concentrates on several personal stories. Each segment of the film opens with a quote from one of the participants and deals with the events and dialogue presented in that segment. In this fashion, the film portrays the larger picture of the American Jewish community, including a wide variety of ages and ideas. The topics covered range from the character of Israel as a Jewish State and the personal connection to this state, to a conceptual discussion on the pros and cons of the Security Fence.

Cinematically, Eyes Wide Open does everything right. The spectrum of participants chosen is quite diverse and presented in a straightforward, unaffected manner. The gay community, for instance, gets double representation but without the burdensome caption of "a homosexual coming to the gay pride parade" or of "lesbians embracing at the Wall." One can definitely say that the director chose to take some risks, such as a "non-violent" Palestinian demonstration, for the provocative aspect and to capture some moments of action on camera. However, the reality is that the Second Lebanese War broke out in the middle of the filming, which proves that even an innocent trip to the Galilee can deteriorate to a life-threatening situation. The documentary-combined-with-personal style, which was in itself rugged and upbeat, is backed by editing that succeeds in making the most out of the authentic moments.

Eyes Wide Open was screened in New York also, and it's interesting to see how this documentary, which is meant to connect American Jews to Israel from the Yankee side, will work in the other direction also. As an Israeli viewer, the eyes that were opened wide were the viewers' and not those that were documented. For the Sabras among us, this was an opportunity for a deeper encounter with Jewish American culture than the chance meeting with birthright participants or a Woody Allen movie. Even in the movie itself, Israelis are presented as observing the foreigners. A little girl talks with shining eyes about the guests that came to visit ("they are from America"). One Orthodox Israeli manages to trap an innocent tourist into putting on tefillin. The climax comes when an older man claims that the improvised praying of a group of tourists doesn't count, because they don't have a minyan. His friend tells him to relax and explains: "They count women also--let them do it in their way."

The strong feeling at the end of the film is that there is a rift between Israelis and Diaspora Jews, an enormous gap that isn't reflected in the daily life of either side. The naive optimism of the Americans (that is, after all, how we see them), versus the pessimistic reality of Israelis (ditto). This year, Israel is commemorating 60 years of existence, which shouldn't be taken for granted. It is amazing that the very nation that felt out of place during all these long years of history excels today at imparting exactly the same feeling to its fragments in the Diaspora, when they come visit their national homeland.

Once You Visit Israel, Everything Looks Different