Max DeCurtins looks back at the Israeli film Walk on Water and assesses its attempts to be all things to all people amid the state of contemporary Israeli politics.
Where to begin? I set out to re-view Walk on Water, and what came out instead is a rather sprawling op-essay on Israel, political dysfunction, authorship and privacy, and community. In other words, several of the many reasons why so many people tune out any news that doesn’t come from the Daily Show. When I signed on to re-view this movie, I thought that I would simply watch it a few times and explore a few of its issues in a calm, considered manner. Little did I know that over the next three weeks I would be treated to a seemingly non-stop orgy of unbelievable Israel-related news. Seriously, I have never in my life seen so much American media coverage of Israel, not even when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. And so, over the course of the several weeks that I’ve been on-again off-again working on this, the theme of this re-view became: I can’t even. Truly, friends, I can’t even.
I rarely get to write about Israel anymore. Three and a half years ago, I wrote about Israel and the history of early music performance there and its implications (with especial emphasis on Bach . . . because Bach) in my master’s thesis, a document which—should it ever fall into my hands again—I feel certain I would promptly burn. Every subsequent year, it seems, I come across new items that lend credence to my topic and its potential to contribute an interesting veneer of something new on a very old, probably exhausted, subject. With nearly three and a half years of hindsight, I can look back in wonderment at my master’s program self and ask how I could have missed the warning signs of a toxic subject—the study of Western music in Israel—and an advisor who didn’t know the first thing about networking on behalf of his students—or didn’t care. It would take two rounds of rejections from every doctoral program that seemed competent before I realized that, on spec, no program would have me.
So, one has to exercise extreme caution when attaching one’s name to writings about Israel eventually destined for public consumption. Authorship seems increasingly permanent thanks to the continued erosion of privacy. If you write it, they will read it. Google’s “right to be forgotten” will never prove an adequate remedy for the worst instincts of people with access to a virtually limitless supply of media. If you write it, be prepared to own it. For this reason I feel comfortable letting that amorphous sphere known as my Facebook circle know where I stand on most domestic issues and politics, but I steadfastly refuse to post anything related to Israel.
Social media has had the curious, though perhaps not entirely unanticipated, effect of bringing our friends’ and acquaintances’ sense of judgment into sharper focus than I think most of us care to handle. The kid from college we all just thought a goofball turns out a raging neocon; the affable artist we knew in high school has become a left-wing conspiracy theorist or follower of junk science equally as unsavory as the right-winger’s denial of science altogether. I have to imagine that the things I post alter the way my friends and acquaintances see me, likely not always for the better.
News about Israel and Jews (note very carefully that I do not conflate the two) tends to spawn a fair number of Facebook posts that have me calling into question the judgment of quite a few of my peers. I have exactly one Facebook friend, a college acquaintance, who shares my pain as a silenced supporter of Israel the nation, and critic of Israeli policy. If anybody else from the Hillel circle reads this, it’s because they know me and know that this—not sparring in comments on Facebook—is my preferred platform.
All this is to say that I take this re-view very, very seriously. And also that I can’t even.
I first saw Walk on Water at UCSB, in that great pumpkin, Campbell Hall, as part of a Hillel-sponsored group event of some kind. I remember a general feeling of excitement among the assembled group; unless you’re a particular type of movie buff, chances are you don’t see Israeli movies very often, and it can be very exciting to see “your people” represented on screen. W had just been “re-elected”—more like elected for the first time—and, though I and most people I knew felt despondent about the prospect of another four years of “compassionate conservatism,” U.S.-Israeli relations seemed solid.
American presidents and Israeli premiers have, in the past, enjoyed a relationship dynamic falling somewhere on the spectrum between cool professionalism and warm friendship. Not so Obama and Bibi Netanyahu. When I wrote this, John Boehner had just committed possibly one of the most idiotic acts of his tenure (and friends, that says something) by extending an invitation to Bibi to address a joint session of Congress for the thinly-veiled purpose of bashing Obama by criticizing his foreign policy, without having informed the White House and indeed paying little heed to the elections in Israel scheduled to take place two weeks later. Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, claimed the dubious honor of co-conspirator in this spectacularly misguided and downright tawdry affair.
