An Eye-Opening Experience

by Brian on March 13, 2008

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

A new documentary titled Eyes Wide Open premiered last week at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. Directed by veteran filmmaker and Jerusalemite Paula Weiman-Kelman, the film explores the complex relationship of North American Jews with Israel by following several groups from the US as they visit Israel, many for the first time.

From the spiritual excitement of visiting the Old City of Safed, to participating in a Palestinian demonstration against the West Bank security barrier, Eyes Wide Open documents a wide variety of experiences.

The interviewees express their confusion at the complexities of life in Israel, where daily reality ping-pongs between extremes. At one point, a participant sighs, “I would love to be non-conflicted.”

During the panel discussion that followed the screening, the film’s screenwriter, Stuart Schoffman, addressed the issue of feeling conflicted.

“Israelis live with selective denial,” he said. “In order to live with so many contradictions, some things get pushed to the background while other things get moved to the foreground. People who live here do that all the time. They learn how to juggle the contradictions.”

That’s not so easy for the casual or brief visitor to Israel, Schoffman went on. “These are people who went to Sunday school and learned all about the Jews wandering for 2,000 years and then they get here and suddenly realize there are complications,” he said. “For some, even thinking about this is so overwhelming, they don’t come at all. They change the channel.”

The problem is that Israel exists on an adrenalin rush of conflicting narratives: We have a peace-loving narrative and a narrative that says we must be strong and protect ourselves at all costs; we have the people who brought about the flowering of the desert, who danced the hora every night while picking watermelons in the kibbutz field by day coexisting with fundamental questions of human rights and civil inequality.

What does Israel do, for example, with the some 7,000 illegal immigrants from Africa who have crossed the border in the last two years? Deport them? Give them shelter and citizenship? What about the trafficking of women? Pornography and sex crimes? How can the Zionist dream narrative and the one where Israel is portrayed as a blemished nation both be true?

Another panel member, Eliezer Yaari, executive director of the Israel office of the New Israel Fund, put it this way: “I feel a strong sense that there’s no way for Israel to succeed in the eyes of America. For many US Jews, we’re too leftist. For others we’re too Right. We’re too socialist and not socialist enough. Too religious or not Jewish enough. We can’t win.”

MK Colette Avital, a former ambassador to the US, repeated the oft-cited statistic that only 20 percent of American Jews have ever visited Israel.

Even if that number might be up in recent years with the tens of thousands who have taken part in birthright trips, Avital lamented that “after 60 years, Israel and the Diaspora haven’t grown any closer. Americans don’t understand Israelis, but Israelis don’t understand America either.”

What will help bridge the gap between the two largest Jewish communities in the world? The traditional Israeli hasbara pitch of “just make aliya” has clearly worn out its welcome. Instead, Israel has to export its culture, panel members agreed.

“We need to share what we’re about through literature, movies and music,” exhorted Avital. We have no choice but to move beyond the headlines and TV sound bytes that constitute the average American Jew’s Israel experience.

Israelis need to pay more than lip service to the issues that engage Americans, added Yossi Klein Halevi, another panelist and a senior fellow at the Shalem Center. “That means more respect for minority rights, for Arabs, for women and Ethiopians. We need to show sensitivity to religious pluralism. We can’t alienate liberal American Jews.”

That may not be so easy. At one point in the film, a synagogue mission begins to pray at the Haas Promenade in Talpiot. The camera pans to two Israelis.

“They can’t do that,” says one. “They don’t have 10 men.”

“They count women too,” the other explains.

“That’s not right. It’s not allowed,” the first counters.

The scene elicited nervous laughter from the audience as they caught a glimpse of just how big the gap in understanding truly is.

Ultimately, Israel needs to be spun not just as a physical place but as the “ultimate Jewish text,” explained Schoffman. “The real argument today is not over a page of Talmud, but over Israel the nation. This is the new beit midrash [Jewish study hall].”

Like the rabbinical arguments over nuances in the pages of a Jewish text, we need to “celebrate the conflicts, to make them a virtue,” Schoffman said. “The complexities themselves are the source of engagement.”

Eyes Wide Open is just over an hour long, but it can serve as a trigger point for salient, honest and open discussion in both Israeli and American Jewish communities. Watch for it at a theater near you.


To book the film, contact Ruth Diskin the distributor. Her website is


This article originally appeared in the In Jerusalem section of The Jerusalem Post.

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