For a fractured Israel, a film offers ominous lessons from ancient past
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For a fractured Israel, a film offers ominous lessons from ancient past
Gidi Dar, director of the animated drama, “Legend of Destruction,” in Atlit, Israel, on Sept. 2, 2021. Dar said he began working on the movie as civil war tore apart neighboring Syria. As work on it progressed, he said, it became increasingly relevant to Israel. Amit Elkayam/The New York Times.

by Isabel Kershner

JERUSALEM.- A gripping political thriller swept across cinema screens in Israel this summer, with the movie prompting impassioned debate and striking a particularly resonant chord with Israel’s precarious new government.

The epic, animated drama, “Legend of Destruction,” is being widely cast as a cautionary tale for a profoundly polarized society. The movie’s impact is all the more surprising given that it depicts calamitous events in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

At that time, the first Jewish revolt against the Romans had devolved into a bloody civil war between rival Jewish factions, culminating in the sacking and destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans and their reconquest of the holy city.

The bitter civil war changed the course of Judaism and spawned the Talmudic concept that the fall of Jerusalem was caused by infighting and “sinat chinam,” a Hebrew term usually translated as baseless hatred.

A graphic and disturbing portrayal of the existential danger posed by such internecine conflict, the movie is causing soul-searching among its audiences — and has the country’s still-new leader urging that its lessons be heeded.

After years of toxic political discourse and division, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared national unity as a mission of his diverse coalition, which took power in June and is made up of parties from the center, right and left and, for the first time, a small Arab party.

And he is using the temple parable to warn his detractors, led by his notoriously divisive predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, to tone down the vitriol and efforts to delegitimize his new government.

Israeli leaders have increasingly drawn on the lessons from Jewish history, noting that the Jews enjoyed two previous periods of sovereignty in the land in ancient times, but both lasted only about 70 or 80 years — a poignant reminder for the modern state that, founded in 1948, has passed the 70-year mark.

“This is the third instance of having a Jewish state in the land of Israel,” Bennett said. “We messed it up twice before — and primarily because of domestic polarization.”

Israelis on the left and right have praised the film as an argument for a new atmosphere of tolerance. But not everybody agrees with the message.

At least one far-right former lawmaker disputed the narrative of self-destruction, arguing the Romans were to blame, not Jewish infighting. Others doubted the film would have any lasting impact.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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