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Ethnicity versus National Integration:

Multiculturalism in Recent Israeli Films

by Dr. Tzvi Tal


Sapir Academic College, Israel

Translated by Martha Grenzeback

In recent years, Israeli films have shown a penchant for plots dealing with the

multicultural encounter between veteran Israelis and immigrants. Those immigrants

include both Jewish included in the Return law definitions and Third-World and Eastern

European workers seeking employment. These films seem to express an awareness of the

complexity of Israeli society, in which the dream of the ‘Zionist melting pot’ is beginning

to fade away in the face of the cultural richness and diversity that stem from the country’s

historical development.

Yet the multiculturalism of day-to-day life is not validated by the state and civil

institutions. The Israeli hegemony, ideologically rooted in the Socialist-Zionist project

and deriving its present power from big capital, sees multiculturalism as a threat to the

national unity it requires defending the material basis of its existence. Cultural diversity

is seen as a real danger in an era when the political regime’s strategy for managing the

conflict with the Palestinians eschews any peace arrangement based on terms and

conditions that the other side can accept. The absence of the Palestinian issue from

Israeli films made over the last years leads us to seek an explanation in Israeli discourse

on culture. In the films discussed here, the Palestinians are an ‘other’ who is denied

representation or whose appearance has no importance, while the differences between


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Jewish-Israeli groups are minimised or obliterated. This article examines shortly the way

the multicultural encounter is portrayed in the films Late Marriage (Hatuna Meucheret,

Kosashvili, 2001), Foreign Sister (Achot Zara, Wolman, 2000), Magic (Shchur, Hasfari,

1994), and, more particularly, in Yana’s Friends (Hachaverim shel Yana, Kaplun, 1998).

Identity becomes from the social positioning of Self and Other, produced by

linguistic and semiotic strategies, and Identities are constructed in intersubjective

complementary relations, like similarity/difference and authority/delegitimacy. They

encompass macro-level demographic categories and local emergent cultural positions.

They can be linguistically indexed through label and styles, or linguistic structures and

systems. Identity is produced in a negotiation between self and other and between subject

and discourses, especially Hegemonic discourse, about representations and perceptions,

and is an outcome of ideological and structures. 1 The article will analyse the ways that

immigrants have traditionally been represented in Israeli cinema along the historical

processes. I remark the power relationships between languages in the films like one of

the discursive strategies the Hegemony improve to construct the imagined Israel Identity.

It will also critique the Israeli hegemony’s discourse on multiculturalism, in order to see

how the discursive strategies that forge national unity are given aesthetic representation. I

will argue that the films discussed here view the conflicts of immigration from the

perspective of the Israeli hegemony and avoid any acknowledgement of ‘the other’,

creating a false image of Israeli society. Yana’s Friends, which describes the adjustment

of new immigrants from Russia during the Gulf War, is a comedy that could be

understood using the concept of "concise narrative", a segment of speech that contains its
3

entire temporal range in several paragraphs.2 Because discourse is a cooperative venture,

the responsibility for determining the meaning can be distributed among the participants

in at last two ways: that of the speaker or that of the hearer. A case study of stand-up

comedy propose that both, the speaker and the hearer, are responsible for the meaning of

comic discourse.3 This ethnic comedy film lauds the process of immigrant redemption

that Zionism sought to foster, involving the audience in a spectrum of emphatic responses

to migration and adaptation pains, and encouraging it to internalise the individualistic

norms of the neo-liberal and globalising values promoted by the Israeli hegemony.

National Liberation and Ethnic Mosaic


The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 was the culmination of a process of

Jewish national liberation that was a product of late nineteenth-century Modernism and

focused on the same aspiration as European movements: to construct a national society

based on rational thought, science, technology, and general education. Left and right

fought for hegemony within Zionism, envisioning the same national solution to the

problem of the suffering Jewish minorities in Europe, but advocating conflicting social

plans.

The left imagined a socialist Jewish state as a national solution that would

contribute to world revolution. In the 1920s its leaders achieved control of the national

institutions. In essentially agricultural, the dominant socialist Zionism constructed a

proletariat by making the offspring of middle-class Diaspora Jews productive, organised

1
Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall, "Identity and interaction: a sociocultural linguistic approach" Discourse
Studies, 4-5 (2005): 585-614.
2
Shaul Shenhav, "Concise narratives: a structural analyses of political discourse", Discourse Studies, 3
(2005): 315-335.
3
Wai King Tsang and Matilda Wong, "Constructing a Shared 'Honk Kong Identity' in comic discourses",
4

an omnipotent workers’ union, promoted a mixed economy, and created collectivist and

co-operative communes. However, the ‘Jewish conquest of labour’ implied competition

and friction with Arab peasant wage-earners and tenants. Thus, the Jewish-Arab conflict

was born of the nation-building process.

The Labour-led statism overlay in fact a classist society over which the middle

class managed to win ideological hegemony in the 1960s, and which enthusiastically

embraced global capital in the 1990s. Blinded by the Eurocentric vision that dominated

the occidental world, the builders of the Jewish National Home failed to leave a place in

their world vision for the Arab ‘other’ that inhabited Palestine. After independence was

declared in 1948, ethnocentrism found its justification in a daily life lived under the

constant threat of danger. The cult of force became a parameter of foreign policy;

‘security reasons’ were an instrument for silencing internal dissidence.

The renewal of the Hebrew as routine language expressed diverse positions

respect its role in the construction of the Jewish-Zionist identity at the end of 19th century

and the first 30 years of the 20th. Some intellectuals like Eliezer Ben Yehuda and Ehad

Ha'am conceived the national language as a tool that differentiates among the persons that

speak it and the persons that utilize other national languages. The Hebrew was for them a

factor of internal cohesion and external differentiation from other national cultural

groups; it supported the organization of the national institutions. For others, like Haim

Nahman Bialik and Martin Buber, the Hebrew was a bearer of images and untranslatable

inflections that expressed the specific characteristics of the Nation. For a third kind of

Discourse & Society, 6 (2004): 767-785.


