interview with Yigal Eilam
In conjunction with Israel’s 50th anniversary, Israel’s public TV channel produced and aired a controversial 22-part historical series entitled T’kuma (Revival). In the words of the New York Herald Tribune, the tale was told “from the perspective of the vanquished as well as the victors. Side by side with the country’s heroes, the series gave voice... to marginalized immigrants, Arab citizens who lost their land and their identity to the Israelis, and lastly to Palestinians who engaged in terrorism to fight for the return of their land.”
Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, writer-director of the latter episode, said that she wanted to show “the creation of the ideology behind terrorism... We Israelis think we have a monopoly on blood, tears and pain, but of course this is not true. We know our side in this story. I wanted to present the other side, loudly.”
Reflecting the bitter criticism of the series from the right, Communications Minister Limor Livnat said it was “a propaganda film for Israel’s enemies” and asked “why we have to sit on the defendant’s bench in a series run by public broadcasting in Israel.” She said that she had stopped allowing her son to watch it. Producer Gideon Dori responded that “at the age of 50, Israel should be ready to accept a critical view of its history.”
Historian Dr. Yigal Eilam, a researcher and writer on the history of Zionism and the State of Israel, was one of the senior advisors to T’kuma. He was interviewed on the making of the series and its implications by Palestine-Israel Journal Editorial Board member Hillel Schenker.
Palestine-Israel Journal: Is the making of T’kuma a reflection of a growing maturity within Israeli society?
Dr. Yigal Eilam: That is undoubtedly so, at least as regards the way in which the Israeli public has reacted to the series. I actually anticipated much harsher reactions. To summarize the response, I would say there was the right level of protest, which at first did not come from the right, but from what I would call the “respectable center” and the left.
What was the essence of that criticism?
They claimed that not enough emphasis was given in the early segments to the achievement of what could be described as “Ashkenazi Zionism.” Attacks were made by defenders of the Palmach (pre-state military force connected with the labor movement) who wanted to know why Palmach leader Yitzhak Sadeh was overlooked.
It was as if a group of people had sat together and nervously listed who was included and who was left out of the historic pantheon. Some looked at the series as if it was the “official version of history.” Perhaps they were still under the influence of a previous TV series Pillars of Fire, devoted to the history of Zionism, made in 1981.
By the third and fourth segments, which were devoted to the absorption of the mass waves of immigration in the early years of the state, some Ashkenazim began to ask why they were subjected to such strong criticism. What they saw, as in the later segments on the Palestinians, was an emphasis on human suffering, on the price that individual people, in this case the new immigrants, had to pay.
I also received a response from some people on the left, who asked how I could collaborate with another consensual version of history, Apparently they didn’t notice the nuances in the first episodes.
And when the episodes on the Palestinians were shown?
Then the thunder began to erupt from the right. Most of the criticism was now coming from the establishment and from the right. However, this died out fairly quickly, I think partially due to the strong counter arguments presented by the makers of the series.
But the primary reason for the decline in the criticism was the very mature response of the general public. The controversy on the series reached its peak with the airing of the “Biladi, Biladi” (“My Homeland, My Homeland”) episode, devoted to the PLO. This was accompanied by the demonstrative resignation of Yehoram Gaon (a singer considered to be the archetypal consensual Israeli, who introduced the first segments of T’kuma - ed.).
The daily Ha’aretz asked in a public opinion poll on the series — “Do you think Israeli society is ripe for a critical history?” The results were incredible — 70 percent said yes. Also, the series was winning relatively high ratings, which we had not expected. Each segment was re-broadcast on Saturday evening. The public, regardless of sex, religion or political persuasion, was saying, “Even if I don’t agree with this or that item, this series is worth seeing.”
In planning T’kuma, the team had the 1981 Pillar of Fire series as a model. To what degree did you consciously say that you would approach the new series differently?
We felt that that series had been appropriate for its time, also in terms of what the public was ready to accept. I have no doubt that today, in the 50th year of the state, after all the changes of the last 15-20 years, the creators of T’kuma, whatever their political orientation, have a broader, more variegated approach as a result of the processes in Israeli society.
