by Peter Wong on August 1, 2013

Esther Hertog’s documentary “Soldier On The Roof” may not share the catchy songs or wry humor of “Fiddler On The Roof.” Yet the situation chronicled in Hertog’s film shares the famed musical’s sense of a life precariously lived among hostile neighbors.

Hebron is a city sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians. In this city of 120,000 Palestinians, a few hundred Jewish settlers have established an enclave at the site of Abraham’s Tomb. Hostility from neighboring Palestinians is kept at bay by the presence of an Israeli Defense Force (hereafter IDF) unit providing 24-hour protection. Hertog’s film is a portrait of daily life in this Jewish settler community as well as a look at the relations among the settlers, the IDF soldiers, and the Palestinians.

“Soldier On The Roof” is the product of Hertog’s spending three years living in a trailer among the settlers. The director tries to keep her footage as candid and judgment-free as possible so viewers can reach their own conclusions regarding a situation that has ignited volatile passions on several sides.

If only the footage of the religious rituals and such daily chores as cooking are considered, the Jewish settlers could be considered ordinary religious practitioners. Their honoring of the soldiers who protect them probably comforts these IDF members performing an often thankless job.

But any sympathies developed for the settlers soon dissipate. The Torah’s description of Hebron as an ancient Jewish homeland creates in the settlers seen onscreen an automatic sense of present day entitlement to the entire city’s land. Open displays of racism range from a boy pitching rocks at his Arab neighbors to a woman who sees nothing wrong with relocating Hebron’s Palestinian residents to neighboring countries which have plenty of Arabs. Maximum creepiness is found, though, in the sight of a father and his two daughters treating the soldiers’ breaking up a Palestinian anti-settler demonstration as entertainment.

The IDF soldiers become vaguely sympathetic thanks to the awkwardness of the settlers’ declaration that Israelis have never evicted Israelis. Yet it’s also clear the current situation is still highly untenable.


The small measuring stick of current events may suggest Iran and Israel have always been fierce antagonists. Certainly Israel’s threats to unilaterally bomb Iran’s nuclear reactors are far from a kumbaya moment. Yet Dan Shadur’s occasionally touching documentary “Before The Revolution” captures a relatively short Golden Age in Iran-Israel relations.

Realpolitik rather than belief in the Brotherhood of Man sparked this Iran-Israel alliance. Israel needed allies in the Middle East, especially after defeating seven Arab nations’ armies in the course of the Six-Day War. Iran’s then ruler Shah Reza Pahlavi both admired Israel’s military skill and shared his countrymen’s hatred of Arabs. The groundwork was thus laid for mutual prosperity, as Iran sold oil to Israel and Israel exported technical know-how and investments.
Avi and Nili Shadur, the filmmaker’s parents, were just two of the young people who prospered from working and living in Iran. Super 8 films from the period captures life in Iran, including the amazingly lavish parties the Israeli expatriates attended. Interviews with other former expatriates such as family friends and an ex-Mossad security guard provide a rounded picture of life in the northern half of Tehran.

Their prosperous life made the Israeli expatriates blind to or unconcerned about the grinding poverty and vicious repression by the security service SAVAK that was the norm in other parts of Iran. When the Iranian revolution came, both the Israeli expatriates and the Iranian military leadership made doomed efforts to retain some foothold in the wake of the new regime.

Shadur diplomatically avoids pointing out the ignorance of various Western-allied interests regarding the Iranian revolution’s consequences. President Jimmy Carter, for example, thought Ayatollah Khomeini wouldn’t cause trouble for the U.S. since he wasn’t a Communist.
Two sour legacies remain from the end of Iran-Israel relations. America took on a greater role as Israel’s protector. Iran’s military forces became stronger thanks to Israel’s importation of military equipment. It’s doubtful Iran-Israel tensions will ease any time soon.


Friction with Iran may not have been mentioned in Yotam Feldman’s somewhat chilling documentary “The Lab.” But it’s certain a major Israeli industry would greatly benefit from an IDF attack on Iran.
That industry, arms manufacturing, has made Israel the world’s fourth largest arms exporter. Actively supported by that country’s defense ministry, arms manufacturers such as Cornershot rifle inventor Lt. Col. (Ret.) Amos Golan can tout the quality of their products because it’s been field-tested by the IDF.

Feldman unfortunately skimps on providing a satisfactory road map showing viewers how Israel got from winning the Six Day War to developing a lucrative arms industry. The viewer must theorize that the Jewish state tired of having its economy put on hold by yet another armed conflict, so it decided to turn armed conflict into an economic engine.

“The Lab”’s best moments come from its interviews from former IDF men who’ve profited from exploiting their know-how. Grandfatherly Leo Glaser charms a viewer even as there’s suspicion some of his sales to Brazil may have been used to put down Rio de Janeiro’s recent World Cup protests. By contrast, Gen. (Ret.) Yitzhak Ben Israel creates a chill as he describes his equation for determining acceptable levels of death in major IDF operations such as Cast Lead.

An absence of acerbity or even a stronger sense of confrontation neuters “The Lab”’s effectiveness. Seeing a roomful of arms dealers singing along to John Lennon’s “Imagine” comes off as bargain basement irony.

(“Soldier On The Roof” screens at 4:00 PM on August 3, 2013 while “The Lab” screens at 6:30 PM on August 5, 2013. Both screenings take place at the California Theatre (2113 Kittredge Street, Berkeley). “Before The Revolution” screens at 1:45 PM on August 10, 2013 at the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Avenue, Oakland). For further information about these films and advance tickets, go to www.sfjff.org .)

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