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position with a theological inclination, like Aaron David Gordon and Rabbi Eliezer Kok,

the language symbolized the course of the spiritual life of the human group, the Hebrew

was the soul of the Nation. But the compulsive imposition of the Hebrew in the daily life

is better explained when viewed as the politics of a new dominant social class that aspired

to stabilize its relations with the subordinate classes re-organizing the cultural Hegemony.

Like the imposition of the Roman language in the Risorgimento of Italy, the

Zionist elites utilized the imposition of the Hebrew as a strong cohesive factor in the

construction of the Israel Nation and the social relations. First of all the Hebrew

conquered the Yiddish of the Jewish-European immigrants, then the Arabian dialects of

the Jewish immigrants from Arab countries that arrived in the 1950' and 1960'. Yiddish

word were mixed for a long time with the routine Hebrew in a "macaroni speak", while

the routine use of Arabic, as a result of the indispensable differentiation from the

Palestinian Other and the neighbours Arab states, was repressed along with the oriental

cultures of the newcomers.4 But the renewed Hebrew incorporated many word from

Arabic, mostly because the Zionist settlers view the Bedouins like a kind of "Noble

Savage" that knows the secret of living and survival in a hostile land. Later, the

occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the politics of open border that prevailed

until de rise of suicide terrorism in the 1990' permitted a wider and daily contact between

Israel and Palestine people, which introduced to Hebrew a long list of words without

developing the Arabic speaking by the Israelis.

Israeli culture is a long way from the utopia dreamed of by its ‘founding fathers’.

Jewish-Israeli society was based on a conglomeration of ideological vanguards and waves


6

of immigration from Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Arab East. Some immigrants

were fleeing racial or ethnic persecution, others sought better living conditions. Ethnic

and cultural groups that retained economic, cultural, and emotional ties with Judaism but

were scattered in different social and national environments invented a common past and

postulated a plan for their liberation, thereby constituting an ‘imaginary community’.5

Israeli society today no longer claims to be a melting pot in which diverse groups

of immigrant Jews renounce—willingly or otherwise—their own cultures in order to

integrate into a culture that expresses the values of socialist-Zionist pioneerism. Ethnic

diversity and the politics of identity, viewed as passing evils by the hegemony, were once

exploited in order to co-opt potential immigrant leaders. Israel is entering the twenty-first

century as a multicultural society that affords almost every group parliamentary

representation and in which ethnic politics play a dominant role. It is impossible to build

long-lasting coalitions, and politics becomes an endless series of provisional alliances.

Democracy’s reputation has gone bankrupt precisely when the politicians are trying

hardest to defend the sectarian interests of their electors. The newspapers in foreign

languages, published in the past by the political parties as vehicle of acculturation and

reproduction of the Ideology and Zionist Identity, have disappeared in the 1990s and in

their place flourishes the independent press and literature in Russian, a product of the

wave of massive immigration from the disappeared Soviet Union. The minorities have

‘forced’ the hegemony to recognise their cultural difference, but class differences are

deepening.

4
Yehuda Jud Ne'eman, "The Question of the Language and the Israel Cinema", Zmanim 39 (1991): 125-
126 (Hebrew).
5
See the preface to the Hebrew edition of Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities [Hebrew], trans.
7

The neo-liberal capitalist system produces ethnicism, which has become, on one

hand, a way for the oppressed masses to show resistance, and, on the other, a power

strategy for political leaders and financial oligarchies. The political class—with notable

exceptions—serves the interests of big capital. The media culture and the ethos of high

tech coexist with nationalism, xenophobia, religious and political messianic

fundamentalism, superstition, the folklorisation of cultural differences, and consumerism.

The labour movement has lost ground and no longer has its own economy; collectivist

and co-operative agriculture is being destroyed.6

The globalisation process has produced cultural and ideological changes that open

the way to mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition. It has imposed peace requirements that

were incompatible with a world of national states polarised by the Cold War. The current

system prefers consumer-subjects to victims dying for the sake of their country. Peace is

a more profitable business than war, but the prospect of external peace is accompanied by

a rise in the internal ethnic tensions that are inherent in multiculturalism. While Israeli

society is suffering from the problems of post-modernity, Palestinian society must still

fight for independence and the construction of a national state.

Film and Repressed Identities


While the national project was trying to ‘rebuild’ the Land of Israel, filmmakers

were building the imagined community by eliminating inconvenient facts from the screen.

Dan Daour (Tel Aviv: Open University, 2000), pp. 15-38.


6
David Gurvitz, Postmodernism—Culture and Literature at the End of the Twentieth Century [Hebrew]
(Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1997), pp. 28-31; Barouch Keni-Paz, ‘Israel Approaching the Year 2000—A World in
Transformation’ [Hebrew], in Moshe Lizak and Barouch Keni-Paz, eds., Israel Approaching the Year
2000--Society, Politics, and Culture (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1996), pp. 408-428;
Slavoj Zizek, ‘Multiculturalism, or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism’, New Left Review, 225,
Sept.-Oct. 1997, pp. 28-51.
8

Films produced from the late 1940s up to the mid-1960s, categorised as the ‘national-

heroic model’, showed Holocaust survivors ‘forgetting’ their past within a few weeks of

their arrival and rebuilding their lives by joining the national enterprise.7 The conflict

with the Arabs was always explicitly present, although not necessarily the focus of the

plot. The heroes of these films were often larger-than-life sabras, kibbutz members, or

combatants who sacrificed their lives for independence or security. The Arabs were an

anonymous threat, visible but lacking human features and psychology. A frequently

recurring image that expressed the ‘rebirth’ of the New Jew and his or her liberation from

the defects of the Diaspora was the immigrant’s arrival on the Mediterranean shore of the

Promised Land, the place where the symbolic ‘ascension’ to that land occurred.8 The

newcomers learned to speak Hebrew almost immediately, while the veterans spoke a

literary and theatrical Hebrew far away of the routine language of the spectators. The

"macaroni speak" did not existed in this filmic texts, because the movies were identified

with the Hegemony, that also subsidized the production via the State agencies or the

