I never thought I’d say this, but there are times when history is a luxury we can’t afford.
That Philistine thought is provoked by “Colliding Dreams,” a thoughtful, ambitious chronicle of Zionism by the exceedingly intelligent and accomplished American filmmakers Joseph Dorman (”Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” “Arguing the World”) and Oren Rudavsky (“Hiding and Seeking,” “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America”).
Spanning more than two hours, “Colliding Dreams” recounts the clashing philosophies, strategies and tactics by which Zionism evolved from a pipe dream of anxious 19th century Eastern Europeans into a mature, prosperous Jewish state still grappling with the matter of displaced Arab residents and their descendants.
You wouldn’t expect “Colliding Dreams” to be such a dispassionate work, notwithstanding the overly familiar grammar of talking-head interviews and archival footage. But the filmmakers, perhaps recognizing that triggering emotions might push viewers to revert to deeply held positions and tune out contrary viewpoints, sidestep controversy in favor of reasoned argument and genial observation.
That’s a sound strategy for an educational film about the conception and fraught existence of Israel that aspires to a long shelf life. But “Colliding Dreams” falls short of arguably the most important goals of a historical documentary, namely to offer fresh insight into the present and inform discussion of the future.
The film is plainly made for a Western (read U.S.) audience, with practically every Israeli and Palestinian interviewee speaking fluent English. While the inclusion of Arab historians and politicians lends the film an air of evenhandedness, let’s be honest: “Colliding Dreams” proffers a multifaceted Jewish perspective augmented with a handful of Palestinian voices.
That’s not to say that Rudavsky and Dorman have fashioned a recruiting video for Birthright, or a compilation of simplistic talking points for the next local AIPAC fundraiser. At the same time, while the viewer can discern a faintly left-of-center point of view, there’s no veiled critique of Israel’s legitimacy.
Well, other than that voiced by Palestinians ruefully describing the increasing arrival of Jews in the 1920s and ‘30s, inspired by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and rising European anti-Semitism.
From the beginning, according to the assorted academics and writers (including playwright Motti Lerner and author A.B. Yehoshua), Zionism was a movement of self-determination and positive identity. Theodor Herzl, and those who championed the cause after his death in 1904, saw no future for Jews in Russia and Poland (where pogroms were brutal proof of their vulnerability and powerlessness) or France and Germany (where Jews were often viewed as outsiders and demonized).
The Jews who founded villages in Palestine after World War I were socialist and idealistic. Free to reinvent themselves, they adopted Hebrew as their language, and reread the Bible not for its religious teachings but as a record of Jewish history in the land.
This is well-trod ground for American Jews of a certain age, as is the role of the Holocaust in both ratcheting international support for a Jewish state and generating a million Jewish immigrants in just four postwar years. The Six Day War is another familiar chapter, although its importance in this context is as a catalyst for nationalism and the expansion of Israel’s boundaries.
A new wave of young Zionists emerged after the war and, in the mid-1970s, coalesced as Gush Emunim with the messianic belief that the Jewish people should settle in the Occupied Territories (which they referred to as Judea and Samaria).
On this point, as all others, Rudavsky and Dorman include multiple perspectives and avoid simplistic answers. There aren’t many memorable one-liners, consequently, although I was struck by a statement that the kibbutz had been displaced by the settlement as the international symbol of Israel as long ago as 1982.
“Colliding Dreams” will be most revelatory to younger people, whose understanding of how Israel was conceived, birthed, modernized and driven to the current crisis point is limited. I suggest they then watch a trio of discomfiting recent documentaries by Israeli filmmakers, “The Law in These Parts,” “The Gatekeepers” and “Censored Voices.”
On its own, “Colliding Dreams” is too polite, too cautious and too oriented on the past to provoke debate about Israel’s future.
“Colliding Dreams” opens April 29 at the Coolidge Corner Theater.