Project Background on Is Jerusalem Burning?

Myth, Memory and the Battle of Latrun

Statement from the Filmmakers
Chuck Olin & Matthew Palm

In 1998, we were approached by Shlomo Shamir, a retired Israeli general, about doing a project on the ill-fated battle of Latrun, fought during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Shamir was the commander of the Israeli forces that had been given the task of taking the stronghold at Latrun.

The idea for the film was fairly straightforward: through interviews with veterans and historians, we would attempt to dispel the misconceptions that have surrounded this battle for decades, namely, over-inflated casualty figures; allegations that most of the Israeli losses were Holocaust survivors recently arrived in Israel; and the contention that it was a mismanaged military catastrophe that could have been avoided.
The so-called "myth of Latrun" that rose from the ashes of this battle had seeped into the cracks and crevices of Israeli collective memory. More than 50 years later, it remained a powerful force. Setting the record straight would be a difficult task.

After interviewing more than 40 veterans, historians and social commentators, we believed we had a firm handle on the Latrun story: precise casualty figures, an understanding of the reasons the battle was fought, and the conditions under which it was lost. We also began to discern why Latrun had become such a dark stain on Israeli memory: it was a battle fought for Jerusalem; some of the soldiers were indeed Holocaust survivors; and it was a bitter defeat for the Israeli forces. The result was that the battle itself had taken on a significance much greater than was warranted. Our film would attempt to present the facts of the case, and thereby dispel some of the inaccuracies that have lingered for years.

Having put together this structural narrative, we believed we had come close to getting to the heart of this story. Close, but not all the way. We scratched our heads and wondered aloud: "so what?" Sure, we had presented exact casualty figures, a precise account of the battle's events, and a clear understanding of the reasons why it was fought and lost. But was there perhaps something more significant going on here, something that could help us understand more about Israel itself, its people, and even the current situation vis-a-vis the Palestinians? We believed so.

And so we began to ask more questions. To interview people not only about Latrun, but about the idea of Latrun, the memory of Latrun...the myth of Latrun. What we discovered fascinated us...and this became the context in which we chose to frame our story.

The Latrun myth, we learned, had much to say about how Israel has come to remember its history, recall its creation mythology, and forge its identity. Through deconstructing the myth of Latrun, we began to deconstruct many of the preconceptions about Israeli history and identity. For example, we explored the notion of the warrior myth. In Israel, there has always been a celebration of the warrior mentality, the brave soldier willing to sacrifice for the homeland, willing to die for his people. A nation that places so much emphasis on the cult of the hero will inevitably struggle to find a place for those who see the conflict through a different lens.

We also looked at the Israeli conception of itself as a nation perpetually under siege, even though today it has one of the strongest militaries in the world. When a nation believes its entire existence is always in jeopardy, it will feel justified in doing anything that is necessary to survive, whether that be razing refugee camps or firing live ammunition at rock-throwing children.

Finally, we examined how in the Israeli collective memory, Latrun became a story of ultimate triumph. Here were valiant Israeli soldiers, many of them snatched from the gas chambers of Europe, battling for a new homeland, and look how close they had come to failing, how close the nation of Israel had come to not being realized. Latrun thus became emblematic of the fierce odds Israel had battled against: we may have lost at Latrun, the thinking went, but by the grace of God, we won the war. And having shed that much blood on the battlefield, few were willing to cede an inch of land back to the Arabs. In that context, Latrun became another way of justifying the occupation that continues to this day.

Today, Israel deploys an occupying army of such blind brutality that even many within its own peace movement are unwilling to admit just how terrible things have become. Terrible not only for the millions of Palestinians living under the daily humiliation of occupation, but also for Israelis who suffer the brunt of an enraged and hopeless people who believe they have been abandoned by the world community.

As filmmakers telling the story of a military campaign in Israel, we believed it was incumbent upon us to make a moral statement about the history of the conflict in the Middle East that would perhaps help open eyes within Israel, and compel people to examine their history through a different lens. Yes, this approach was bound to upset many people, but no honest film made on Israel can avoid that.

We didn't know where this film would take us in the end, but one thing is clear: in the 4 years since we first began working on this project, the situation in the Middle East has only grown worse. As the dual terrors of occupation and suicide bombings continue, it is incumbent on all sides to embark on an honest reckoning of the past, and a good-faith accounting of the present. For indeed, both Israelis and Palestinians have much to answer for in the history of this conflict.

Is Jerusalem Burning? is a specific challenge to Israelis to examine their preconceptions more closely, and help find new solutions. As the decidedly more powerful player in the conflict, it will be up to Israel to find the strength necessary for forging a true and lasting peace.

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