Workers Union departments. Most of the production was documentary, where the voice

and the spoken discourse of the immigrant were usually dubbed by professional actors

and singers from Israel repertoire theatres or popular entertainment. In other cases, the

7
Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema – East/West and the Politics of Representation (Austin: University of Texas
Press, 1987), Nurit Gertz, ‘“Others” in Israeli Films of the 1940s and 1950s: Holocaust Survivors,
Women, Arabs’ [Hebrew], in Nurit Gertz, Orly Lubin, and Judd Ne’eman [Hebrew], eds., Fictional
Visions of Israeli Film (Tel Aviv: Open University, 1998), pp. 381-402; Moshe Zimmerman, ‘The
Holocaust and Alterity, or the Added Value of the Film “Don’t Touch My Holocaust”’ [Hebrew], in Gertz,
Lubin, and Ne’eman, pp. 135-159.
8
Zionist discourse referred to immigration to Palestine or Israel with the Hebrew word ‘Aliya’, literally
‘ascension’, giving it a meaning that was not only spiritual (liberating oneself from the cultural-religious-
physical oppression of the Diaspora) but also material: making Jews into productive workers instead of
the traditional ‘liberal professions’ or commerce.
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newcomer voice and discourse were annihilated by the extra diegetic authoritative voice

of the narrator, that dispread the hegemonic discourse.

In 1960 the government agreed to encourage local film production by reimbursing

the tax on film receipts and offering low-interest production loans. The new measure

stimulated the production of films aimed at the extensive market constituted by Jewish

immigrants from Arab countries. This type of popular film was called ‘burekas’ (a

typical Middle-Eastern pastry), or ‘classist’ by some experts. The mass immigration from

Arab countries had radically changed the demographic make-up of the Jewish population.

At the time, Israel was not industrialised, and lacked jobs, food, and housing. For the

most part, the state channelled the Eastern immigrant masses who arrived in the 1950s—

usually with no resources of their own—directly into the proletariat. Sociology and

ideology were mobilised to justify this process, which was not exempt from a certain

racism deriving from the encounter with an Eastern-Jewish ‘other’ whose identity, unlike

that of Western Jews, was not based on either memories of persecution and the Holocaust

or modern European-style nationalism.

Burekas films were generally carnivalesque comedies about ‘oriental’ ethnic

subjects confronting the Ashkenazi establishment, as represented by Labour party

officials and politicians in a corrupt system or wealthy middle-class members of the

hegemonic cultural group. Israelis immigrated from Arab countries spoke in the films

Hebrew with grotesquely exaggerated Arabian accent, a stereotypical synthesis of

Moroccan, Persian, Algerian and other Arabic dialects that lacked referring in the social

reality. They spoke shouting, almost in hysteria, to mark them as impulsive and

temperamental, as opposed to the citizens of European origin.


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These films functioned as instruments of socialisation, showing the conquest of

Western women by Oriental men, followed by mixed marriage, or the symbolic triumph

of the Oriental male over the Western male. The potential for revolt inherent in class

differences was distorted by the stereotypical representation of cultural differences and

the ‘victory’ of the Eastern Jew, who in fact accepted the hegemonic codes.9

The popular influence of these films was an indication of the marginality of the

Oriental immigrant masses, which sporadically exploded in turbulent social protest

movements, the most violent of these being the Israeli ‘Black Panthers’ in 1971. The

terrible toll of casualties and the collapse of national morale occasioned by the Yom

Kippur War in 1973 did nothing to change the classist film model. Paradoxically, the

Labour Party governed in the name of an ideology discredited by the consequences of its

policies. The Israeli middle class was already exercising cultural and ideological

hegemony, and achieved political power in 1977, when social democracy lost the votes of

the masses, who were sick of ideological cynicism and corruption. (They would be

rewarded with the dolarisation of the economy, spiralling inflation, and the 1982

Lebanese War.) The nation’s social conflict had been manipulated and redirected by

capitalistic, xenophobic nationalism, which used ethnicist rhetoric to incite hatred of the

left, socialism, the kibbutzes, and the organised labour movement.

The nationalist centre-right government headed by Menachem Begin effectively

ended the classist burekas film genre in 1978 when it instituted the Fund for the

Encouragement of Quality Israeli Cinema. The Israeli middle class now imposed an

9
Bakhtin clarified the subversive implications of the popular celebration, when the powerful become
paupers and vice-versa. See Robert Stam, Subversive Pleasure: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism and Film
(London: John Hopkins University Press, 1989). See also: Shohat, Israeli Cinema, chap. 3.
11

elitist system in which ‘quality’ dictated the replacement of mass appeal with protest

potential. The new film-making regime favoured an individualist model that already

existed in the form of ‘high-brow’ films. They expressed a rejection of Zionist

collectivism and the pioneering ethos of personal sacrifice, but they did not attract large

audiences. Their creators were of a new generation that had not fought in the War of

Independence and had no sense of the poverty in which oriental immigrant Jews lived.

They were influenced by the French New Wave and European modernist films; some of

them had studied in Paris or London. Their stylistic experimentation was a challenge to

the ‘high culture’ preferred by the local establishment.

The border war and encounters with oriental immigrants hardly appeared in the

individualist model. The characters in these films did not identify with the Israeli

collective, and, abandoning the heroic conventions of previous films, they radiated a

yearning for ‘somewhere else’. Their alienation, borrowed from contemporary European

films, served as a protest against the Israeli codes that imposed a monolithic ‘national

fraternity’, but they still spoke in a correct and normative Hebrew, because they were not

more than the "black sheep" of the Hegemonic discourse. Palestinians appeared at times

as objects of the Israeli desire for ‘the other’.

