Can a drama about the Yom Kippur War heal a divided Israel?
On Yom Kippur 1973, a 7-year-old Yaron Zilberman was roused not by shofar calls, but air raid sirens.
“I got confused,” said Zilberman, who believed the clamor had something to do with the holiday. “Of course you don’t have any sirens on Yom Kippur — for Veterans Day or Yom HaZikaron you’d commemorate all the soldiers who died in wars with sirens — but that’s what I felt.”
Earlier in the day, Zilberman’s mother told him their family safari to Kenya had been canceled. His stepfather, a pilot, heard a low flying jet fighter, a signal for the neighborhood of Herzliya Pituach, which then housed many Israeli Air Force reserve men — who usually flew for El Al — to report for duty.
“He just got into the car and for six months didn’t come back,” Zilberman said. “He was in the war.”
Zilberman, the director of the films “Incitement” and “A Late Quartet,” left home to see what was causing all the noise. When he returned, he discovered his mother, and the mothers of the neighborhood, sitting together, waiting to hear news of their husbands. Zilberman remembers keeping the lights out that evening to conceal his town from passing enemy planes and the radio reciting the names of the dead. Most of all, he remembers the grown-ups’ fear that, with the Arabs advancing, this was the end of the Zionist idea.
It was the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, which started when an Arab coalition, led by Syria and Egypt, attacked Israel on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, catching the Israeli Defense Forces at their least prepared. The conflict looms large in Israeli cultural memory, but, for years, it remained something of a taboo topic, regarded by many as a shameful and tragic episode in the young country’s history.
Forty-seven years after he heard the sirens, Zilberman has finished editing the final episode of “Valley of Tears,” an Israeli-American coproduction, the most substantial treatment of the war yet committed to film and, he and his co-creators hope, the beginning of a global dialogue about its legacy. The show will arrive on HBO Max Nov. 12 and has been engaging Israeli audiences since its premiere in mid-October. The ambitious 10-part drama series was designed to help the country finally heal from a defining Pyrrhic victory, which ended in 2,656 Israeli deaths and altered the Jewish State’s political temperature from one of social progress to a prevailing concern for defense.
So far, it’s working, with Zilberman and his colleagues noting a new interest in the pivotal event after decades of silence and scarce portrayals in entertainment.
“We have a lot of forgotten wars,” said series co-creator, writer and producer Ron Leshem, the man behind the Israeli drama “Euphoria,” which was adapted for HBO. “But this was the worst, because it was a moment where the first Israel disappeared and died and a second Israel was born for good and for bad. It was an awful war that started because of our arrogance.”
That arrogance, Leshem said, was the military’s decision to dismiss signs from IDF intelligence of a forthcoming engagement with Egypt and Syria and their choice to conceal evidence of the enemy’s preparations from Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Leshem and his regular collaborator Amit Cohen, creator of the Keshet thriller “False Flag,” began writing the show a decade ago. The finished series, which cost around $1 million per episode, boasts a crew of over 100 and a large ensemble cast and grapples with such themes as PTSD and bigotry against Mizrahi Jews. Filmed on location in the Golan Heights, it has been called Israel’s most expensive production to date. Leshem and Cohen long wanted to make their Israeli version of the Vietnam dramas they grew up on, but were waiting for the Israeli film industry to catch up to their vision’s technical demands. While they were waiting, they found the show’s thesis.
Early into the writing process, Leshem and Cohen discovered a speech given by General Yanush Ben-Gal to his troops at the end of the war, where he proclaimed that after the huge loss of life, the country and its people would be better going forward.
“We wanted to put a mirror on our audience and our own faces and ask ourselves, are we fulfilling that?” Leshem said. “Are we better people or are we much worse? Are we a better country or are we much worse?”
Central to the question was whether those in charge had learned to listen to those of lower rank — young soldiers who bore the brunt of the war’s fatalities and trauma. In the show, the early informers are represented by the character of Avinoam Shapira (Shahar Taboch), a frantic intelligence soldier based in a Mount Hermon bunker who first sounds the alarm for an impending war after hearing warning signs from surveillance audio. To create this character, Leshem and Cohen called upon their own days tapping phones for Israeli intelligence, where they served together in the 1990s. But Cohen also found inspiration closer to home.
“My father in a way was Avinoam,” said Cohen. Cohen is a second generation intelligence soldier, his father, Menashe, met his mother while serving in the same unit and married her during the Yom Kippur War.
Like Avinoam, Menashe Cohen heard indications that a war was coming — Soviet emissaries were being evacuated from the region and Syrian farmers had been ordered to move away from the border. Menashe learned firsthand that his warnings weren’t advancing up the chain of command. A few days before the war, a general from Tel Aviv paid a visit to his base in Umm Hashiba, in the Sinai Desert. Menashe was dressed for war; the general, Cohen said, “looked like he was going on vacation.”
