History is full of a few objective facts, and a plethora of impressions and opinions. The former tells the undisputed truth of what happened, the latter is the insight into how those things happened. And one persons truth in that sense is not necessarily that of another. Subjective, personal, and colored with the baggage of the teller, oral histories may not have the objectivity prized by academics, but they are an indispensable tool for understanding cause and effect, and, most importantly, what it was like to live in another time and another place. This is why Richard Tranks expertly crafted documentary, THE PRIME MINISTERS: THE PIONEERS is required viewing. No matter what your political opinion about the Middle East, without understanding how we got to where we are is an indispensable component of determining where we are going next.
The first-person account is by Ambassador Yehuda Avner, and based on his book. A native of England, he was brought up in pre-war Britain on stories of the utopian paradise that Palestine represented for the Jewish People. Given a scholarship to study there on the eve of Israeli statehood, he left behind family and country for the adventure of a lifetime. He got more than he bargained for, going from soldier to high government official, he was an eye-witness to the founding Israel from the perspective of its first prime ministers. His fluency in English became his entrée into government and politics, and as he recounts the Yiddishisms of Israels first Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, the high stakes and bitter confrontations take on a humanity and an urgent immediacy. Listening to Avner speak, annotated with voice-overs by Leonard Nimoy as Eshkol, Michael Douglas as Yitzhak Rabin, and Sandra Bullock as Golda Meir, accomplishes that most clichéd of phrases, it brings history to life in ways that the vintage photographs and footage could not have done.
The larger framework is nicely covered, including the crises, the wars, the negotiations, some successful, some not as this small country fought to exist surrounded by hostile countries bent on driving its people into the sea. Yet, it is the tiny details that illuminate so much. Eshkol explaining to a common soldier why taxes are so high. Avner on his first diplomatic mission to the United States finds himself in Harry Trumans parlor in the retired presidents home in Independence, MO. Avner is there to thank Truman for his support of his fledgling state, and to urge him to continue it, but as he stands by the parlors piano, on which stands the sheet music for the Missouri Waltz, he is surprised by Truman confiding to him that he, a native of the state, never cared for that piece of music. Truman was obviously a man with a mind of his own, and the sense to pick and choose with whom he shares certain information.
The broad picture of Israels history during the terms of these Prime Ministers is elucidated with the clarity of the personal. Eshkol, a product of kibbutzim, and Lyndon Johnson, polar opposites in almost every respect, bonding in a cow shed on Johnsons Texas ranch. Later Eshkol, after winning the Six-Day Way sighing over the mess that victory had brought his government, a revelation tempered with the excitement of Israeli citizens, as a result of that victory, being once again allowed to visit the Wailing Wall on Jerusalems Temple Mount.
Avner is an endlessly engrossing and amiable host. The excitement of the pioneer who first came to Palestine is still evident in the aged face, and comes through clearly when seen in conjunction with photos of his younger self. There is also in the way he talks the sense that these events, fifty years or more in the past, are as fresh and clear for him as they day they happened. They are also as emotional. The digression into the life history of Golda Meir, from Minnesota housewife to Prime Minister, at least in the way Avner tells it, is anything but a digression. It is a symbol of the end of the Jewish Diasporia. For him, the simple declarative sentences she used to state her case for the existence of Israel, obviously ring as true for him as they did for Mrs. Meir. When asked how a meeting with the Austrian Prime Minister who had, against Meirs wishes, negotiated with Arab terrorists over a safe house for Russian Jews in transit to Israel, Meir replied He didnt even offer me a glass of water. Summing it up in that fashion made the particulars of their conversation superfluous exposition. Facts and figures can only convey so much, after all. Avner in every word he speaks in this film follows Meirs example of what to say and how to say it.
While Avner is full of respect and admiration for Eshkol, Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, who contradictions embody for Avner the difference between the native-born Sabras and the emigrants who flowed into Israel after the Holocaust, his view of Menachim Begin is far more tempered. Including what he considers Begins shameful hounding out of office of Golda Meir after the Yom Kippur war shows Avner as anything but an apologist for Israels government. It also whets our appetite for more from him about the subsequent governments in Tel Aviv.
As for Avners memories of that war, no footage, no news report could possibly vie with how it was announced from the podium of Avners temple on the holiest of Jewish holidays that soldiers should immediately mobilize. The shock of that moment is still visceral.
The most poignant, uplifting, and symbolic moment for me in THE PRIME MINISTERS: THE PIONEERS, is Avners recollection of being out of radio contact with the world as he and a few comrades hunkered down on the battlefield waiting for the U.N. to declare Israeli statehood. The man who brought the news was Gustave Mahlers nephew, and he was so excited that the declaration had been made, so impatient to spread the news, that he had not waited to find out what the new state would be called. Yehuda? Sion? Israel. Avner remembers them finally deciding that it didnt matter the name, only the entity, as a beacon of hope and a place that would insure a future where Jews were no longer refugees, but citizens of their own country.