Most of the individualist films were not commercial successes. The official

support they received was an indication of the hegemony’s effort to co-opt the

intellectual-aesthetic elite and neutralise the critical potential of its works. The burekas
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and individualist models, seemingly diametrical opposites, both reflected the hegemony

of the capitalistic, individualistic ideology.10

The occupation of the Palestinian territories in 1967 gave rise to sharp

contradictions. Here was a parliamentary democracy maintaining a system of military

occupation just a few kilometres away; and having to tend to civilian problems at the

same time that it prevented resistance and breaches of the peace. Palestinian society

offered cheaper labour than Israeli society, but was not a significant market for Israeli

products. The Israeli occupation poses serious problems for the humanistic, socialist

world concept shared by different sectors of Israeli society. The brutal nature of that

occupation can be seen as a direct consequence of the failure of the socialist Zionist

utopia prior to the Six-Day War.11

Filmmakers, generally identifying with the humanism of the left wing, found

themselves after 1977 alienated from the hegemonic centre. Public opinion, encouraged

by the rhetoric of the ruling right wing, rejected anyone who proposed a mutual Israeli-

Palestinian recognition. The individualist model metamorphosed in a so called ‘political

cinema’ or the ‘Palestinian series’, films that show Israelis confronting the problems

inherent in the domination of another people. The precedent Individualist cinema was

‘political’ in that it rejected absolute identification with monolithic society and the state

and introduced into the Israeli imaginary problems and options that had been ‘forgotten’

by the hegemony. The new films after 1977 called for a moral stand against the suffering

of the Palestinians and the damage that occupation did to Israeli society. Mutual

10
Nitzan Ben Shaul, ‘The Hidden Connection between Burekas Films and Individualist Films’, in Gertz.
Lubin, and Ne’eman, pp. 128-134.
11
Judd Ne’eman, ‘The Jar, the Sword, and the Holy Grail: Films on the Jewish-Arab Conflict and the
13

recognition, fraternity, and solidarity were the usual solutions proposed in the films, but

the protagonists never managed to break down the nationalist barrier, and the filmmakers

failed to transcend the ethnocentric limitations of Israeli culture. The ethnic differences

between Israeli human groups were now hidden in the films and the characters spoke a

routine Hebrew without any traces of ethnic Arabic originated accent.

The 1982 invasion to Lebanon and the ensuing occupation, which ended only in

2000, together with the 1987-1992 Palestinian revolt known as the First Intifada,

changed filmmakers’ perspective on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, giving rise to

representations of direct encounters between Palestinians and Israelis in what was called

"the Strange and the Other" cinema, but only three films depicted the Lebanon War.

Many films of this period were English-spoke productions, made for international

distribution. While in the past the Hegemony rejected non-Hebrew speak in films, in the

1980' It considered the English like the new international "lingua franca" and recognized

the subordination of the National language and culture to the ascent global culture of the

big capital.12 Then, with the 1990s, a new influence came into play: globalization and

post-modernism, which introduced nihilism and the ‘pleasure principle’ as key elements

in a large proportion of Israeli films.

Identities and the Film Market


As symbolic products aimed at mass audiences, film images reflect an intersection

between processes of identity formation manipulated ‘from above’ and potential

resistance by the social subjects. While filmmakers can include demonstrations of

Romance’, in Gertz, Lubin, and Ne’eman, pp. 403-425.


12
Ne'eman, "The Question of the Language", p. 135.
14

resistance in the text, spectators can choose to stay away from the film, causing it to fail

economically, or they can develop varied ways of consuming the film that partially

neutralise its influence on the process of identity construction. Since the British Mandate

period the national institutions have been the decisive economic factor in the

establishment of the Israeli film industry, which they see as a useful mouthpiece for their

own messages. Over the years the state has changed its methods of supporting cinema,

but it has never cancelled that support completely, both because it wants to develop a

diversified economy and because it recognises the advantage of having a communication

medium in its pocket. It may also be influenced by the pressures brought to bear by

filmmakers and the public. Over the same period films have changed their mode of

presenting the issues involved in shaping the national identity, developments in society

and culture have been reflected in the appearance of new cinematic models and ways of

use of the language.

Today’s films are constructed as objects of pleasure that satisfy the secret or

openly expressed desires of the individual. Films that are ‘serious’, ‘political’, ‘have a

social message’, or deal with ‘national issues’ are becoming scarce. When such films are

produced, they attempt both to entertain and to discuss serious issues, thereby falling into

the trap of mixed messages. Audiences are suspicious of movies with a clear critical

message, and consequently filmmakers are reluctant to make them.

Cinema "speaks" in audiovisual images, described by the semiotics like a system

of signification without code. The message flows from the movie to the spectators in a
15

unidirectional communication.13 While in the past originals modes of representations and

styles developed in National contexts, like Expressionism in Germany' Weimar Republic,

Montage in the 1920' Soviet Union, Neorealism in Post Second World War' Italy or

Cinema Novo in the 1960's Brazil, some scholars support in the present the idea that the

domination of movie screens dominated by multinational monopolistic capital of

entertainment has resulted in the hegemony of Hollywoodian forms of representation, that

prevents the rise of new and alternative aesthetics.14 Audiences’ cinematic tastes have

been ‘educated’ to prefer these forms, with the inevitable result of dwindling audiences

and markets for Israeli films—to the point that the Israeli film industry cannot support

itself without institutional support. The result is a trend towards post-modern films

produced with state or public support that focus on local issues with ‘folkloric’ overtones,

in which the use of foreign or ethnic languages is legitimize. Ethnic conflicts in Israel are

apt to be relevant to audiences in other countries, too, while the adoption of the

hegemonic forms of expression makes it easier to distribute the film and to market it to

the broadcasting industries.

The Triumph of Ethnicity: Global versus Local


In the 1970s Israeli discourse began to focus on the ‘ethnic problem’ in the wake

of the Black Panther revolt, a protest that, despite a great deal of noise, did not manage to

shake the hegemony. Later the nationalist discourse of the political right wing succeeded

in channelling the protests of the disadvantaged sectors into a massive vote for the right

13
Metz, Christian, “On the Notion of Cinematographic Language”, in: Movies and Methods, ed. Bill
Nicholls, California University Press, 1976, Vol. 1, pp. 582 - 589.
14
Jorge Novoa, "Metamorfoses do Cinema Brasileiro na era da Mundialização Neoliberal: em busca de
uma Identidade Estética", forthcoming publication in Araucaria, Dossier: "Brasil: Texto y Contexto".
16

that resulted in the political revolution of 1977. During the campaign for the 1981

elections political groups began to appeal to voters’ sense of ethnic-cultural affiliation,

giving rise to the development of ‘identity politics’ that has led to the establishment of the

Sephardic and Russian ethnic parties. Parliament members and political leaders speaking

with a strong ethnic accent and a poor Hebrew vocabulary became usual. In contrast to

the co-option of ethnic leadership that characterised the era of the social-democratic

regime—the basis of the election parody in the film Salah Shabati (Kishon, 1965)—the

current phase reflects the advance of globalisation and the strengthening of group

identities. Such identities provide a sense of refuge against the erosion of authentic

cultural attributes and their replacement by folklore and pseudo-equality between cultures

in an age of increased consumerism and exclusion. Even TV advertising exploits the

Arabic accented speak of the past movies to sell "oriental" industrialized comestibles.