My lone kindred Facebook friend from my Hillel days made the obvious yet striking observation on the day of Netanyahu’s speech that it occurred not during primetime in the United States, when many millions of Americans would have tuned in to watch, but during primetime in Israel. And so, what began as my fury at yet another transgression in the Republican scorched earth plan to bring down a D/democratically-elected president, quickly turned into disbelief at the lengths to which Bibi would go to sway Israeli voters.
And then, a week later, came the letter. I can’t even.
In case you live in a cave and may have missed it, this would be the letter, signed by 47 of the 54 Republicans in the Senate, addressed to the most senior officials of the Iranian government. I don’t have column inches enough to talk about this one. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but damned if I didn’t think long and hard about whether Bibi might have played a role in making that letter happen, much in the same way that industry and corporate lobbyists send, via “legislative exchange” organizations, pre-packaged bills to state legislators. Fuming, I had a drink, wrote some code, and consoled myself that at least things couldn’t get any worse after this so-called open letter. But oh, no. They could, and they did.
My paternal grandfather, who passed away last year just a few months shy of his 97th birthday, always liked to play cards, and when my sister, my cousins and I were younger and learning how to be better players, he used to chide us whenever we hesitated too long in picking up or discarding cards, giving the appearance of contemplating how to deny victory to another player at the table. Never mess up your own hand, he’d admonish us, to try and screw up someone else’s hand. Just assemble the best hand you possibly can and play the game according to the rules. In other words, don’t overthink it and end up pissing in the well. Dragging yourself down to bring down someone else doesn’t work.
Bibi apparently never learned this lesson. Days before the election, he took a right turn so hard and so fast that a real vehicle would have lost control and wiped out. He explicitly dismissed Palestinian statehood on his watch. And he showed that he might, in fact, have just a touch of the crazy paranoid. He implied that “foreign organizations” conspired with the Israeli left, what of it still exists, to unseat him. Friends, let’s review who else has made similar claims: Vladimir Putin. Bashar al-Assad. Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nicolas Maduro. Nuri al-Maliki. Xi Jinping. The North Koreans. Robert Mugabe. In other words, autocrats, paranoid socialists (or former socialists), oligarchs, panderers and murderers. And the crazy, it just doesn’t stop there.
He made such an openly racist election plea, namely that right-wingers absolutely had to go out and vote for Likud because Israeli Arabs we going to the polls in droves, that even our benighted country would have unleashed an overwhelming barrage of withering criticism and pressure to resign. The blogger at Ottomans and Zionists put it better than I could ever hope: “The prime minister of any country should be nothing short of proud when more citizens vote, and exhorting only the right kind of citizen to get to the polls in order to counter the wrong sort of citizen is disgusting and unworthy of the leader of a democracy.” He spent huge sums of Israeli taxpayer money on new elections because, essentially, he didn’t really like the government he had and decided to go get himself a new one. To put it plainly, he dissolved the Israeli government so that he could form a new one in which he wouldn’t ever have to compromise, or even contemplate compromising. Imagine a Congress that could call new elections whenever the political winds seemed favorable, in which every bill could be enacted by reconciliation, and where all voting would always, invariably happen on party lines. This is the Knesset.
Naturally, less than 48 hours have passed since the election and Bibi has already begun trying to walk back his remarks, particularly in interviews with American reporters. The White House, reports the New York Times, seems “unimpressed.”
I can’t even.
I know plenty of people who see Netanyahu as an underestimated leader destined for vindication. Unfortunately, all the available evidence simply does not support this. Bibi has had a total of nine years so far to effect some kind of change on the one issue he seems to elevate above all others. American presidents don’t get nine years in power, and they don’t have the luxury of focusing their attention on just one or two issues. Bibi has spent his time doing two things primarily: 1) asking for the United States (and, to a lesser extent, other world powers) to layer sanction after sanction on Iran, and 2) making certain that the United States would shoulder a large part of any military action against it. To me this sounds an awful lot like a high school kid trying to get someone else in the group project to do all the work. He has taken no risks and has, unsurprisingly, accomplished nothing. He has pounded on tables, shaken his fists, drawn red lines on posters . . . and accomplished nothing. If a window of opportunity ever existed to take military action against Iran’s nuclear assets, it closed a long time ago, when the effort was still nascent. Take it from us: bombing the fuck out of people to ensure “national security” just doesn’t work—if it ever did. Look, in America, if someone got a whole decade to focus on one or two goals, with massive resources to support the effort, we would expect that person to get something done. If nothing got done, we’d say: get the fuck outta here.