On the day the war began, Cohen’s father was giving another officer a tour of the base and warning him of the imminent battle. The officer rebuffed him, and just then Egyptian jet fighters bombed the base, signaling the opening of the war on the Southern Front. A nearly identical scene is featured in the first episode of the show.
“When he saw the episode he was crying,” Cohen said of his father. “He had tears because it was his own personal experience.”
In Israel, where drama has aired its first few episodes, that experience appears widespread.
Leshem says that a wave of 14-year-olds have posted on social media that an airing of “Valley of Tears” marked the first time they’d seen their grandfathers cry. The broadcaster, KAN 11, broke its record for a drama series premiere with the show, with 1.3 million online viewers in less than 10 days — or about 11 percent of Israel’s population.
While the show takes an unflinching look at PTSD and warns against Israeli complacency, Leshem and Cohen also wanted to use the series to examine a cultural rift that they believe is only growing more acute with time: the clash between Mizrahi Jews and the Ashkenazi Jews who traditionally hold positions of power.
“We felt it sizzling 10 years ago and now that it’s on screen it feels like the most relevant thing — this tension, the social discrimination and the roots of the social discrimination,” Cohen said. “It still poisons Israeli society. Even the way the pandemic is now being treated in Israel and the Western world, suddenly the show looks like a mirror.”
In the show, the theme of social discrimination is carried by a trio of tank soldiers affiliated with the Israeli Black Panthers, a radical liberal movement pushing to end biased treatment against Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews by the Ashkenazi elite. Leshem and Cohen decided to focus on this movement to reveal how the war would ultimately disrupt Israel’s political landscape.
“In 1973, finally, the wave of the ‘60s arrived in Israel,” Leshem said, “The Black Panthers were supposed to be a game-changer that was going to change the society, finally. And then when the war broke out and we were practically a moment before losing everything Israel became again a country that votes only on that one issue. Social justice was forgotten for a few years.”
For Zilberman, the Yom Kippur War and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin mark the two modern traumas in Israeli history. His previous collaboration with Leshem, the 2019 film “Incitement,” followed Yigal Amir, Rabin’s killer in the days leading up to that infamous murder. Like Zilberman’s other films, the drama was understated and light on unnecessary spectacle.
The director jokes that the violence in his work has become more pronounced with each of his projects. “A Late Quartet” had a punch; “Incitement” had an assassin’s gun; “Valley of Tears” has several Israeli and Syrian tanks, pulled from museums, and thousands more rendered by CGI, on the actual battleground of what was the biggest tank battle since World War II.
When Leshem first approached him, Zilberman — known for his intimate dramas — was unsure if he had a vision for the series. He later realized that the key to the story wasn’t its grand battles, but the humanity of the war. He dug through troves of archival footage and, most importantly, interviewed veterans.
“They tell you about their experience and they have tears in their eyes and you really see what they went through,” Zilberman said. “With that spiritual knowledge you go out there and try to create it with your actors, with the ensemble, with the crew.”
Under Zilberman, battle scenes have a beating heart. A soldier falls on a rock and grimaces as he breaks his rib. An exchange between Avinoam and a young Syrian recruit lends a poignant reprieve to a firefight. In the first episode, we hear warplanes strafing the sky, but the camera stays inside a tank, panning the expressions of soldiers as they quake in fear.
“Tanks don’t move by themselves,” Zilberman said. “Tanks move with people sitting down and igniting the engine and you start to roll and there’s a conversation and when somebody shoots at them and they see the enemy, there’s a whole world of emotions going on between these people.”
This humanistic approach makes the true nature of the war and its failures intelligible not just to an audience, who are perhaps learning about this history for the first time, but for the young actors chosen to dramatize it.
“In Israel before they started shooting they had a documentary feature about the show,” Cohen said. “All the actors were smiling and they were happy and arrogant in a way — so excited about it. A month after the shooting they did another one and these guys looked completely different. It almost felt like a metaphor for the war. They understood the gravity of the situation.”
The Israeli broadcaster bundled “Valley of Tears” with documentaries and post-show conversations with veterans aimed at providing context and mitigating the show’s potentially triggering effects. Even as the show makes its way to an international audience, the creators, who refused an offer to make the show with American actors, view it as a vehicle for tough discussions among Israelis. With support from HBO Max, they are breaking the silence on the war while addressing the always relevant experience of the Israeli soldier.
“In Israel there’s a war like every seven to 10 years,” Cohen said. “Yom Kippur War veterans, their sons probably fought in a war and their grandsons probably fought in a different war. Seeing it can be triggering, but at the same time that’s what’s bringing so many people to watch it.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].