The reinforcement of ethnic identities does not clash with globalisation, but is in

fact caused by it. The cinematic expression of this apparent paradox is the commercial

films depicting the experiences of ‘strange and exotic’ cultures. Difference is not

threatening but rather something to be pleasurably viewed and consumed. In a country

with a limited film market, a local film that is rich in multiculturalism has a greater

chance of breaking into the world market, where there is already a demand for this kind

of work. The emergence of the modern Israeli ethnic film thus reflects a complex series

of factors: a growing awareness that we are a multicultural society in which difference

enjoys broad legitimation, fears concerning the consequences of an increasing focus on

ethnicity, the obligation to create films that have some chance of being marketed abroad

in order to cope with reduced public investment, the filmmakers’ desire to depict reality
17

in their works without hurting their chances of marketing the film, the limits that public

discourse imposes on the subject, the idiomatic diversity among the spectators, and so on.

Melting Pot or Multiculturalism


Present-day Israeli society legitimises the ethnic identities whose voices were

silenced in the past by the ‘melting pot’ cultural policy, but the hegemony continues to

see cultural fragmentation as a threat to national integrity and the ability to confront

external threats. Every social sector or factor of power that postulates annexation and the

consequent domination of another people sees national unity as basic to its strategy, and

must find the rhetorical means of preserving it. The exclusive and compulsive use of the

Hebrew as cohesive factor was changed by the "national interest" discourse. State

commissions appointed in 1999 and 2000 to analyse the state of culture concluded that

the nation had to accept multiculturalism while at the same time protecting what they

called the ‘cultural nucleus’ of national unity. Elements reinforcing this cultural nucleus

were identified as modern, democratic factors that helped uphold the laws and the

enterprise established by the Founding Fathers, whereas elements seen as divisive were

labelled irrational, superstitious, and so on. At this time, Arabic is the second official

language after Hebrew, but none is imposing it. Only the Nation owned First Television

channel include Arabic translation in some of their programmes and films, while

commercial channels are often adding Russian translation to the broadcast. By the other

side, Israel films at theatres included in the past English and French translation, even

Hebrew text, because the low sound quality of moviemaking or deficient sonorous

appliances at theatres, but never included Arabic translation. In present times, only

Hebrew translation and some times Hebrew dubbing are available at cinema theatres, but
18

nor because State dispositions, but because the multicultural equality between languages

and the impossibility to add three or four translations to the films. The profit

consideration is prevailing over the Nation construction rhetoric.

Implicit in the hegemony’s rhetorical strategy is the rejection of expressly

accepted multiculturalism, but the "bankruptcy of correct Hebrew-speak" is not

remembered like at all. A critical analysis of official reports on the state of culture on the

eve of the year 2000 listed four hegemonic rhetorical strategies that devalue

multiculturalism:15

1. The representatives of the hegemony depoliticise culture, since they assume that

identity politics counteracts class solidarity and threatens to ‘balkanise’ society. Instead,

they promote the ‘politics of difference’, which postulates cultural integration,

legitimising only class conflict, and they criticise the ‘politics of culture’, which

postulates culture as an indissoluble part of the political demands made by social groups.

Some see identity politics as the basis of the culture of media ‘ratings’, and social

fragmentation as an ally of big capital. Paradoxically, the hegemony acknowledges the

cultural claims of Israeli Palestinians, since by this means they can be put outside Israeli

cultural discourse, preserving it as the exclusive province of Jewish citizens. The

hegemony considers its own representation of culture to be apolitical, and appropriates

for its spokespeople a supposedly neutral position from which other voices are seen as

peripheral, ethnic and divisive.

2. The hegemony portrays Israeli society as homogeneous and consensual, in an

imaginary construction that requires the exclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian culture and
19

concealment of the profound differences between Jewish cultural groups. Palestinians

and non-Zionist Orthodox Jews are considered extremely different, whereas the unique

attributes of other Jewish ethnic groups, such as Sephardic religious nationalists,

supposedly contribute to the national collective. Judaism is considered a nationality, a

definition that automatically excludes large social sectors from the ‘imagined

community’. Jewish groups are seen as part of the Western cultural camp—even Jews

from Eastern countries.

3. The hegemony delegitimises multiculturalism by distorting the traditions of

multicultural discourse in the world and identifying identity politics with post-modern

traditions. Any demand for a recognition of uniqueness is seen as a demand for separate

public spaces and therefore an expression of autonomist desires. It defines

multiculturalism in its most grotesquely post-modern version and obstructs any balanced

interpretation of it.

4. The hegemony redefines the boundaries between society and the state, considering

culture as a product engineered by the state. The latter acts in accordance with the law

and public ethics, placing itself above social conflicts in a neutral position that is not

influenced by sectarian interests. It devalues group identities and promotes an essentialist

view of the ‘national culture’, fearing the possible mythification of group cultures.

Confronted with these cultures, it postulates ‘the national cultural nucleus’, in which

national and fundamentally Jewish values are directed by the state.

