By Oren Rawls

Published June 20, 2003, issue of June 20, 2003.
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Clash of Jewish Civilizations: “It is undeniable that the State of Israel is in economic crisis and that the country’s bloated budget must be slashed,” Moshe Schapiro writes in the May issue of The Jewish Observer, a publication of Agudath Israel of America. “The charedi community accepts that reality. But when one sees where the cuts are directed and how cruel they are, one must question the motives of the slashers.”

Amid debates that were contentious even by the Knesset’s famously boisterous standards, austerity measures were passed last month to slow the downward spiral of the Israeli economy. According to government statistics, roughly one in six Israelis currently lives below the poverty line, including about one-quarter of the country’s children. And in the first quarter of this year, unemployment reached 10.8%, a 10-year high.

While the poor health of the Israeli economy has necessitated fiscal shock treatment, Schapiro argues, the budget cuts effectively place the charedim, or ultra-Orthodox, in economic quarantine. “Whether by design or coincidence, the plan happens to severely and disproportionately incapacitate every single important pillar upon which the Torah community stands.”

Grants to religious institutions, he reports, are being cut by 10% this year, following a similar slashing last year. Government funding for schools with fewer than 100 students is being canceled, as are stipends for yeshiva students over the age of 27. “In other words,” Schapiro writes, “the scholars with the potential for Torah greatness will be cut off, period.”

The motive behind the budget cuts, he suggests, is nothing less than a declaration of culture war by Israel’s secular leadership against the ultra-Orthodox community.

“Is an all-out, no-holds-barred fight against Torah their real agenda?” he asks. “It is inconceivable that any other segment of the population would be so summarily, drastically and precipitously disenfranchised, with neither warning, gradualism, nor some kind of cushion or safety net to soften the blow.… One wonders how the designers of these draconian cuts could be unaware of other ramifications of their projected cuts targeted against the charedim. Do they truly want to force the exile of Torah study from Eretz Yisroel, and to compel serious students of Torah to transfer their pursuit of Torah knowledge to other countries?”

* * *

Cinematic Single-Mindedness: “Are too many Holocaust documentaries now being made?” Barry Gewen bluntly asks in the June 15 issue of The New York Times.

The sheer number of Shoah-related works attests to the cinematic resolve to heed the call, “Never forget.” In the encyclopedic study “Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust,” Annette Insdorf lists 69 documentaries made on the topic since 1990 — in addition to the growing number of feature films. And for every documentary that gets distribution, she estimates, there are at least six that do not make the cut.

With all the Shoah-inspired works, Gewen reports, the genre may have reached a saturation point.

“Every Holocaust documentarian is working the same territory, and some critics complain that the basic plot line of the Holocaust has become too familiar by now to permit genuinely original work,” he writes. “We all know it: first the arrival of the Nazis, then the initial terror, then the rounding up into the ghettos, then the shipment to the camps, then the gassing and death or, alternatively, the humiliation, degradation, starvation, torture, gassing and death. And at this point, it seems, just about all that documentarians can do with the history is to fill in the gaps.”

Even as the supply of Shoah story lines has outstripped demand, filmmakers have continued to produce Holocaust documentaries. This cinematic single-mindedness, Gewen suggests, is attributable to the films’ primary audience: the documentarians themselves.

“Most of these films are made not for any commercial reason, and not really with an educational intent,” he writes. “They are works of moral witness.”

The impulse to script the horrors of genocide — a natural desire, Gewen writes, of “anyone with a relative who went through the Holocaust” — need not be constrained by genre or topic, according to several film scholars.

Historian Lawrence Langer is quoted as arguing that fiction films — such as last year’s “Grey Zone,” about the Sonderkommando forced to work in the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz — can most accurately capture individual experiences, though he cautions that it “requires great courage and imagination to make honest fiction films about the Holocaust.”

Gewen, for his part, suggests that “the most fruitful avenue for documentarians” may be to place the “defining atrocity of our time” within a wider comparative and contextual analysis. “For filmmakers interested in examining man’s inhumanity to man or bringing it to public attention or simply bearing witness, there is no shortage of material.”

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