As far as historians are concerned, this is the result of the research which has been done meanwhile. We have all lived through very formative years, during which much historical information has been revealed in international relations, Israeli-Arab relations and other subjects. This has to have an impact on anyone making a TV series today. I don’t think that people consciously sat down and said, “Let’s do it differently.” T’kuma is an expression and a reflection of changes that all of us have undergone.
At the same time, we did set certain parameters. For example, we decided, in spite of strong criticism, not to base the series on interviews with historians or VIP’s, but rather on witnesses, on evidence from people in the field. It is from this, and not from “stars,” that the authenticity, spontaneity and vitality of the series stem.
Another basic decision was not to avoid or evade any difficult problem which emerged in the series. I would have refused to participate in the series without that decision. I believe that history that doesn’t seek out, or even tries to avoid, controversy is uninteresting. History is not simply a chronological listing of events. The series has to try to present them in all their complexity and let the viewer decide for himself or herself. Under no circumstances did we want to present a whitewashing of history.
Also, assigning different directors, with their own outlooks, to each episode guaranteed that there would be no concentrated control over the series, and no possibility of a uniform approach.
I myself am not happy with some of the episodes in T’kuma, not from the factual point of view, but because of the message they convey. For example, I thought that the segment devoted to Gush Emunim (the settlers’ movement) should have struck a balance between the movement and the Peace Now movement. But the director decided and the result was a Gush Emunim episode, expressing their point of view. When I saw the final product I relaxed because the strength of the episode was that it showed the truth in their eyes.
Does that imply that the episodes which focused on the Palestinians expressed their truth, as Palestinians?
Only to a limited degree. First, this was a series called T’kuma (Revival) and its focus is on our revival, not their disaster. From a technical point of view, it was impossible to create a balanced series with a double narrative. Perhaps after peace prevails for both nations, it will be possible — maybe for the 100th anniversary — to create a double narrative: we will then have two parallel narratives and combine the two. This is not possible at this stage.
What we had in this series were glimpses of the other narrative. The series didn’t whitewash atrocities which took place and it periodically provided Palestinian witnesses to events. That is why I call it glimpses. For instance, the final scene in the episode “Biladi, Biladi” featured an image of the PLO fighters leaving Beirut on their ships in 1982, singing the Fateh anthem. This was a very strong image and I think that a Palestinian film might conclude an episode on that period of their history with the same image. That definitely introduced an element of change into the Israeli consciousness concerning the Palestinians. It had an impact.
It interests me to know how Palestinians view the series. Just as I say that an element of change was introduced into the Israeli consciousness, I also hope for a small element of change in the Palestinian consciousness, i.e., an awareness, as Palestinians, that something has changed in the Israeli consciousness. My general impression is that on the Palestinian side, intellectual or political, the primary reaction has been indifference. Apparently, we have a long way to go before we hear an acknowledgment of the signs and can begin moving toward a joint approach to history.
The Palestinian response is obviously very influenced by the state of the peace process, which limits their possibility of appreciating such a change.
That is true and, therefore, my response is not one of disappointment. To return to the internal Israeli context, I believe that regarding most of the sensitive issues — Israeli-Arab, Ashkenazi-Sephardi, or the Shoah (Holocaust) — we are beginning to see varying schools of thought. There are changes in perception and a readiness to question previous assumptions.
Would you like to make some last comments?
I would like to remark as a historian that we have not carried out enough research on our recent history. When we deal with the first ten years of the state, it feels like very new and unexplored territory. We should today be at the point where the first 20 years of the state’s history, until 1967, have been thoroughly researched. That hasn’t happened.
There are hesitations and reservations because it seems too close for comfort. There are no such problems in dealing with pre-1948 history, but on the post-1948 period, research and educational curricula in schools lag far behind. Now a project like T’kuma fulfills a role in this area. It introduces into the general historiography of the state all sorts of significant corrections, new proportions, factors missing in the general literature. It puts new emphases and lays bare old myths, a contribution of which any innovative history book would be proud.