An epic Israeli TV drama exposes war wounds old and new

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An epic Israeli TV drama exposes war wounds old and new
Israeli military veteran Mishael Behrend at his home in Alfei Menashe, West Bank, Dec. 4, 2020. A new Israeli television series based on true events from the 1973 war has prompted an intense public reckoning with the scope of war trauma and the treatment of survivors. Behrend lost a leg while fighting in the Sinai Desert in the 1973 war. Dan Balilty/The New York Times.

by Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A new Israeli television series based on true events from the 1973 war, when the country was caught off guard on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and feared total destruction, has prompted an intense public reckoning with the scope of war trauma and the treatment of survivors.

The high-impact series pried open a collective national wound and led to a cathartic outpouring of emotion. It also exposed a younger generation to the battlefield sacrifices and the shocking failures of leadership that led to the surprise concerted Arab attack on Yom Kippur, led by the Egyptian and Syrian armies. The period is so painful that Israeli culture has rarely dared to grapple with it.

“This was our worst trauma and our worst disaster as a country,” said Ron Leshem, who co-created the series together with Amit Cohen, both veterans of the Israeli military’s elite 8200 intelligence unit. “For 47 years, people had the feeling this was a forgotten war and that they would end their lives without anyone knowing their stories,” Leshem added. “We knew we had an awful responsibility.”

The series, aired by the Israeli public broadcaster Kan, was 10 years in the making with a multimillion-dollar budget far exceeding those of typical Israeli productions. It featured heart-stopping recreations of epic tank battles in their original locations in the Golan Heights, which Israel had seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. In 1973, the Syrians attacked from the north and the Egyptians from the south.

“Valley of Tears” harks back to a nostalgic moment when crisis forged a sense of social solidarity, a theme that seemed to resonate all the more amid the current leadership in crisis in Israel and the ever-present fear of a confrontation with Iran or its proxies in the region. Filming for the series had to stop for a few weeks because of rocket fire from across the Syrian frontier.

For Imri Biton, 35, an actor and himself a former combat soldier, the fictional drama mirrored his own reality. During his conversations with Israeli veterans of the 1973 war as he prepared for his role in “Valley of Tears,” the veterans spoke of flashbacks, nightmares, depression and anxiety attacks. It dawned on him that he, too, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Suddenly I understood I had become a more closed person,” he said, recalling his own experiences in the 2006 war in Lebanon. “I had outbursts. I couldn’t control my anger.”

His delayed reaction and personal awakening have been playing out on a national scale in the conversation surrounding the series.

Nearly 2,700 Israeli soldiers died in the 19-day war and thousands were injured out of a population of about 3 million at the time.

The series was titled “Sha’at Neilah” in Hebrew, or closing hour, a reference to the final prayer of the Yom Kippur fast, when Jewish tradition holds that people’s fates for the coming year are sealed as the gates of heaven close. As the series drew to a close this week, Kan reported that it had gotten more than 7.5 million views on its television channel and digital platform.

Tapping into the universal themes of war, the series is also streaming internationally on HBO Max.

Along with the praise, the series generated criticism from some veterans who took issue with historical inaccuracies — artistic license, according to the creators. Others found it too hard to watch. And some complained that it showed Israel at its weakest, though the country was ultimately victorious.

The director, Yaron Zilberman, prepared for the expected impact by suggesting that the production team work closely with Natal, a leading Israeli organization treating victims of trauma from wars and terrorist attacks, which saw a steep rise in calls to its help lines.

Each episode was followed by a gentle panel discussion where real-life combatants and their families related their experiences, ending with a calming song from the period.

Still, the public reaction was far beyond what anybody had anticipated.

“The more the series advanced, the more jolting and rousing it became,” said Hanna Himmi, the director of the clinical unit at Natal and a lecturer at the Beit Berl College in central Israel. She described it as a “complicated gift” because it both reopened painful wounds and raised awareness and empathy.

Israelis of all ages shared personal or family anecdotes via a dedicated Facebook page with more than 40,000 members. Leshem wrote that it would live on after the series as a “breathing digital archive.”

Families took trips to the battle sites. Teenagers began researching the 1973 war online. Grandparents told their stories for the first time.

If there was an element of shame attached to acknowledging war trauma in the macho era of the 1970s, that became less the case in subsequent wars. Israel has been the stronger side in its wars in Lebanon and Gaza, where the extent of death, destruction and the accompanying trauma has been broader.

But experts say the Ministry of Defense officially recognizes 10 to 15% of Israel’s soldiers returning from the wars as post traumatic, while many more are less severely affected or undiagnosed.

Biton, the actor, plays Alush, an aspiring officer who gets captured by the Syrians. But his own realization came more than a decade after he had helped evacuate dead comrades under fire in southern Lebanon — a personal experience he shared at a parliamentary hearing on war trauma.

“It all came flooding up,” he said. “The series awakened the demons.”

Lawmakers are proposing legislation to cut the time it takes for the Ministry of Defense to process trauma victims and offer treatment.

“It can take five, seven or even 10 years,” said Roni Sassover, who runs one of about a dozen Israeli nongovernmental organizations helping with those suffering from war trauma. “These are fighters, mega patriots who gave their all for the state.”

The awakening also comes as many such organizations are seeing drops in funding and donations because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. One program, Soul Key, treats dozens of post-traumatic military veterans through music in conjunction with the Israeli Conservatory for Music in Tel Aviv.

“Music is a therapy that exists in nature,” said Ifat Grinwald-Cohen, a clinical psychologist who founded the program and was herself injured in an army training accident in 1992. “It’s nonjudgmental, it’s kind to people,” she added.

For many, the post-traumatic journey is long.

Mishael Behrend, 67, a member of the Soul Key program, vividly recalled the horrors of fighting in the Sinai Desert in the 1973 war, where he lost a leg. His trauma suddenly emerged about 15 years ago, after his children had grown and left the house.

“Perhaps once the responsibility was lifted, the defenses I’d built fell,” he said. He said he suffered from anxiety attacks, depression and pain. “I couldn’t go into a wedding hall,” he said. “I would arrive, leave a gift and go home. Or a shopping mall. I’d hear noise and I’d flee.”

Another member of the program, Avihai Hollender, 28, fought with an elite commando unit in one of the fiercest and deadliest battles of the 2014 Gaza war. About two years ago, after his son, Ari, was born, he said, the realization that he could be hurting those around him with his anger led him to seek help.

To kick off a fundraising campaign for Soul Key, he wrote a song about living with post trauma called “Father Can’t Find Peace.” Though he had avoided watching “Valley of Tears,” he was chosen to perform his song on television at the end of the wrenching, final episode.

“The shrapnel did not pierce my body,” he sang, “only my soul.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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