15
Yehouda Shenhav and Yossi Yonah, ‘The Multicultural Condition’ [Hebrew], Theory and Criticism,
17, 2000, p. 166.
20

Ethnic Film and Aesthetics at the Service of the Hegemony


Some recent Israeli films have featured narratives and portrayals of ethnicity, and

they usually promote the message of integration in the national collective, on the basis of

the ‘politics of difference’. Many of them feminise the ethnic character, an aesthetic

effect under which is concealed the logic of traditional gender relations: the ethnic

‘other’ must accept the codes of the patriarchal hegemony. Cultural diversity appears in

the form of parody, comedy, or folklore. Palestinians and Orthodox Jews are absent from

the narrative or appear only briefly.

Magic (Shchur, Shmuel Hasfari, 1994) is the story of Rachel, the daughter of

Moroccan immigrants, a television star whose personal life is, paradoxically, plagued by

lack of communication: Her husband exists only on the telephone, her daughter is

autistic, her relations with her brothers are distant and difficult. Rachel’s trip to her

father’s funeral becomes an odyssey into memories of the past, namely her childhood in a

peripheral village during the era of the Israeli Black Panthers, 20 years earlier. Rachel’s

family maintained Jewish-Moroccan traditions in which magic and sorcery were

commonplace. They speak a pastiche composed mostly of Hebrew, a minor part of

French and some words in Moroccan. This is the language compound formula that

expresses the deal between Hegemonic discourse and the ethnic identities. The

adolescent Rachel had escaped what she considered superstitious cultural backwardness

by gaining admission to a state boarding school and turning herself into a Westernised

public media personality, but she had not achieved happiness.

All social and national conflicts have been eliminated from the narrative. The

Black Panthers, who in 1971 protested violently against marginality and ethnically based
21

social exploitation, are recalled only in graffiti; both their image and the memory of

police and political repression have disappeared. The Palestinians, the Orthodox, and war

are not mentioned; Moroccan Judaism is a succession of folkloric rituals. The lack of

communication is resolved when Rachel’s sister uses magical powers to break through

the isolation of the autistic daughter. The legitimisation of magic, native to Moroccan

culture, allows modern Rachel to revalidate her ethnic origins, adapting them to the

technological world. Aesthetically the film draws on elements of Passolini’s

Mediterranean film style and Latin American fantastic realism—a supposedly Third-

World cinematic language used to support the social integration of ethnic minorities in

the new neo-liberal multiculturalism.16

Late Marriage (Hatuna Meucheret, Dover Kosashvili, 2001) tells the story of

Zaza, a bachelor in his thirties engaged in writing a doctoral thesis in philosophy, who, as

the son of Georgian immigrants, breaks the stereotype of an ethnic group usually

considered ignorant and brutal. While Zaza is bilingual and obviously can speak and

write in an high brow Hebrew, the parents and relatives speak mostly in Georgian. Zaza

is involved in a romantic relationship with Yehudit, a divorced woman of Moroccan

origin who is the stereotypical image of a warm, temperamental, impulsive, and maternal

woman. Her parents are not remembered at all. She speaks only Hebrew with her lover

and daughter. The couple concrete the Zionist melting pot: the second generation of the

immigrants became fully Israelis.

16
Yosefa Loshitsky, ‘Authenticity in Crisis: “Shur” and New Israeli Forms of Ethnicity’, Media, Culture
and Society, 19, 1996, pp. 87-103. On the dissident nature of fantastic realism, see Amaryll Chanady,
‘The Territorialization of the Imaginary in Latin America: Self-Affirmation and Resistance to
Metropolitan Paradigms’, in Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris (eds.), Magical Realism—
Theory, History, Community (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 125-144.
22

The hero is ‘feminised’ by the film when his lover imposes conditions for their

relations and when his family tries to force him into an endogamous, parentally approved

marriage. The intercultural clash is represented by a grotesque scene in which the

Georgian family irrupts into Yehudit’s apartment to put an end to the shameful

relationship, and Zaza offers his father a machete, begging him on his knees to respect his

love or behead him. In the end, Zaza marries the girl chosen by his family but takes

revenge by making an embarrassing scene at the wedding party. Yehudit sacrifices her

happiness, understanding the importance of family peace, since it is a goal shared by her

own ethnic culture. The conformist Israeli Romeo and Juliet are defeated by patriarchy

and ethnic essentialism.

Foreign Sister (Achot Zara, Dan Wolman, 2000) describes the budding friendship

between Naomi, an affluent middle-class Israeli, and Nagist, a young Christian Ethiopian

illegal worker in Tel Aviv. Naomi is of Sephardic origin, married to an Ashkenazi. Her

life embodies the fantasy of the super-woman: She is an efficient housewife, an

exemplary mother to two teenagers, and the manager of the credit department at a bank.

She speaks only in Hebrew without any ethnic accent. Naomi’s family is a prime

example of the fulfilment of the Zionist enterprise: ethnic integration, traditional

monogamy, middle-class social and economic success. Nagist is employed by Naomi to

look after her mother-in-law, a racist old woman of Polish-Jewish background.

The film adopts a rhetorical strategy that compares the Christian-Ethiopian ‘other’

with the members of the hegemony. Nagist does not accept second-hand clothes because

she wears only what she herself picks out, like Naomi’s daughter. Another Ethiopian, a

friend of Nagist, turns out to be a better soccer player than Naomi’s son and husband, in
23

addition to having been a Shakespearean actor. Naomi’s family sends her to a hotel to

recover from stress, but she prefers to visit the Ethiopians’ cramped apartment. She goes

out with them to drink and dance at a bar frequented by illegal immigrants, first letting

her new friends put her hair in African braids—a physical change that suggests the

growing emotional bond between the two women. The Ethiopians speak in their own

language, but they can explain themselves in Hebrew. But this idyllic interlude is

shattered when Nagist’s friend is arrested and scheduled for deportation. Naomi’s lawyer

explains to her that only an astronomical bribe can save him, not the law. Later another

Ethiopian is injured by an Israeli employer who refuses to pay the wages he owes him.

The Ethiopians are afraid to take him to an Israeli hospital because they would be turned

in to the police, and so begins an odyssey to transport him to a Palestinian hospital in

Jerusalem—which they reach too late. The film ends when Naomi rejoins her family,

having sworn friendship and sisterhood with Nagist.