For some time now, American Jews who express even slight criticism of Israeli policies and politics often face immediate and widespread shaming from within the American Jewish community at large. Not critics of Israel, mind you. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this distinction. I support Israel. I do not support the right-wing, craven, cynical, un-nuanced, nationalist, quasi-religious psychosis that has positively rotted the Israeli government for many years. Israel has no credible political left to speak of; Labor has focused in recent years on domestic issues, Hatnua is essentially the party of Tzipi Livni’s supporters, and Meretz has no influence whatsoever. Centrist parties, which sometimes give voice, however minuscule, to concerns shared by the left, never last long in Israel; Kadima died when Ariel Sharon became a vegetable, and Yesh Atid—does it even still exist?—seems rapidly headed for irrelevance. A minister who simply doesn’t get on with Bibi, Moshe Kahlon, breaks away from Likud and forms his own party, stupidly named “kulanu,” which in Hebrew means “all of us.” The party, such as it is, exists for no reason except to give Kahlon leverage with Bibi, and the elections confirmed that: Journalists have, in the past several days, repeatedly referred to Kahlon as a “kingmaker”—someone who has the power to make or break Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Likud, merely right-wing, itself has never controlled enough Knesset seats to govern—or even come close. Yet Likud and its ultra-right-wing allies, Shas, UTJ, Yisrael Beteinu, and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, have what seems like an insurmountable hold on the Knesset. America, let Israel offer you an object lesson in the consequences of having no real, healthy political spectrum. America has a lunatic right with power; Israel has that and a silenced left with no power.
I can’t even.
Whenever I consume news and opinion about Israel, I find myself confronted with a maddening duality. Those who find fault with every piece about Israel published in a major journalistic outfit, who see pervasive anti-Israel bias in the press and in the world more generally, do nothing but communicate their own inability to see things in a nuanced way. And yet, they’re not entirely wrong. To date, the UN Security Council has passed several hundred resolutions condemning, or at the very least expressing dissatisfaction with, actions by Israel, its military, or members of its government. International media of every stripe often fixate disproportionately on events in Israel, most especially as they relate to tensions between Israel and the Arab world, the result being that even mundane news from Israel can get more attention from the media than the civilians in northern Mexico getting murdered left and right by drug cartels, the human rights abuses in (name your country), any one of a number of public health crises, the continuing nuclear contamination around Fukushima, or that epic island of trash floating around in the Pacific that’s visible from space.
Peace negotiations fail time and again, and for this the Israeli government places blame squarely on the Arab world, and on the Palestinians in particular. This position is patently absurd; the Israeli government shares a huge amount of responsibility for failing to make any progress. Somebody has to take bold action, and Israel, as the most advanced power in the region, is in the best position to take it. And yet. Their position, too, is not entirely wrong. The Palestinian Authority has not leveled with its people about the reality of what a negotiated deal would be. The Arab world has largely failed to help the Palestinians in any meaningful way, preferring instead to use their plight to fuel anti-Western sentiment in their own countries.
Israelis often say that the world holds their country to a double standard; some of this is avoiding having to do any self-reflection. I think that Israel suffers, to a degree, from a 19th-century interpretation of the rules of war, and it chafes when this interpretation smacks into a 21st-century reality. It wants to be held to norms that have a long history but are short on acceptance in the Internet Age; in previous centuries, few would have argued the legitimacy of controlling territory decisively captured from neighbors during wartime, or of maintaining a naval blockade, or of building a barrier to keep out people who don’t like you.
Israel chafes at the sudden international rejection of what, for most of history, have been accepted practices for geopolitical entities in conflict, but the international community arguably indulges in some fantasies of its own, whether for reasons of political correctness or for some other reason altogether. The idea that Israel would return land of the Golan Heights, considered by the international community to be not lawfully part of the State of Israel, to Syria, a failed state, which is to say that the Golan Heights would quickly become lawless, is a little bit loony. And then there is Jerusalem. I guess I really don’t have anything to say about it except this: find me just one example in recorded history of a successful, functional division of a capital city between two nation-states, much less one with the religious significance of Jerusalem. It is neither ideology nor religious conviction that sustains this view; it is empiricism.
