“Colliding Dreams” of Zionism: Interview with Director Joseph Dorman

A group of young European Jews on broad the "Jewish State" at the port of Haifa. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams) A group of young European Jews on broad the "Jewish State" at the port of Haifa. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

Colliding Dreams is a new documentary by veteran documentarians Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky that narrates the history of political Zionism and the conflicting visions of Zionism’s partisans from the late 19th century to the present day. Dorman and Rudavsky situate their documentary within a discourse that supports the birth of modern Israel, while recognizing the moral dilemmas of Zionism and strongly opposing the settlement project, and favors a resolution based on the two-state model.

The lucid, affecting narrative structure firmly grounds the impetus behind political Zionism in the pogroms (organized massacre of Jews) that swept across Eastern Europe and Russia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For its proponents, Zionism wasn’t simply an ideal condition for world Jewry, but an essential condition for Jewish survival and safety—decades before the Holocaust demonstrated Jewish vulnerability on an unprecedented scale.

Dorman and Rudavsky impress upon viewers the passion and commitment Zionism stirred and the fact that it would be ahistorical to portray Zionism as solely animated by colonist fervor. In an illustrative moment related by the directors, a young man’s walk is interrupted by an infant smashed on the pavement. The Jewish child was thrown out a window during an anti-Semitic attack. The man pens a letter to his father telling him that until now he hasn’t known his son, and asserts his newly realized identity by stating, “I’m a Jew.” For the young man, the repossession of Jewish identity was yoked to Jewish nationalism. Only a Jewish state, many believed, would allow Jews to walk proudly as Jews and free of horror.

The counterargument is obvious and well-known (a Jewish state should not come at the expense of Palestinians guiltless of European anti-Semitism), but even the most staunch anti-Zionist would find it hard to argue that understanding “the other side” is a pointless exercise.

One inevitable criticism is that Colliding Dreams is firmly rooted in the Israeli perspective. This might be off-the-mark since the documentary is expressly concerned with how Zionism’s adherents have grappled with first, the idea, and later, the realization of a Jewish nation-state. Colliding Dreams is not meant to be a survey of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As Dorman told Palestine Square:

“Our film is a history of Zionism and its conflicts, external and internal. We made a deliberate decision that the film would only in certain cases engage specific details—for instance, the question of expulsion and refugees in the 1948–49 War—and even here we could not, in the scope of a film such as ours, detail all the facts that we would have wished to. Just these years alone can easily fill up a book.

We had felt that it was very important to get this history right and, to this end, we engaged in much discussion among ourselves, delved into the voluminous literature, and engaged with scholars. But much, as you know, was excluded in terms of detail.”

Moreover, Colliding Dreams does present criticism and viewpoints seldom, if ever, heard in mainstream American discourse relating to Israel and the Palestinians. One scholar relates the absurdity of the Balfour Declaration: one party, Britain, not yet in position of a territory, Palestine, promises the land of the second party, the Palestinians, to a third party, the Jews. Why? —The Declaration conveyed imperial disdain for the Palestinians who were deemed unworthy of self-determination.

For specialists, Colliding Dreams will cover well-trodden territory: the Balfour Declaration, the Yishuv, the rise of Palestinian nationalism and, ultimately, the 1947 UN Partition Plan, before moving on to more recent concerns such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Oslo “peace process.” Colliding Dreams, however, is stimulating for specialists and generalists alike, especially for those inclined to dismiss Zionism wholesale as an illegitimate settler-colonial movement. Regardless of one’s views on this issue, it is worthwhile to consider why so many European Jews embraced Zionism.

Dorman and Rudavsky emphasis that present efforts toward a conflict resolution cannot undo the past 70 years of history. Whatever the mistakes and violations of the past, today’s political actors and activists have to contend with the world as it is and not as they think it should have been. This reality is best expressed by Palestinian Saman Khoury of the Peace and Democracy Forum, when he relates conversations among Palestinians during the first intifada and their plea to occupying Israeli soldiers to go “back home.” But what home? Poland or Tel Aviv? Khoury recounts that the Palestinians recognized it was no longer reasonable to tell Israelis to leave all of historic Palestine. Instead, the new approach—foreshadowing the two-state paradigm—called on soldiers to return to Tel Aviv. Khoury’s anecdote encapsulates Colliding Dreams’ concluding vision: Within the Palestinian appeal for Israeli soldiers to depart the West Bank and march “back home” lies an arrangement both sides can reasonably live with: an end to occupation and Palestinian recognition of Israel. Dorman and Rudavsky’s hope for a separate peace might not resolve all unsettled issues, but, as they envision it, offers Palestinians self-determination and puts Israel on the path toward normality.

(Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
(Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

Palestine Square recently spoke with Joseph Dorman on Colliding Dreams:

The documentary is about the “colliding dreams” of Zionism, but most of the perspectives heard are Israeli-Zionist center-left, two-state supporters. Not a single member of the current Israeli cabinet would fall in this category. Moreover, since the second intifada, the Israeli public has moved to the right. 

Actually, the film includes a number of people on the right of the Israeli political spectrum. Geula Cohen, who appears briefly, is a formidable old line Likud member to the right of [late Prime Minister Menachem] Begin. Israel Harel and Aryeh Eldad and Yoel Bin Nun are also very much on the right of the spectrum. So is Hillel Halkin and Yossi Klein Halevi, who are perhaps more center right than the former. We tried very hard to include as many perspectives as we could. We have been critiqued on the other side for not including members of Hamas or other more militant Palestinian voices. Within the scope of our film, we tried to find thoughtful, intelligent voices from different perspectives.

There have been Labor governments that saw higher rates of growth than their right-wing Likud counterparts. In the end, Labor or Likud, the settlements continue to grow and are authorized by every Israeli government. Is the Israeli left not as culpable as the right?

Gush Emunim settlers. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
Gush Emunim settlers. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

There is no question that settlement building has gone on under both Labor and Likud governments. Moreover, settlement building began under Labor governments, though in an extremely haphazard fashion. There were those, like Shimon Peres, during Rabin’s first cabinet [1974-77] who were in favor of settlement building and those who were against. The result was initially an incoherent policy with some cabinet members encouraging while others were resisting settlement building.

We specifically included Kfar Etzion to show that the first settlements were built under Labor. However, the point we wished to make in general and that we believe to be historically correct, is that after an initial excitement on the part of some member of the left for settlements, it was the Likud and its supporters who ultimately drove settlement building and decisively changed the government’s stance from one of incoherence to full-throated support.

While settlement building continued under Labor governments, its our understanding that much of this was most likely done for domestic political reasons and represented political calculation more than ideology. There was also a feeling at times, particularly in the ’70s, that settlement building was one way to respond to terror attacks. And some felt, in the past, that they provided a security buffer.

What is true, is that Labor long ago repudiated annexation of the West Bank. As I understand it, in any future agreement there will have to be land swaps so that some settlements can be part of Israel, but that a future Palestine will be accommodated with additional land from Israel. This is, in any case, the only workable arrangement that I can see.

I found an argument presented by many speakers to be highly debatable: Zionism was justified, but squanders its justification if it goes beyond what is necessary for a viable Jewish state. But who determines what is necessary? A common argument made by settlers is to accuse the “Tel Aviv-crowd” of hypocrisy and relate that the settlements are no different from what was done pre-1948. If it was justified in Jaffa and Haifa, why not Hebron and Nablus? 

View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

You are absolutely right that this point is highly debatable and, as I understand it, few Palestinians agree. [Professor of Philosophy at Al-Quds University] Said Zeedani told us that Palestinians believe they have a right to all the land, but what Palestinians have come to terms with is a political compromise; however, that in no way means a ceding of their moral right to all the land. On the other hand, the settler, Israel Harel, also believes this notion of a difference is highly debatable and used this argument in our film to justify annexation of the West Bank and a maximalist Jewish nationalism.

I believe that Jews have a right to the land in order to achieve self-determination. This is Zionism’s goal. I personally don’t believe this is hypocritical, because I believe the Jewish people were endangered and very much needed a state of their own. Zionism grew out of an urgent need and a right to self-determination, in my eyes. In the making of this state, there is no question that Palestinians were treated unfairly. I readily concede this. To me, the question is one of least damage under the circumstances.

On the other hand, annexing the West Bank is about maximalist nationalism. If the land is not absolutely needed and, moreover, another people lives there, it is not just to claim it.

Having said this, I don’t expect, per Said’s statement, a Palestinian to agree with me. If Jews and Palestinians wait for complete agreement to make a deal we will never reach one. We must find a way to coexist and respect one another.

