Renowned Israeli filmmaker Igal Bursztyn is a master of drama and documentary, never leaving an audience unmoved. In his latest screen venture Our Beds Are Burning he addresses the intellectual foundations for fascism at a time when Israel’s domestic politics and attitudes to Palestinians has become more sharply divided than ever.
Screening its World Premiere at Tel Aviv’s DocAviv, Bursztyn strolls through the roots of fascism as smoothly as he treads the sea front boulevard above the Mediterranean beach a short walk from the «very quiet street» where he lives.
Opening with shots of sun-drenched, fit, and healthy young bodies lying on the sand just beyond the gently lapping waves, Bursztyn opens the film with a statement that will have the alert tensing for what comes next.
The happiest nation in the world
«I read somewhere that Israel is the happiest nation in the world….this makes sense», Bursztyn intones. «I live in Tel Aviv, near the beach, on a very quiet street…my wife grows geraniums on the windowsill, we have charming children, lots of books… I have a small study, air conditioned, two sugars in my coffee…»
But Bursztyn, born in Manchester, England in 1941 to refugee parents who returned with him to their native Poland in 1949 before later emigrating to Israel, has a «haunting, obsessive» question nagging in his mind: «How long will all this last?»
He returns to memories of his childhood in Europe where other kids called him a «Jew-boy» – and meant it as an insult. When he understood what was behind this, he left for Israel.
Now, «many decades later, the memories come back of shattered houses, blackened snow on shattered pavements, men with missing limbs…»
And so begins an intellectual odyssey into the roots of fascism; Bursztyn goes beyond those ruined streets of his childhood to the communities that existed before the war to ask a simple, yet profound question that deserves repeating for every new generation: «What were the leaders, the statesmen, the philosophers saying then?»
He turns first not to the usual suspects – the Russian Anti-Semitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or Hitler’s repetitive hate-filled drivel, Mein Kampf – but to an apparently innocently quaint and all-but forgotten pamphlet by the French writer and politician Maurice Barrès Etude pour la Protection des Ouvriers Français (An Essay in Defence of French Workers) published in 1893.
Cue archive footage of a man Bursztyn admits he never read before working on Our Beds Are Burning.
A nationalist who loved the French, but had little time for the Germans, and no time for the Jews, Barrès popularized such sentiments as «we’ll defend French workers and get rid of foreigners».
«How long will all this last?»
From the page
Weaving archive footage into shots of actors speaking the lines written so long ago – here in a university library, there is a bookshop or gym, as ordinary people go about their ordinary lives seemingly oblivious to the intellectual angst the director is probing – Bursztyn resurrects obscure references such as the anti-Italian riots in the south of France in 1893 in which migrant labourers from Italy were slaughtered by the French locals.
Slowly he builds his argument for how fascism emerges from words on a page, speeches on the radio, arguments in a chamber….
The repetitive litany of fascists the world over – the fantasy and symbolism, the talk of blood and soil, the reverence for ancient empires, the sacrifice of the physical here and now for the so-called spiritual there and then – becomes a drumbeat of 20th century insanity.
From the ruins of Europe torn by trench warfare and the sacrifice of millions, Mussolini emerges in Italy and Hitler in Germany, each with eager and willing intellectual acolytes to help popularise and legitimise their squalid ramblings.
Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism published in 1932 details the essence of fascism: elevating the state above the individual, the leader above the law.
«The individual forsakes all – even his life – for the spiritual life of the nation».
Death cults are strong on celebrating the death of what is real for the life of that which is fantasy.
It is now that Bursztyn – with a flourish almost theatrical – introduces the Jewish fascists, those who in the 1930s celebrates Mussolini and, like one Zionist activist, even went to meet him, to worship at his feet.
There is Itamar Ben-Avi, a journalist and Zionist, dubbed by his enemies as «the first Hebrew fascist” who gushed: «Mussolini’s fascism, his inspiration suits, well the people of Israel». Or Aba Ahmeir’s Notebook of a Fascist published in 1928, where he stated that «faith in Mussolini has boosted Italy’s prosperity». A few years later he was trilling that, «except for Hitler’s anti-Semitism, we should not reject his doctrine».
«None of this was taught us at school», Bursztyn drily notes.
As he progresses on his examination of the cloaks of respectability spun about fascist movements with a look at the founder of the Spanish Falangist movement, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and the German lawyer Carl Schmitt – whose writings contributed to the rise of Hitler and who remained unrepentantly a Nazi throughout his long life (he died, aged 96 in 1985 in the same small town he had been born in), Bursztyn casually tosses in the human cost of fascism: the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, half a million dead.
There’s no need for the director to enumerate the cost of the Nazi’s «final solution» to the Jewish question, but as he begins to hint at the core of fascism that survives (and even thrives) in Zionist circles in Israel today, he briefly recounts Hitler’s obsession with youth and race, before having actors read extracts from a speech given to SS officers by SS and Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler in Poland in October 1943.
Himmler told his men: «We must be honest, honourable and decent to our own race; I don’t care what happens to Czechs or Russians….whether 10,000 Russian women die from exhaustion in digging a tank ditch is of interest to me only in so far as the work is done properly».
«In this context I must mention the most difficult question in my life: the Jewish Question».
«Easy to say the Jewish people must be exterminated, but those who enforce know it is the most difficult task. Most of you know what it means for 100, 500 or 1,000 bodies to lie together, but to go through this and remain decent that is what has made us strong».
«There has been a question – what about women and children. I answer unequivocally: We couldn’t kill adults if their children grow up to revenge them».
The length Bursztyn quotes Himmler at clearly makes this an essential prop – the gun introduced into a movie plot in Act 1. By Act 3 we all know that it will have been fired.
Slowly he builds his argument for how fascism emerges from words on a page, speeches on the radio, arguments in a chamber…
Thou Shalt Not…
And so it is, as Bursztyn finally turns to Israeli fascists, such as the Israeli general Rehavam Ze’evi who suggested that, «If only Hitler had arranged the transfer (not transport) of Jew to Israel, we would be 10 million! » before going on to say that Arabs should be transferred out of the West Bank. «Eventually they will leave for other countries and stay there».
Bursztyn keeps his powder dry before firing his gun in the last few minutes when he introduces the repulsive contents of a radical reinterpretation of rabbinical law by a group of Zionist rabbis from the Yitzhar settlment on the West Bank: The King’s Torah: Law of War Between Israel and Nations.
The book turns the Ten Commandments on their head and simply states that Thou Shalt Not Kill is not a prohibition against killing Gentiles. In fact, because Gentiles are «in the eyes of God like animals, lacking in consciousness, their life has no meaning». This soon becomes a justification for killing Gentiles (i.e. Arabs) as «they deserve death».
So far, Bursztyn has only cocked his pistol; the trigger is not pulled until he reaches the following «justification» for killing children and innocents:
«When killing babies and innocents, there is a deep concern about their activity when they grow up».
«We couldn’t kill the adults if their children and grandchildren grow up to revenge their deaths».
«Accordingly, babies won’t be killed because they are evil, but because everybody needs to take revenge upon the wicked ones».
The gun goes off. Funny, we seem to have heard a key phrase in this passage somewhere before…. Could it be Poland, 1943?
A closing clip of apprentices of the «King’s of Torah» singing and dancing, guns held aloft as they celebrate the killing of a Palestinian baby in a West Bank village in 2015, brings the film to a close with a brief return to its opening question: «How long will all this last?»
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