By Yoav Sorek
March 21, 2008
The relationship between American Jews and Israel is always a fascinating subject, one that Israelis don't think about enough. The film Eyes Wide Open can perhaps shed light on at least one aspect of this vast topic. This is a documentary made by three Jews who live on the seam line between Israel and the English-speaking Diaspora. Paula Weiman-Kelman, the director, is Israeli and a Jerusalemite, but her accent leaves no room for doubt. Jon Lopatin, the producer, is a major American businessman who retired early and devotes his time and money to activities promoting the issue of Jewish identity. The film accompanies American Jews who come on their first visit to Israel - both young and elderly, and from different missions - and attempts to examine the nature of this encounter, which turns out to be more complicated than one would think.
"American Jews grow up on the myth, or archetype, of Israel," explains Lopatin before the screening," and someone who comes for the first time is both shocked and amazed. There is a double process going on: on one hand, their original, naive perceptions are weakened, and complexity sets in, and on the other hand, or maybe as part of the first process, this actually becomes more of an attraction for them. I am speaking about myself: the years pass and I find myself coming here more and more frequently, even though I am connected to what is going on here in a more multi-faceted way.
The film documents - and this is its weakness--mainly liberal Jews who come here, who in Israel would automatically be categorized as left-wing. In the only political moments in the film, the camera accompanies a young girl who joins a "non-violent" demonstration by the residents of Beit Sira against the security fence, and another young man participates in the rebuilding of a house that was destroyed by the authorities in the village of Anata. Even for the other participants in the film, who would probably not take part in activities of this kind, Israel is a reality which is hard to swallow and digest. "Just as no one asks you if you want to be identified as a Jew," says one woman, who later in the film proposes marriage to her lesbian girlfriend in Jerusalem, "no one asks you if you want to be identified with Israel. That is how you are identified, if you like it or not. And if that is the reality, I wanted to come and see it with my own eyes, and understand what this thing is that I am connected to."
In a panel discussion that took place after the screening NIF's Eliezer Yaari remarked that it's about time American Jews stop treating Israel as something they have to give their opinion on, or even grade. And this is a significant statement. For some reason, Jews who come to visit feel the need to compare it all the time to their expectations. Someone apparently promised them an ideal model of a Jewish State, and they, to some extent, come over to check whether the project succeeded. Others spoke about the need for Israelis to accept their brother overseas with more openness. In light of this very true statement, I would recommend this film to a lot of non-liberal Jews, like me, if only to understand that Israel is and will continue to be a point of identification, not only for many Jews like me, but for many distant Jews also. Even the girl who went to demonstrate side-by-side with Palestinians is moved by the preparations for the Sabbath in Jerusalem and feels a deep connection to the country.
Watching the film also teaches us to what extent the eyes that watch Israel through the window of the bus, the lens of the camera or the explanations of the tour guide come from a completely different world, and that they also remain there. The deep imprint of American culture creates a mental barrier between Jews of the Diaspora and Israeli Jews. The visitors are first and foremost Americans, then they are Jews and by virtue of that they have a powerfully emotional and existential connection to what is happening here.
The interviewees, who all come from different backgrounds, all get to the same conclusion: the encounter with Israel is powerful and earth shattering--with the Israel which has a dominant Jewish presence, with the Israel that is a sovereign Jewish state, and also with the Israel in which you come face to face with the remnants of biblical times.
The visitor who was raised on the myth suddenly finds out that Jerusalem is really on earth, it's a city just like any other, and that life as a minority in a non-Jewish society is not the only Jewish alternative. This film provides for Israelis, as well as naive and simple Americans, a chance to look again at this wonderful country we live in, and to see that the rifts that tear us apart are smaller than we thought. It turns out that we are all first and foremost Israelis, Jews that chose to live in their country--a choice that made us very different from our brothers over there.