Earning nearly eight hundred dollars in its opening weekend, according to IMDB, Promised Lands may not actually have made much of a difference in the global arena. It was a good try, however, and if nothing else, shows in a roundabout way just how resistant the Middle East is to basic intelligence. Every once in a while, one cannot help but wish that the Jihadists and Zionists up the ante and duke it out. Of course, it would mean pushing lots of buttons, killing everybody, no exceptions anywhere, leaving no survivors. But this would put an end to the matter, get it over with already, and the matter, defined from every conceivable point of view, makes no sense. Oddly, that is the exact position of an interviewed Israeli in the film, who calls the situation tragic in a Shakespearean sense: two rights, diametrically opposed, allowing for no resolution whatsoever. And this was in 1974, after Anwar Sadat attacked in October 1973. Eventually, Israel rallied against the invasion, but not fast or efficiently enough to prevent Egypt from winning a great deal of respect in the field.
Perhaps most fascinating of all is the use and abuse of fiction as well as non-fiction to try to get a handle on an elusive subject. Almost every political-minded person clings desperately to a fictional fantasy in order to explain his or her passion. Is the Middle East the story of a persecuted people finding refuge in a land, unfortunately, made famous by the most important religious events to the Western mind? Or is it the story of how diverse Muslims and Christian Arabs, maybe, unite in order to get rid of a mortal foe? In one passage in the film, someone reads aloud Syrian and Egyptian literature that vilifies Israelis. On the other hand, outside the frame, let's say, one can well imagine Israelis forgetting the general rules of etiquette speaking in private about their unappreciated neighbors.
We were still in Vietnam when this not-so-landmark film was shot. Attitudes toward war were different then. Only the most stubborn Panglossian still maintains that a few hundred tanks and thousands of foot soldiers can change things. In the meantime, 1970s Jerusalem and vicinity looks curiously bizarre in terms of culture clash. There are Arab women draped in black, turbaned Arab men kneading dough for bread, goats, camels, ice-cream parlors, and night-clubs. Orthodox women wearing head scarves pray at the wailing wall, in the shadow of the golden domed mosque. Sontag really only gets the Israeli side of the picture, which turns out to be a rather well-articulated response to current affairs then and the relevant history leading up to them. Today, our homegrown politicians love to emote and pontificate over the Iranian threat, still only verbal, though it includes the frequent use of the word "nuclear".
Perhaps best of all, the film concludes in a mental hospital where shell-shocked Israelis try to re-invent themselves. Maybe the correspondence between war and psychiatric conditions is too facile, but it works well enough, intended or not. Earlier on, someone remarks upon how much fighting took place over desert wasteland neither side wanted. And there is one other comment that is also memorable and that is a reference by an Israeli to the 1905 Revolution in Russia. Today, the rightwing is dominant, salivating over prospects for war, public execution, and widespread imprisonment. But Israel was once a leftwing project. This man elaborates on how Russian Jews took part in an attempt to overthrow the Tsar. Later, some of them migrated to what is now the State of Israel. Israelis should be proud of their leftist heritage and not work so hard to repudiate it in this more neo-conservative day and age.
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