The plot focuses on Naomi and the process of consciousness-raising that Nagist’s

appearance in her life has triggered. The film appeals to the audience’s sense of justice,

but the Ethiopians are not shown as social subjects able to fight for their demands;

instead, they are feminised or victimised. Naomi’s new awareness is neither shared nor

perceived by her family, and the destiny and rights of the immigrants are left in the hands

of the hegemony and the state bureaucracy. The only Palestinians in the film are two

doctors with no role other than to announce the death of the illegal worker.

The conventional photography and ‘transparent’ editing produce a realistic effect,

accompanied by a soundtrack composed along the usual melodramatic lines. This


24

seemingly politicised film in fact innocuously conforms to the hegemonic codes of

representation.

Zionist Redemption for Jews and Gentiles


Yana’s Friends (Hahaverim shel Yana, Arik Kaplun, 1998) provides an

outstanding example of the rhetorical strategies that devalue multiculturalism. The

director, a personal example of successful integration, immigrated to Israel from the

former Soviet Union and studied filmmaking in Israel in the early 1980s. The cast of the

film, headed by the director’s wife in the role of Yana, includes both immigrants and

native-born Israelis, as does the production team. Some of the immigrant roles in the film

were played by actors new to the country; others were given to established Israeli actors.

The possibility of allowing the ethnic subjects to represent themselves was conditioned

by the necessity of maintaining the professional standards of the entertainment industry.

The plot is about how Yana, a young Russian immigrant, copes with a hostile

environment after being abandoned, pregnant and penniless, in Tel Aviv by her husband.

Yana manages to find her place in Israeli society and builds a new relationship with a

sabra. The Russian immigrants in the film exemplify various strategies of adaptation

while maintaining specific cultural characteristics. The film seems to be arguing that a

society made up of different ethnic groups is the current mode of carrying out the national

project. Contrary to the old melting pot idea, which demanded that the subject be

transformed to suit the needs of the nation-state and speak Hebrew very soon, the ‘ethnic

mosaic’ is presented as an approach that allows the subject to reconstruct his or her

personal life, while accepting the social injustice generated by the reigning economic
25

model. But multiculturalism is only a thin veneer beneath which, in the film, we discover

the aesthetic representations of the immigrant’s integration into the hegemonic culture.

Yana has no history; her life begins when she arrives in Israel—a feature that was

common in the Zionist national-heroic style of filmmaking. She is seen making her

homework for the Hebrew classes and in a short time the language barrier disappeared

without any traumatic situation of misunderstanding. She shares an apartment with a

young Israeli sabra named Eli, a name that in Hebrew means ‘my God’. The sabra

matches the romantic image of the son of Zionism that originated in the 1930s.

Physically it was a European type, the embodiment of the eugenic ideals common in

Western culture. This image transmitted the ethos of the ghetto Jew’s salvation through

productive physical labour, collectivism, and the redemption of the land of Israel. Sabras

prefer action to words, conscious of their role as the vanguard of the people, and are ready

to give their lives for the sake of the national ideal. The sabra is the antithesis of the

scorned Diaspora Jew.

When Yana tries to leave the country without certification that she has returned

the grant for new immigrants, she encounters representatives of the state for the first time,

in the form of border police. They show no understanding of her, and express cultural

racism towards immigrants. The scene blurs the boundaries between society and state

when these representatives of the establishment express the prevailing racism—which is

contrary to both the law and the conduct expected of public servants. Similar behaviour

is shown by the police officers who are called to investigate whether a character in the

film, an accordion player, has kidnapped children for pedophiliac purposes. The player

speaks with her teenager daughter in Hebrew without any sign of misunderstanding
26

between the two. Yet throughout the film the state and its senior representatives are

conspicuous by their absence. On television the news shows the developing crisis in the

Persian Gulf, but no sign of the country’s leaders. In this way the film creates a

separation between the state and the life of the subject, a characteristic of the post-modern

and post-Zionist codes current in Israel.

Eli is not the "classical" sabra but an "Israel macho". He makes wedding videos

and films himself with random sexual partners, thereby combining scoptophilia with

narcissism. Both his name and his profession characterise him as the Creator, a

representative of phallocentric Zionism. During the film Yana is seen repeatedly through

Eli’s camera lens, an aesthetic ploy that is already part of the visual codes and reproduces

the effect of ‘reality shows’, ideologically reinforcing the existing order. The usual

tradition of Israeli filmmaking presents women as daughters, wives, or lovers of

combatants, and the plot generally assigns them a sphere that is subordinated to the

masculine role. In a few films that show women as protagonists, they obey the codes of

the masculine world, and only the female body is left them as a space in which occasional

autonomy is possible.17 Generally female characters are excluded from the ‘national

fraternity’ and they are often expunged from the story as well.18 Yana lends her name to

the film, but her transformation into an Israeli subject is the result of Eli’s intervention;

the woman without a history is redeemed by the sabra. This can be understood by the

concept of "concise narrative", segments of political discourse serving as rhetorical

device through which political narratives gain their cohesion. The concise narrative is the

17
Orly Lubin, ‘The Image of Women in Israeli Cinema’ [Hebrew], in Gertz, Lubin, and Ne’eman, pp. 223-
246.
18
Yael Schub, ‘The Image of Women and Narrative Deconstruction in Modernistic Israeli Film’
27

pivotal intersection of present-time events and wider historical perspectives. The uses of

"concise narratives" embedded in the large Zionist narrative, like Yana's redemption by

Eli, protect the political discourse from deconstruction.19

Eli pays for Yana’s illegal abortion, offering her the opportunity to begin a new

life. Their romance takes place during the Gulf War, when the residents of Tel Aviv had

to take refuge from Iraqi missiles in sealed rooms, wearing gas masks. The first intimate

encounters between Eli and Yana are grotesque scenes during the bombing, when the

physical contact between their bodies is an ironic antithesis to the impossibility of verbal

communication under the masks. As in the heroic genre, the circumstance of war is what

brings the strangers together, symbolising national and cultural integration imposed by an

external threat. Eli celebrates each new air-raid siren, analogously to the protagonists of

heroic-Zionist films whose lives achieved significance through the struggle for the

country. When the missile attacks cease, Eli uses a video recording of the alarm to draw

Yana into another intimate encounter, but when his deception is discovered the masks fall

and true love blossoms.

