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When Art Imitates Life

January 17, 2013 – 12:05 pm6 Comments

Ittay Flescher looks at the Israeli TV series commencing this Saturday night on SBS.
I doubt many Australians have ever heard of Warren Rodwell, who was kidnapped over a year ago by the Abu Sayyaf, a group linked to al-Qaeda in the Philippines. His image does not appear in our streets, we hold no rallies for him, and we wear no dog tags or wrist bands that bear his name.

The same cannot be said of Israel’s captives, who instantly become household names the day they go missing. During the five years that Gilad Shalit was in captivity, the public campaign to secure his release elicited such a mobilisation of Jews throughout the world that I would guess his name would be better known in our Jewish day schools than that of the Prime Minister of Israel.

Aware of this interest in POWs, the Israeli writer and director Gideon Raff realised that this could be a fertile topic for a TV series which he called Hatufim (Hebrew: חטופים ; Literally: Abductees;  English title: Prisoners of War). His focus, however, was not where one would expect. In an interview in Tablet magazine, Raff explains that “there have been numerous journalistic accounts and film documentaries about prisoners of war, but they have all put the emphasis on their captivity and on ‘bringing the boys back home.’ he said. “But nobody has taken on the post-trauma experience when they return home, and that is what the series is about. In Israel, there are 1,500 men who have been in captivity and have come back. No one has talked about what their lives are like when they return. The more I researched it, the more I understood how rich it was in drama.”

Raff’s consciousness of this fact is evident in the significant differences between Hatufim and its American spinoff Homeland, whose main focus of drama is “How can the CIA prevent the next 9/11 on American soil?” On the other hand, Hatufim is far more concerned with the question of “How do POWs and their families integrate back into regular society after enduring the trauma of captivity.”

In doing his research for Hatufim, Raff interviewed several Israeli POWs including Hezi Shai, who spent three years in captivity before being released together with Yosef Grof and Nissim Salem in exchange for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners as part of the Jibril Agreement in 1985.

Over the years, Hezi Shai became a symbol. He is invited to speak to soldiers and is in demand for interviews whenever Israeli captives are in the news. In a lengthy interview with Haaretz, Shai explained “My true freedom is when I’m here at home. These are the moments I love most. It’s been 25 years since my release, and people still come up to me on the street. I don’t like that so much. I am viewed as a symbol, a representative, for a good cause. Sometimes it weighs on me a little. I feel I am carrying a burden.”

To this day Shai finds it difficult to come to terms with the public debate that erupted over the price Israel had to pay for his release. “At first I deliberately did not read the papers,” he says. “I wasn’t capable. But I heard about it. I was blamed when the intifada broke out. People said that if it hadn’t been for the Jibril deal the intifada would not have broken out, the terrorist attacks would not have happened. It was claimed that those freed in the Jibril deal were responsible. And somewhere, I do feel guilty. I feel that if I hadn’t come back, maybe it wouldn’t have happened. How can you live with such a devastating feeling of self-accusation?”

How is one meant to live a normal life with such a question hanging over one’s head? Furthermore, the stigma of surrender associated with Israeli POWs, together with the suspicion that they may not be loyal to their state which accompanies them for the rest of their lives, are but some of the enormous questions raised by Hatufim.

There are no easy answers to these challenging questions. As a Jewish/Israeli educator living in Australia, I am constantly trying to understand what makes Israelis tick, and how one can live a normal life in a state where the cycle of war, capture, trauma, and retaliation is the routine rather than the exception.

Hatufim is a drama where art is imitating life. This is what makes it essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding the trauma that the absence of peace has left on the people of Israel.

Ittay Flescher will be teaching an eight week course on Israeli Society through Film and Television at the Jewish Museum of Australia beginning on February 4th. Hatufim (Prisoners of War) will be screening weekly, starting this Saturday night, at 8:30pm on SBS.

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