Revisionist TV

After 50 years of evasion, soft sell andhalf-truths, Israelis are coming to terms with the darker side oftheir own history. The process is painful and divisive, but thepeople, if not their leaders, seem to be ready for it.

Channel One, the public-service televisionstation, is resisting angry demands from right-wing ministers andlegislators to abort a warts-and-all 22-part series that chroniclesthe first half century of the Jewish state. The series, “Tkumah”(“Rebirth”), traces the story through the joy and suffering ofordinary citizens, rather than by interviewing the movers andshakers.

It also scans the other side of the screen. Arabstalk about the legacy of their 1948 “catastrophe,” the flight andexpulsion, the discrimination, the ongoing struggle, armed andpolitical, for their measure of justice.

The politicians and spin doctors are finding ithard to take.

In 12 episodes screened so far, “Tkumah” has shonea harsh light on Israel’s treatment of its Arab minority as well asits eastern Jewish immigrants. It mercilessly pilloried such nationalheroes as Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan for squandering the opportunityfor peace in the years between the 1967 and 1973 wars.

A future program, to be screened next month, willdepict what Israelis call “terror” and the Palestinians term “armedstruggle,” from both sides of the barricade, using footage from PLOarchives captured during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as well asinterviews with Israeli victims and fighters.

To the surprise of its producers as much as itscritics, the series has proved a hit. Despite a choice of more than40 cable channels, one in four Israeli viewers is tuning in. That istwice as many as the filmmakers had expected.

Yehoram Gaon, a popular actor and singer whointroduced each episode, sparked the row by resigning in protest fromthe series. Television executives then leaked that he had been firedthree days earlier because they found his material too shmaltzy,which, indeed, it was.

The Likud communications minister, Limor Livnat,led the onslaught. She demanded that the state-funded IsraelBroadcasting Authority, which is responsible for Channel One, takethe offending series off the air immediately, and she urged PrimeMinister Binyamin Netanyahu to intervene.

“I don’t know any normal nation that would presentthe other side’s position so favorably,” Livnat said. “That is asenseless and infuriating decision that has caused severe damage tothe State of Israel, both internationally and in the eyes of ourchildren.”

Hanan Porat, a leading settler Knesset member,called on the “Tkumah” producers to put out a second series, whichwould present the story from a “national” perspective. Moshe Peled,the deputy education minister, accused the documentary makers ofpresenting half-truths in the guise of history, though he had praisedearlier episodes as “the best birthday present the state couldhave.”

The broadcasting authority rejected thesestrictures, although it has decided to follow the more controversialepisodes with a live panel debate. One veteran broadcaster retortedprivately: “We have grown up. We’re no longer living in the days whenthe news was controlled from the Prime Minister’s Office.”

IBA spokesman Zvi Lidar said: “This is a historicseries dealing with history that is still in the making. We knew wewere picking at open wounds. But each program was made with the helpof a team of historians representing different political views anddifferent approaches to history.”

Ronit Weiss-Berkowitz, who directed the terrorismepisode, vigorously defended her treatment. “At times,” she said,”the film adopted the other side’s point of view, and those arepictures we are not used to seeing. One of the objectives was tounderstand that blood was spilt on the other side as well, that therewas mourning, and there were victims there too. We don’t have amonopoly of that.”

She accused Israel’s leaders, left as well asright, of “obtuseness and condescension” toward Palestinians. When hewas chief of staff in the early 1980s, Rafael Eitan, she recalled,scorned them as “drugged cockroaches.” A decade earlier, PrimeMinister Meir brushed them aside with the assertion, “There is noPalestinian people.”

Weiss-Berkowits insisted, however, that she hadnot made a Palestinian propaganda movie. “In no way whatsoever,” shesaid, “did I praise Palestinian terrorists, as was claimed. I onlylistened to them. With all the openness, balance and objectivity, Idon’t see terror as a legitimate weapon.”

So far, the right-wing protest has not caughtfire. No one demonstrated outside the TV studios. Netanyahu, who hasministerial oversight of the broadcasting authority, did not respondto Livnat’s nudging.

In fact, the series told Israelis little they didnot know. They serve in the army. They are aware of what has beendone in their name — some of it glorious, some morally tainted.Sometimes, they acquiesce, arguing that torture and other humanrights abuses are necessary for Israel’s survival in a hostileregion. Sometimes, they object.

Ilan Pape, a Haifa University historian who hasfrequently challenged the received Zionist version of the state’sformative years, welcomed “Tkumah” as a sign that such criticism hadbecome legitimate.

“Although the series is bold in its criticism,” hesaid, “I don’t think it is presented in a way which contradicts theZionist narrative. It does not question the basic truisms, but it iswilling to take a more critical position. It is still within Israel’sself-image that, despite all the bad things we say about ourselves,we are the just party in this conflict.”

As one of the sabra generation of “newhistorians,” Pape feels less lonely. “It will be much more difficultto limit the debate now,” he said. “What began as an academic debatehas become more central to the way Israelis are looking atthemselves.”