The documentary presents the familiar narrative that the Jews accepted partition, but the Palestinians refused to compromise. But compromise implies concessions on both ends. What were the Zionists conceding? The Yishuv owned 1.7 million dunams, but the allotted state was 15 million dunams. Demographics equally favored Palestinians by 2:1, but the partition allotted 55% of the Mandate to the Jewish state and 40% to the overwhelming land owners and population (Jerusalem as a corpus separatum). Is it any wonder why the Palestinians opposed partition? 

In this section of the film, we tried to present both sides. Jews continue to believe they accepted compromise and the Palestinians did not. But we very pointedly include Said Zeedani presenting exactly the point of view you state above. Why, after all, if the Palestinians believed the land to be theirs and also claimed a majority on the land the U.N. allotted to Israel, should they compromise? Moreover, [Israeli novelist] A. B. Yehoshua, also makes the point that the deal was unfair to Palestinians and he completely understands why they rejected it. So I don’t agree that we tell only the old narrative. I believe we are careful to present conflicting narratives. And, while we support the creation of the State of Israel, we don’t expect a Palestinian to do so nor to believe that it was fair to them.

Israeli historian Anita Shapira states that the “evacuations” of Palestinians started after the Arab nations declared war following Israel’s May 14 declaration of independence. An interpretation, I believe, the documentary, as a whole, echoes. The Haganah, Irgun and Stern paramilitaries had already conquered Arab towns and villages, and many Palestinians were already refugees, prior to May 14.  The idea of “transfer” was long discussed by Zionist thinkers across the political spectrum from the early 20th century. David Ben-Gurion endorsed it in a 1936 letter to his son. The documentary makes no mention of Plan Dalet, either. Why not forcefully confront the past? 

(Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
(Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

This is perhaps the most difficult and tricky question to answer. We worked very hard on this section of the film and I feel quite strongly that we have presented one of the most nuanced views on this episode that has been portrayed on film. There are multiple perspectives on this history for Jews, not to mention the great differences between Palestinians and Jews.

On the explosion/evacuation issue, I believe what Anita Shapira is referring to is the “evacuation” of Palestinians from what would become Israel, rather than the expulsion from villages. There remained many internal displaced Palestinians inside Israel – men and women pushed from their villages, which in most cases had been destroyed. After the war, many were caught in a Kafkaesque legal limbo, known as “Present Absentee.” Said Zeedani was one of these people.

We felt it was more important to address the question of expulsion/evacuation outside the country. There is no question that it had been brought up and discussed among Ben Gurion and the leadership prior to the war. And they believed this would be for the good of a future Jewish state. And we are aware that there are those who believe Plan Dalet was a well orchestrated plan to remove Palestinians. We do not believe this to be the case. We believe that [Israeli sociologist] Yehouda Shenhav’s point that Generals Moshe Carmel and Yigal Allon treated the Palestinian populations they encountered totally differently refutes the idea of an overall coordinated plan.

Instead, we believe that contingencies of war, mutual animosity and the desire to have a Jewish majority all combined haphazardly to create the situation. Many civilians fled as well. Of course, Mossawa Director Jafar Farrah rightly points out that civilians have a right to flee a war zone. The greater point, as [Israeli historian] Benny Morris said, is that Israel didn’t let them back.

At the same time, we didn’t include a story regarding Jewish civilians who refused to flee. But, then again, those Jews in the country had no place to go. And many were committed Zionists. And this is not to mention the massacres that occurred on both sides and the fact that no Jews were left in Arab-held territory.

(Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
(Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

Finally, as we make clear, the idea of population transfer was a common one in that era and happened in Europe and the subcontinent between India and Pakistan. At the same time, the moral problem remains. But it does remain on both sides, I think, though Israel as the winner had more scope to expel.

Both peoples have a firm sense of victimhood and if the conflict is to be surmounted, both have to come to terms with their own actions as well those perpetrated by the other side.

Zionism was a state intended for European Jewry, but ended up being populated by North African and Middle Eastern Jews. Ashkenazi Jews , however, still dominate Israeli politics and culture. As Mizrahi Jews continue to redefine Israeli culture, what does this mean for the nation of Israel? 

In our film, we dealt with the idea of Zionism rather than the social issues of the State of Israel. We do briefly point out that Mizrahi Jews really only became part of the story post-48 following their expulsion from Arab countries. There is no question that there have been long standing questions about the place of Mizrahi Jews in Israel over the years, much as there are tensions within the Palestinian community between Christians and Muslims. But this is not within the purview of the film.