The Gulf War caused a crisis in the Israeli masculine identity, when the US

government imposed passivity on Yitzhak Shamir’s government. Until then the Israeli

male image had been based on a sense described by popular culture as ‘we are all soldiers

enjoying a furlough in civilian life.’ Eli represents this shift in that his character is devoid

of any military aspect. In contrast to the Israeli hero thanking God that he has been

drafted into the Six-Day War in Every Bastard a King (Kol Mamzer Melech, Uri Zohar,

[Hebrew], in Gertz, Lubin, and Ne’eman, pp. 215-222.


19
Shenhav, "Concise narratives", 327-328.
28

1968), Eli celebrates his non-combative masculinity with every Scud missile, providing a

symbolic ‘pressure valve’ for the audience’s repressed gender anxieties.

Yana and Eli share an apartment owned by Rosa, a disagreeable veteran Israeli

who will tolerate no delay in paying the rent. Later it emerges that Rosa was once an

unmarried Russian immigrant with a son who was the product of a brief but unforgettable

love affair with a Red Army hero. The father had disappeared in action during World

War II, and the son had died during the capture of the Wailing Wall in the 1967 war.

Thus, a parallel is established between the two women as young pregnant Russian

immigrants, each of whom has lost the only person she had. Rosa has ‘paid for’ her

veteran status in a way analogous to the biblical sacrifice of Isaac. At the same time, she

has ceased to speak Russian, manifesting a total integration into Zionist culture.

In the apartment next-door to Eli and Yana lives a paralysed, catatonic old man

who has arrived in Israel with another family of Russian immigrants. This family’s aim is

to get rich quickly, and to that end they leave the old grandfather out on the street for

hours to beg, decked out in his World War II medals. The veteran turns out to be Rosa’s

lost lover. Moved by love to begin speaking Russian again, she demands that he be

turned over to her protection. The family refuses since he is their main source of income,

which they plan to use to emigrate to New York—a prospect condemned by Zionist

discourse in the past but presented as a legitimate option in the film. Secondary roles

include the immigrant musician who finds himself forced to play for money in the street

in front of the conservatory, with the hope that his talents will be recognised. He is a

violent drinker, like the usual stereotype of Russians, but an expert on European music

and opera, a cultural field in which he can be ‘absorbed’.


29

Discourses tend to metaphoric uses of constructed sources when the goal is the

clarification of complex concepts.20 The discourse in Yana’s Friends uses a well known

image of miracle to make clear the benevolent final of the integration process. It ends

happily in a carnivalesque scene in which Eli and Yana kidnap the paralytic old man to

please Rosa. A grotesque chase scene straight out of silent-film farce then ensues, in the

course of which the old man’s wheelchair rockets over the Tel Aviv beach while all the

other characters run vainly after it. The old war hero falls into the sea, and just when

everyone is certain that he has drowned, he appears smiling and erect on his own two

legs, in a scene that is simultaneously reminiscent of Zionist discourse’s redemption of

the immigrant and the New Testament’s miraculous cure of the paralytic. Rosa recovers

her lost lover, the lover recovers his health, Yana and Eli are established as a new couple

celebrating the integration of the sabra with the immigrant, the old man’s family can

emigrate without hindrance, and the musician will no longer have to compete with the

war veteran for hand-outs.

Statistics confirm that almost 20% of the mass Russian immigration to Israel was

not Jewish, which explains this combination of Judeo-Zionist and Christian imaginaries,

designed to create a cross-cultural appeal that would ensure box-office success.

Correlatively, the Russian melodies included in the soundtrack in fact have a familiar ring

to Israeli audiences, recalling the ‘Israeli folklore’ invented by the Zionist pioneers in

their nostalgia for the culture of their homeland, the imaginary land of the Soviet

Revolution.

20
Lionel Wee, "Constructing the source: metaphor as a discourse strategy", Discourse Studies 3 (2005):
363-384.
30

Yana’s Friends is a comedy that provides a grotesque view of the integration of

Russian immigrants into the Israeli hegemony, analogous to the grotesque depiction of

multiculturalism in hegemonic discourse. The values of that hegemony have changed

since the days of the ‘heroic era’ and the national effort to build social solidarity, when

anyone who left the country was considered a traitor. The film legitimises migration in

search of individual economic well-being, and the state institutions do not offer any

relevant service to those who need it. New citizens speak their mother tongue, but learn

Hebrew with the same facility with which they internalise the codes of Israeli

neoliberalism—just as the heroic-Zionist cinema used to depict immigrants integrating

into society within a few weeks. The image of society shown on the screen omits any

threatening or divisive factor: Orthodox Jews, settlers, Palestinians, and labour unions do

not appear. The Gulf War is glimpsed repeatedly on television screens, but functions

only as a motive for the growing intimacy between Yana and Eli, or the personal fears of

other characters in the film. Thus, the public dimension is present in private life, but its

political influence on the subjects of the film is nullified. No political view of the Gulf

crisis, the Palestinian conflict, immigrant absorption, or any other issue is expressed by

either dialogue or aesthetic devices, giving the movie a neutral quality reminiscent of the

hegemonic discourse on multiculturalism.

Conclusion
The films reviewed above transmit an optimistic message concerning the

feasibility of immigrant integration in Israeli culture, employing rhetorical strategies that

can be identified as ‘politics of difference’. In spite of the inclusion of ethnic characters

speaking foreign languages, they use aesthetic devices and constructs representations that
31

lead the spectator to identify with the process of integrating into the cultural hegemony.

In this way, multicultural Israeli films continue to exercise the same integrative

ideological function that characterised the National Heroic films. As long as the

Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues at its current level of violence, the tension between

the group identities seeking expression and the interests of a national unity threatened

from outside will continue to shape local cinema. If indeed the national oppression of the

Palestinians, the human losses, and the pain and fear on both sides are sufficient to make

the contending peoples and their leaders effectively seek to create means of agreement,

the analysis of film offers one more argument for the proponents of peace.

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