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Monday, April 27, 2015

Film Review: "Above and Beyond" (Producer: Nancy Spielberg - Director: Roberta Grossman)


On May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar on the Hebrew calendar), one day before the State of Israel was officially founded, its founder and first prime minister David Ben-Gurion read publicly its Declaration of Independence. Jews around the world commemorate this holiday of freedom every year on a holiday we call Yom Ha'atzmaut (literally, "day of independence).

I did not grow up a Zionist. My father's parents (may they rest in peace; z"l), survived Auschwitz and a Romanian labor camp and their focus was on survival and recovery - not discussions of horrendous memories (in fact such conversations were taboo) nor any dreams of a State, if they had them. We remain closely connected with the Satmar Hasidic community and they are strongly anti-Zionist as well; they believe that the act of retaking Israel and its existence as a secular state is against G-d's will.

As a child I remember being captivated by the works of Chaim Potok, especially The Chosen, which captures this conflict well. Set in the direct aftermath of the Holocaust, it portrays the budding friendship between the sons of two men who are each deeply committed to saving the Jews, but in diametrically opposite ways - the one by helping to establish the State of Israel, and the other by keeping his tiny community alive and religious.

So this was not really "my" holiday as a young person, and I remember also that we were not active in the movement to free the Soviet Jews, which was very intense during those years. This was not out of any philosophical opposition, but rather the result of my father's traumatic childhood lessons: We were lucky to survive the camps, you are an immigrant to the United States, the authorities may or may not come after the Jews at any time, keep your mouth shut and keep the family alive.

Many times I wanted to be part of the rallies. Every time, my father implored me, stay home.

Fathers matter. Not the least because they're socially endorsed as leaders of the family and by extension as leaders of society - exerting a tremendous influence on what we believe. 

In Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, Yossi Klein Halevi writes of his own worried father, who managed to get through the Holocaust by living in a hole in the ground - not a home, but an actual hole - and who was saved by a non-Jew who brought him food.

Halevi was not himself religious, but expressed his Jewish identity by trying to physically save Jews. A witness to his father's post-trumatic anxiety, he joined the Jewish militant movement in New York at that time. He was a disciple of the Zionist youth movement Betar, and a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane (may he rest in peace; z"l).

Kahane was clearly a flawed man. But he stood for Jewish self-respect and empowerment, during a time when others frequently hesitated to take a stand. Though most Jews distanced themselves from his extremist views, Kahane's ideology was very clear: Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish self-respect and the Jewish nation must be protected at all costs.

Ultimately Halevi married a non-Jewish woman, who converted out of her own desire to become Jewish, and who took the matriarchal name Sarah. He became religious, moved to Israel and is a lifelong journalist of Jewish survival as well as peace between Jews and other faiths in what is really a Holy Land for all of us.

It is against this background that I took in "Above and Beyond." On its face the film is a historical documentary about the founding of the Israeli Air Force, but it is really much more ambitious in scope than that - and it succeeds, often hilariously.

Through honest, painfully honest interviews with a handful of elderly pilots, the film shows us the miracle of Israel's establishment in 1948. And it was a miracle - it was a series of miracles - for there is no other way to understand how a handful of pilots, flying cobbled-together planes, illegally smuggled halfway around the world, managed to succeed at their missions.

The movie shows America's difficult position as Israel was formed, not really wanting to facilitate what would surely have been a bloodbath had things unfolded in a probabilistic fashion - that is, the Arabs by their numbers and might should have brutally overtaken the Jews.

It shows further the intense anti-Semitism that was pervasive in America at the time, with "only Christians need apply" job advertisements and frequent beatings of Jewish kids by non-Jews.

The focus of the film is mostly on American pilots, who'd fought for the United States during World War II despite the military recruiters' skepticism that Jews could fight at all.

These pilots risked their citizenship, they risked jail time, they risked their own lives to make sure that the Holocaust did not happen again, at least not on their watch.

As I write this I my eyes well up at the magnitude of their sacrifice. The two Jews who came up with the logo used on the fighter jets came together from UCLA, and they died the same year, 1948, the one before the other, the other vowing not to leave without his best friend, and neither of their bodies ever found.

The story of the Air Force, the stories of the pilots, the stories of Jewish history and of Jews acting boldly and bravely and honorably to defend themselves and others ought to be more widely told. 

Many people died in the fight for Israel's independence. Many Arabs were dispossessed as well, a painful reality noted in the film. 

G-d has a plan for all of us. G-d loves all of us equally. May we put aside our religious differences, our pride and our ethnocentrism and come to a solution that enables us to live side-by-side in peace.

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All opinions are my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. According to its director, the film will be released April 28, 2015 on VOD, including at least Amazon and iTunes (no endorsement expressed or implied). Screenshot of film cover art via movie press kit. For more information, see the movie's official website and Facebook page.