Let’s not mince words, though. We have known the basic profile of a negotiated deal for some time now. Israel would more or less withdraw to its 1967 borders, with the exception of the Golan Heights. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized. Only the very largest of settlements in the most intractable of locations would remain; these would become part of Israel and in exchange the Palestinian state would gain equal land area elsewhere along the West Bank. Though a highly questionable idea with no prior evidence to support it, Jerusalem would probably split into an Israeli western portion and a Palestinian eastern portion. Both sides would receive a boost in standing within the international community, which they both badly need. If both parties fail to make progress, Israel will sacrifice its democracy in order to maintain the status quo, and the Palestinians will not be held to proper account, as they should be. We know what has to happen, and we know what will happen if negotiations fail indefinitely. We’re just wasting time at this point.
Finally, I wish to say this: Israel has a huge array of impressive and wonderful credits to its name. Its engineers, researchers, and scientists have contributed outstanding advances in everything from agriculture to theoretical physics. It boasts delicious foods, booming arts communities, some stunning geography, and the world’s most secure airline. Jerusalem plays host every year to hordes of religious visitors of various faiths and, barely an hour away, Tel Aviv ranks as one of the world’s top LGBT destinations. Israel’s detractors have sometimes crowed that the media “pinkwash” Israel—that they [the media] promote Israel’s relatively good record on LGBT rights in order to distract attention from the country’s abuses in other areas. You know we live in strange times when a country gets flak for having a good record on gay rights as a cover for its failures on other things.
I can’t even.
Now, on to the movie. That’s actually what I’m supposed to be doing, right? Writing a re-view of a movie.
Walk on Water touches upon more issues than I can count. The movie presents the viewer at one time or another issues related to: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suicide, assassination, terrorism, homosexuality, the Holocaust, socialism, family conflict, and revenge. Because one movie can totally deal with all those things, right?
Not one to let even a minute go to waste, the movie opens with a Mossad agent, Eyal, assassinating a Hamas official in Istanbul. He gets picked up by a getaway car, and the last shot we get in the scene lingers on a close-up of the Hamas guy’s son, balloon and lollipop in hand, tears streaming down his face. You can tell already, this is going to be a happy romp of a film. Eyal flies back to Israel, and as the plane lands, the camera lingers on the hills overlooking Ben Gurion airport, on the other side of which lies the western edge of the West Bank; after disembarking, Eyal breaks away from the customs line and ducks into a private room, where his Mossad colleagues toast him for a job well done.
I have to say straight off that my re-view of Walk on Water owes a great deal to the fact that I’ve been to Israel twice since I first saw it at UCSB. You notice details, like the geographic situation of Ben Gurion airport or the bearded Orthodox Jews therein, ambling along with their plastic bags, that only make sense after you witness it firsthand. I think the same goes for any place that you’ve traveled, and for my part, it adds an extra layer to my movie-watching experience. But back to the story.
Eyal returns from the airport to find that his wife Iris has committed suicide. Some angst-filled, overwrought music for piano and strings plays as we watch him take in the scene, retrieve Iris’ suicide note, and call his boss, Menachem. (It’s a sad moment! Quick! Get a minor chord in first inversion followed by a step-removed diminished chord in inversion in here!) A few months later, Menachem gives him a new task: pose as a tour guide in order to gain the confidence of two grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal who, like so many others of that generation, went into hiding in Argentina. It’s clear that Menachem doesn’t see Eyal as fit for normal duty after such personal trauma, and he doesn’t tell Eyal the truth: hunting down this ex-Nazi is more Menachem’s priority than Mossad’s.
