By William Deresiewicz
The movie The Debt (2010) depicts a trio of Mossad agents sent to 1960s East Berlin to kidnap a notorious Nazi doctor and bring him back to Israel for trial. (Spoiler alert: important plot information ahead.) We see the story twice. First as read in public, decades later, by one of the agents, Rachel, from the adoring book her daughter publishes based on the account the group had given after its mission. Then what really happened. In the first version, the target is killed trying to escape from the group’s hideout in Berlin on New Year’s Eve. In the second, he really does escape, and the agents (or Rachel and another one, at least), spend the next 30 years lying about it.
The Debt is a remake of an Israeli production of the same name, and American audiences aren’t likely to grasp what I take to be the movie’s deeper meaning. Nazi-hunting was one of the key symbolic activities of the State of Israel during its early years. (Eichmann was kidnapped in 1960, tried in 1961, and executed in 1962.) It gestured toward the state’s very raison d’être, that Jews would never be safe without a homeland of their own, as well as toward the drama of its founding, the phoenix rising from the ashes of the crematoria. It was in miniature what the state was on a grand scale: an emblem of redemption, a righting of the moral balance. Nazi-hunters joined the pantheon of Zionist heroes—the pioneers of the early settlement, the freedom fighters of the War of Independence, the paratroopers of the Sinai campaign, the pilots of the Six-Day War—all of them symbols of the new Jewish strength, living refutations of the centuries of victimhood that culminated in the Holocaust.
It is on tales of those heroes, their moral purity and superhuman competence, that subsequent generations of Israelis (and American Zionists, like me) were raised. Assaf Bernstein, who made the original film, was born in 1970, just a few years after Rachel’s daughter, with her hagiographic book. Wait a minute, says The Debt, maybe our parents were lying to us. Maybe they weren’t the paragons they pretended to be. Maybe history is up for grabs.
That’s where Nazi-hunting becomes a proxy for larger issues. It is no accident, I believe, that the movie reaches its crux during the first hours of 1967, that most heroic of dates in the Zionist chronicle. The Six Day War meant unimaginable military glory, but it was also the start of all of Israel’s current woes—and crimes. I am still a Zionist. I still believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But the history of its dealings with the Palestinians, both before the occupation and after, has been rife with lies of many kinds—including the kinds you tell yourself, and the kinds you tell your children. The title of The Debt refers to the obligation that Israel felt to avenge the victims of the Holocaust, as well as, more immediately, to the responsibility that Rachel and her fellow agents feel to make good their original failure and, in her case, their original lie. But beyond these debts lie other ones, and those have yet to be repaid.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won't Teach You, which will be published next year, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.
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