Zionism looming behind “Defiance”

February 5, 2009

I, too, enjoyed Defiance ("Watching Defiance with Gaza on my mind"). And like Joe Allen, I couldn't help thinking about the Israeli slaughter in Gaza as I watched it--though director Ed Zwick could not have intended this.

Zwick wanted to make a film that showed Jews as fighters rather than as simply victims during the Holocaust. That is a good thing, given that most Hollywood films portray Jews during the Second World War as lambs going to the slaughter. The message that some Jews fought back is an important story to tell.

Yet, in choosing the story of the Bielski brothers--of Jews forming a forest community and vigorously fighting off Nazi attackers--I cannot help but think, and this is reinforced by the fact that Zwick is a staunch Zionist, that he had the bogus idea of the Israeli "David" vs. the Arab "Goliath" in the back of his mind. If that was not his intention, it certainly will be interpreted that way by many.

Whether intentional or not, the forest community in the film evokes Israel, proudly fighting against overwhelming odds against its "terrorist" Arab neighbors, which are trying to destroy it. To me, what makes this interpretation even more compelling is that one of the Bielski brothers temporarily goes off to fight with a Russian partisan detachment, where he experiences anti-Semitism and indifference to the fate of the Jewish community he left behind. Here, in crude form, we have the "socialist" alternative to the Zionist one, proving its illegitimacy, and the reinforcement of the idea that Jews must go it alone if they are to survive as a people.

In a recent interview Zwick explained, "There are reasons why certain stories become known at certain moments and others not, that happen to do with the contextual moment in which they are learned." We can only hope that the contextual moment in which this film appears will evoke sympathy with the Palestinians rather than a stronger identification with the Zionist cause.
Paul D'Amato, Chicago

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