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In Focus: This year’s Boston Israeli Film Festival looks at war and peace

Menachem Begin in Egypt, visiting Khufu's Pyramid, in 1979.
Menachem Begin in Egypt, visiting Khufu's Pyramid, in 1979.Moshe Milner

Now in its third year, the Boston Israeli Film Festival (available virtually March 4-10) has consistently presented films that both offer insight into that country’s history, politics, people, and culture and illuminate themes and issues that are universal. This year is no exception, featuring one documentary that examines how those in power can shape the lives of ordinary people and another that shows how ordinary people can organize and take their lives back.

The subject of Levi Zeni’s “Menachem Begin: Peace and War” was first known best as a wager of war than a maker of peace. In the 1940s he led the paramilitary group Irgun in its mission to drive the British out of Palestine and establish a Jewish state. Its campaign included such terrorist acts as the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem, killing 91 people.

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After Israel won independence, in 1948, Begin and his right-wing party would run for election eight times. The ninth time he won, and he became Israel’s sixth prime minister, in 1977, ending three decades of dominance by the liberal, secular Labor Party. Those on the right celebrated; those on the left dreaded what the future might hold with a leader whom David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, described as “an enemy of democracy” and “a typical Hitlerist.”

So they were surprised a year later when Begin would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, Israel’s most powerful Arab adversary. The two leaders had agreed to the terms of the Camp David Accords, establishing peace between the two countries.

However, in 1982 Begin would again take up the ways of war, invading Lebanon to eliminate Palestine Liberation Organization terrorists who had been attacking civilians in northern Israel. Though intended as a 48-hour incursion, the operation dragged on. Anti-Begin demonstrations erupted into violence, leaving one participant dead from a hand grenade tossed by a right-wing Begin supporter. Heartbroken and demoralized, Begin resigned in 1983.

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An engaging, thoughtful, and skillfully edited combination of archival material, interviews with historians, journalists, and Begin associates, plus excerpts read from Begin’s letters and his 1979 memoir, “White Nights,” the film presents a portrait of a complex and troubled leader and demonstrates how one man can change history and the unintended consequences that result.

From "Four Mothers."
From "Four Mothers."Boston Israeli Film Festival

Among those affected by the policies of Menachem Begin are the title subjects of Repheal Levin and Dana Keidar Levin’s “Four Mothers.”

Miri Selas’s Koskas’s son Oren was 2 months old when Sadat arrived in Israel to initiate the talks with Begin that would eventually result in the Camp David Accords. She rejoiced because she believed that there would now be peace and she would not have to worry that her son would have to die in a war. But by the time Oren grew up the Israelis were still in Lebanon, maintaining an 8-mile-wide security zone between its citizens and the enemy. Israeli casualties steadily mounted, there was no end in sight, but serving in the Israeli Defense Forces was obligatory. Besides, Oren was gung-ho to serve his country. Signing up for an elite unit, he was posted in Lebanon.

Koskas was dismayed but accepted the inevitable, as did the three other mothers in the title, until two army helicopters en route to the war zone collided, killing 73 soldiers. An op-ed in a kibbutz newspaper demanded to know how Israeli mothers could allow their children to be needlessly sacrificed in a futile war. It spurred the mothers to action, and they organized a movement. Though many decried their activism as unpatriotic and bad for morale, and even their own sons disagreed with them, they persisted.

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In part because of their efforts, Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, but not before many lives had been lost. Among them was the son of one of the four mothers who had resolved that no more sons should die.

Go to www.bostonjfilm.org/boston-israeli-film-festival.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.