'Colliding Dreams" is a documentary about the history of Israel, but it will possibly have more utility to non-Jews and other audiences seeking greater context in an era of inflamed opinions and raging polemics. Directed from the center-left with an ear to parties on both sides of the West Bank separation barrier, it's knowledgeable and unhysterical, openhearted without seeming naïve. Those on the extremes will probably hate it.
Written and directed by Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky, the film goes way back to the roots of the Zionist dream of a homeland for Europe's detested and abused Jewish population. Horrific archival photographs of 19th century pogroms are a reminder of the spur, but "Colliding Dreams" cannily links Zionism to other strains of nationalism that were rising from the ashes of the old empires.
The difference was the Jews didn't have an actual nation to go to, a quandary that Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann put squarely on the political table. At the Sixth Zionist Conference in 1902, the King of England offered Uganda as a homeland to Herzl; dissenters insisted on the Holy Land or nothing. Already a split between secular and religious Zionism was apparent.
The movie scampers lucidly through a century-plus of history, opting for breadth over depth but consistently noting the factions rising and falling as the dream of Israel came nearer and then became an actuality. "Colliding Dreams" is as attentive to the Palestinians who lived there as to the Jews who were settling in larger numbers even before the Holocaust emptied out Europe. The talking heads include historians, activists, politicians, professors, and average Israelis and Palestinians interviewed in cafes. All of them wrestle with the puzzle of a Jewish homeland that an Arab people already called home. One commenter references an old saying that leaving Europe for Israel was "like escaping a burning building by jumping out a window — and landing on someone's head."
Once nationhood is achieved, the filmmakers guide us through the 1948 War for Independence up to the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel retook the Temple Mount and, in the director's view, mainstreamed a messianic wing of religious Zionism that redirected the country's path for the worse. Where young Jews before the founding of the state had burned with secular fervor, they now settled in the West Bank and Gaza as a way to bring an entire nation back to God.
"Colliding Dreams" implicitly sees this development as the tragedy of modern Israel and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated in 1995 following the second Oslo peace accords, as the nation's fallen martyr. That's more or less where the chronology stops: The movie scants the rise of the PLO in the 1970s. It nods to the ascendance of Hamas in the 1990s, but it's more interested in taking intelligent, heartfelt testimony from both Israelis and Palestinians who continue to hope to find a way back to a two-state solution.
There is a lot of quietly agonized soul-searching here, from Palestinians acknowledging the country as a shared homeland to the Israeli writer who remembers, as a soldier during the First Intifada, "the moment when I become a guilty Israeli. When I felt that the price that we would have to pay for maintaining our legitimate historical claim to Judea and Samaria was becoming intolerable."
The movie is an attempt to cut through an intractable situation with humanism and clarity, and, in its final moments, the filmmakers depart from patriotic orthodoxy to question Zionism itself. "All national myths are fictions," insists Yuli Tamir, a former minister of education. "For Jews, for Arabs, for Christians." The final word goes to the America-born Israeli writer Hillel Halkin, a voice of sanity throughout the film: "If Zionism fails, then as far as I'm concerned, we have failed . . . If we blow this opportunity, we don't deserve to go on."
"Colliding Dreams" tells the story of an idea that became reality 70 years ago — and still no one can agree on what it means.
Written and directed by Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky. At Coolidge Corner. 134 minutes. Unrated (bloody historical footage).