Today, Hasidic Jews are one-third of Israeli school children. What does the entail for the future of Israel and does it change the possibilities for a resolution with the Palestinians?

Orthodox Jews worshiping at a synagogue in Bnei Brak, Israel. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
Orthodox Jews worshiping at a synagogue in Bnei Brak, Israel. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

This is a complicated question and one outside our film. I think the question of Hasidic Jews is one that has potential repercussions for Israeli Jewish society as well as between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. There are internal issues, such as army service, etc. What I will say, however, is that many Hasidic Jews are very strongly anti-Zionist and do not accept the Jewish State.

The religious-nationalists currently dominate Israeli politics. A two-state solution is not inevitable. An apartheid state or even a third wave of Palestinian expulsions might emerge. Or things could get so bad for the Palestinians that they just might accept an “economic peace.” 

Unfortunately, I think you’re right that a two state solution is hardly inevitable at this point. And while I recognize the roadblocks presented by the religious nationalists, with whom I do not agree, I continue to believe that the fault lies very much on both sides. Since I firmly believe in a two state solution, I would personally prefer an Israeli government that wholeheartedly believed in trying to achieve one. You are correct that Netanyahu and his allies are very much in the driver’s seat these days. What will happen in the future, I simply don’t know, because I don’t know the nuances of internal Israeli politics well enough. I can only say that I fervently hope that both sides will ultimately find a way to achieve their national goals and coexist.

The documentary presents a contestable narrative around Rabin as peace-maker. Rabin never endorsed a Palestinian state and publicly sought no more than Palestinian autonomy. Rabin also supported the dilution of Oslo with Oslo II (September 1995), which fragmented the West Bank into areas “A”, “B”, and “C”. Did Rabin fail to design a framework that – even in his absence – would have propelled developments closer to a two-state vision?

Of course, none of us can predict what would have happened had Rabin not been assassinated. I believe that Oslo’s original intention was to set in motion what would eventually be a two state solution. And I think Rabin was very cautious in his actions and wanted proof of Palestinian intentions and not simply a signed agreement. And I think that Oslo failed because both sides failed on their promises, as we say in the film. I don’t believe that Arafat fully renounced terrorism, in fact, and its clear that Israel kept building settlements. Each side will claim that the other was the initiator. There is plenty of blame to go around. The only answer is a final two state solution that fulfills the needs of each side. I fervently wish that I will live to see it happen and often fear that it may never come to pass.

Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)
Independence Day celebrations in Tel Aviv. (Photo Source: Colliding Dreams)

There is one moment when Hebrew University instructor Gadi Taub relates that the thought of his father as an 8-year-old looking for refugee and finding nowhere to go is enough justification for Zionism. It’s certainly justification for a Jewish safe haven, but does not define the haven’s contours or it’s relationship toward the Palestinians. Looking back and forth, what type of state would you have preferred in 1947 and does that history shape your idea of a resolution today?

Exploring counterfactuals in history is always a tricky business. In this case let me explore three alternative solutions to what did occur. What Palestinians wanted was an independent state with the Palestinian majority that existed at the time, which would have been a Palestinian state. This state would not and could not accept unlimited Jewish refugees because it would have been national suicide for Palestinians. And yet this was a sine qua non for Zionists, particularly during and after the Holocaust when other states would not accept refugees.

Another solution, many have touted in retrospect as a fairer one, was a bi-national state. My belief is that a bi-national state was never possible for the simple reason that Palestinians did not want such a state. They believed, as I have said above, that they were justifiably entitled to a state on land they considered theirs. Those who pushed for bi-nationalism were Jewish groups. And I believe this was a utopian idea. How could bi-nationalism have been workable since unlimited immigration was fundamental to Jewish aims and suicidal for Palestinians?

The third outcome that might have transpired after the 1948-49 war was, in fact, a two state solution. However, the remaining Palestinian land not conquered by Israel was swallowed by Jordan and Egypt. Again, Palestinians could not have seen this as a truly equitable solution, but in retrospect, it would have given them autonomy. Palestinians were in a terrible bind at the time caught between between Israel and Arab states.

Colliding Dreams premieres in NYC and Los Angeles on 4 March and will expand to other cities on subsequent dates. More screening information (dates and location) is available on the film’s website