Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky’s excellent history of the changing faces of the ideology that built the State of Israel offers a careful antidote to the shrill entrenchment that attends the very mention of Zionism. “Colliding Dreams” tracks the rise of the Zionist idea to the persecution of European Jewry, as well as to its less well-known roots in the Enlightenment and the rise of European nationalism in all its forms. Though formally conventional, the film makes incisive use of footage (some of it rarely seen until now) and exhilaratingly articulate talking heads from all sides to show how an ideology that saved one people from disaster and gave them a homeland also deprived another of theirs. At once compassionate and rueful, “Colliding Dreams” is recommended viewing for open minds, and essential viewing for those that remain snapped shut.
“Palestine is like a beautiful girl,” one commentator in “Colliding Dreams” observes wryly, “except that the girl is already engaged.” Early in the film, we see early 20th-century photographs and footage of Jews and Arabs working, living, and celebrating life’s passages side by side. The images may startle those familiar only with the bloody polarization and religious fanaticism that disfigure the region today. But no one went to war when the first Jewish settlers arrived, fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and fired by the decidedly secular aspirations of early Zionists for a “normalized” homeland in Palestine. Early Zionism, directors Dorman and Rudavsky show, was not purely reactive and defensive, but part and parcel of the desire for national identity that blossomed all over Europe in the wake of the Enlightenment. The search was on for a homeland that would fill with Jews from all walks of life, and Palestine seemed like a solution grounded in ancient history. (Uganda, suggested by the British and briefly endorsed by Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl, did not go over well.)
At first, Jews and indigenous Arabs mostly prospered together. Successive waves of mass Jewish immigration fleeing persecution from the Holocaust, in the Middle East, and, later, from the Soviet Union, however, changed the equation. The quantitative became qualitative, shattering a relatively peaceful coexistence and, with dubious help from Britain and other interested parties, muscling in a fledgling Jewish State that expelled many Arabs in 1948 and curtailed the rights of those who stayed. The result was a large population of displaced Palestinians, kicked around like a football between Israel and surrounding Arab states that hardly extended a welcoming hand to the refugees. The rabid polarization that ensued, with Hamas threatening Israel’s extinction on the one hand and Jewish settlers claiming exclusive birthright on the either, continues today.
“Colliding Dreams” opens a much-needed space for moderate, less inflamed voices. The result shows that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of fancy graphics to make a great documentary. A host of smart academics, novelists, politicians and journalists, interspersed with sidewalk testimony from ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, are juxtaposed with telling footage which the filmmakers repurpose into an interrogative, though never strident revision of official stories.
The pic emphasizes the pivotal importance of the 1967 Six-Day War, here retooled from the popular David-and-Goliath heroic battle into a land-seizing victory that laid the groundwork for an occupation that remains catastrophic for Jews and Arabs today. The film’s many talking heads tease out the tangled strands of Zionism that gave rise on the left to the kibbutz movement and successive Labor governments, on the right to settler movements and the pugnacious rule of Netanyahu, and, in the occupied territories, to a succession of intifadas.
Dorman (“Arguing the World,” about Jewish intellectuals) and Rudavsky (“A Life Apart: Hasidism in America”) have each made other films exploring Jewish identity. Both are American Jews attached to the Zionist ideal, while recognizing that the ideas that gave Jews a land, a language and a culture, also curdled into a justification for oppression. “Every national myth is a fiction,” says Yuli Tamir, a founding member of Peace Now. “But it works.” The question raised by this engrossing film is, for whom, and for how long?
At the end of “Colliding Dreams,” a decorated former army colonel, Mordecai Bar-On, admits that his mind was opened and his mistrust of the Other shaken by his daughter’s marriage to a cultivated, moderate Palestinian. Wisely, the film leaves open the question of whether routine close proximity or mutual battle fatigue — or the escalation of the even fiercer civil wars that currently rage around this tiny sliver of contested land — will bring about a lasting peace.