Eyal hates his assignment and regularly kvetches about it. In his eyes, Axel is nothing more than a naïve tree-hugger, and Axel’s sometimes simplistic lines don’t do much to shake this impression. Eyal rolls his eyes at kibbutz life, which many Israelis regard with the same level of derision that older generations of Americans had for the late Sixties. Israeli folk dancing has a long tradition, but the music has mostly shed its folk flavor for something closer to ‘90s pop, or even EDM. While Axel and Pia dance, Eyal goes snooping in Pia’s apartment, bugging it so that he can listen in on their conversation later. The music, again some amelodic, angst-ridden, overwrought cue for strings, tries to inject more tension into the scene than I can plausibly accept. We all know from the get-go that Eyal’s undercover; there’s no need to position him as a sinister figure, especially since we happen to know very well that he doesn’t take it seriously and doesn’t care about hunting for ex-Nazis.
Axel, for some reason, takes an immediate interest in setting up his sister with his tour guide—you know, as you do. And so, despite the fact that Eyal’s demeanor is drier than California’s water table and Pia’s hiding from her own emotional demons, we find Eyal and Pia at a chic restaurant in Tel Aviv. This scene confused me to no end. Axel obviously set them up, but just as soon as we think that Eyal and Pia are on a proper date, we see Axel appear, chatting and flirting with the Palestinian waiter, Rafik. I don’t know how it works with siblings, but even in my limited experience I feel certain that if you fix up two friends on a date, you don’t accompany them.
So, not only does this heteronormative date suddenly get thrown off when we realize that Axel is along for the ride, but to make things even more interesting, Axel says he has directions to “the hottest dance party in town.” Now, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure people don’t say shit like that anymore. Anyway, Rafik’s directions lead them to TLV, a well-known gay club named for Ben Gurion airport’s call letters. Axel quickly finds Rafik and gets down to business, and Pia goes off to dance, leaving her stuff with Eyal. Rather quickly, he realizes what kind of place he’s just walked into, and it doesn’t take long before he beats a hasty path to the door. I understand him—if only because I’m no fan of clubs myself, which means that whenever I find myself at one, I’m usually contemplating ways to make my escape. After the cover, the lines, the expensive drinks, the yelling over the sound system, I’m supposed to make sure all the little aspects of my body language communicate that I’m available? I can’t even. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
I give Eytan Fox, the popular and openly gay director of Walk on Water, credit for his straightforward and light approach to portraying gayness and playing on homoeroticism on film. Axel and Eyal shower together after their dip in the Dead Sea; Eyal has the usual straight-guy questions about gay sex, which he asks Axel in a gay bar in Berlin; he defends Axel’s drag friends from an assault in the Berlin subway station. And, in a way, Eytan Fox shows us on screen a glimpse of the process by which many have come to accept and feel comfortable with LGBT people: by knowing them in person and being open to seeing that they have the same needs, fears, and desires as everyone else. After the night in TLV, Eyal complains to Menachem that he should have been informed about Axel being gay, but what he’s really saying is the same thing he’s been complaining about to Menachem all along: give it up, they’re just two people with family issues, nobody cares anymore about settling scores with half-dead ex-Nazis. Menachem sends Eyal to Berlin nonetheless, to attend the birthday party for Axel’s father.
The party, a distinctly early twentieth-century affair, finally puts Axel in direct conflict with his parents. Eyal seems to take it all in stride until the ex-Nazi grandfather shows up, at which points Eyal loses his shit and leaves to go see Menachem. Axel’s mother, Segret, states with almost comical forthrightness that Eyal could be a Mossad agent—which we all know to be true. Menachem, for his part, goes all Oedipal on Eyal and exhorts him to assassinate the grandfather in part to avenge Eyal’s mother, a Holocaust survivor. This exchange, along with the scene in the coffee shop, finally brings Menachem’s relationship to Eyal into focus: that of a coercive, abusive stepfather. Given the course of recent events in Israel, I read this relationship, though not explicitly emphasized in the movie, as a mild metaphor for how some on the far right in Israel view the United States’ relationship with their country. They perceive, correctly to some degree, that the United States wants negotiated deals with Iran and the Palestinians more than Israel does, and has tried to coerce Israel’s assent to American diplomatic initiatives.
Anyway, Eyal, who hitherto hasn’t expressed any interest at all in settling Holocaust-era scores, returns to Axel’s family’s mansion and—rather clumsily, it seems—heads straight for the grandfather, leaving the bedroom door ajar as he prepares to deliver a lethal injection. This, I must say, bugs the shit out of me. Why should an experienced Mossad agent, a consummate professional, suddenly get so sloppy as to leave the door open while conducting an assassination? Would Jason Bourne? Would James Bond?
Because Eyal leaves the door ajar, of course Axel walks in on him. Eyal, unable to see his mission through, walks out the door (and presumably disposes of his lethal syringe somewhere on the way back to his room), leaving Axel behind with the grandfather. And that’s when it happens. Axel takes a moment to look at the frail old man sleeping in front of him, and then coolly shuts off the life support and watches his grandfather die in front of him. Believe me when I say that neither I nor anyone else sitting in Campbell hall saw that one coming.
I can remember distinctly the audience reaction to Walk on Water’s great plot twist. And it is a great plot twist. One could almost feel the collective mind-fuck reverberating through the skulls of us arrogant sophomores. Oh hey, look at Axel, hippie do-gooder, coolly murder his own grandfather. When I watch Eyal and Axel’s final scene together, I find it difficult not to imagine Eyal starting off with: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” And I think, in a way, the power of that scene, coming, as it does, so close to the end of the movie, does much to prop up the rather abrupt, and somewhat weak, conclusion of the story.
After Eyal’s confession, we get a short epilogue set two years in the future, in which not only have Eyal and Pia become an item, but they have gotten married and had a baby boy. Ten years ago, the Eyal-Pia relationship tested the limits of my suspension of disbelief; ten years later, I feel like it puts the movie in serious danger of going over the top. And let’s be honest, the movie doesn’t spend very much time developing a storyline for the two of them; that’s not its focus. We get a scene here, a suggestion there. Eyal doesn’t look like the kind of guy who minds eating pizza at his desk while listening to audio feed from his bug planted in Pia’s apartment. And I, for one, resent the implication that it requires a relationship to make Eyal realize that killing is bad and that he doesn’t want to do it anymore, as he had confessed tearfully to Axel in the previous scene. Dude, you should be able to figure out all on your own that assassinating people isn’t all that great. Moreover, I don’t think anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship would call it a remedy for one’s own issues. Of the problems with this epilogue, I think we can all agree that voice-over narration of a character writing is not the world’s strongest storytelling device. Walk on Water only does it a little bit, but it grates on me just as much as Amy Adams’ constant voice-over in Julie & Julia or Sarah Jessica Parker’s in Sex and the City—what of it I have seen.
The movie seems like it tries hard to be many things to many people. To liberal Jews like me, it wants to showcase the dehumanization that invariably results from decades of killing and mistrust. Eyal’s blunt pronouncements about the Palestinians and the suicide bombings by their extremist factions try very hard to paint a picture of a people, “our” people, that we can’t recognize or support because of the views they hold. (“What’s to think?” Eyal says. “They’re animals.”) Eyal’s altercation with Rafik’s uncle in his Jerusalem shop stall means to show how Israel treats the Palestinians in general. And to liberal Jews like me, the movie also tries to urge the Jewish community not to invoke the specter of the Holocaust at every turn, especially as an excuse for failing to make any progress in the present. To members of the LGBT community and allies, it wants to show how knowing someone who identifies as LGBT breeds tolerance. To peaceniks in general, the movie presents Axel and his positive personality, and a whole lot of Springsteen. With so many target audiences, Walk on Waternever quite comes together as a cohesive whole. Lior Ashkenazi’s average performance contributes to this, and the script sometimes shows weaknesses.
Usually, re-viewing movies for 10YA shines a spotlight at how different my life, or the world, is from the time that the movie in question came out. Not so this time. Re-viewing Walk on Water ten years later made me realize just how little difference ten years has made to the state of things. Israel has the same prime minister, a brilliant politician and calculating shmuck who, despite his wits, hasn’t gotten anything done during his time in power and has only dug himself into a hole with his eleventh-hour electioneering. The Palestinian Authority still has the same president, who hasn’t taken any real action himself either, and whose appeals to the UN show how little he knows about the low opinion Israelis have of that body. Most of the same players, from Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk to Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, are still involved. There’s a saying about trying the same things over and over and expecting a different result.
In other words: I can’t even.