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April 12, 2013

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PAGE 2A HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, APRIL 12, 2013 By Tom Tugend LOS ANGELES (JTA)-- Some 65 years after a band of foreign volunteers took to the skies to ensure Israel's birth and survival, filmmakers are racing to bring their exploits to the screen before the last of the breed passes away. Among the competing producers and their financial backers are such famous names as Spielberg and Lan- sky. And though their budgets fall well short of Hollywood blockbuster standards, their competitive spirits are just as intense. Nancy Spielberg, the young- est of Steven Spielberg's three sisters, is the producer of "Above and Beyond: The Cre- ation of the Israeli Air Force." Her main challenger is Mike Flint with his "Angels in the Sky: The Birth of Israel." His father, Mitchell, battled the Japanese in the skies of World War II before joining Israel's fa- mous 101st Squadron in 1948. Spielberg, who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., and Flint, of Los Angeles, are facing competition from Boaz Dvir of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who has been working on "A Wing and a Prayer" since 2007. The three films focus on the overseas pilots who made By Sean Savage Ben, an Israel Defense Forces reservist, recalls when his unit took up a position to sleep inside a beat-up old Volkswagen van outside a Palestinian village. Hearing a knock on their van's door, and preparing for the worst, the soldiers jumped up with their guns ready--only to discover it was a"little old Palestinian grandma." Telling personal stories such as that one, which Ben recently recounted at Boston University (BU), helps put a human face on Israeli soldiers who are often condemned by anti-Israeli activists as "war criminals" or worse, Ben believes. "The most important thing for me is putting a face on ev- ery solider, I think it's impor- tant for people to understand that Israeli soldiers aren't super soldiers, they aren't Spartans or what you see in the movies." Ben tells JNS. org. "We are just regular kids, but due to the circumstances Israel faces, we have to join the army in order to protect our country from existential threats." Ben's talk at BU was part of a unique program from the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs called Israeli Soldiers Stories. Now in its fifth year, the program attempts to bring a fresh perspective to the IDF by sending 12 Israeli solders on a speaking tour of campuses, schools and community cen- ters in dozens of cities across the U.S. "I am a core believer in that if we can change one kid's perspective then we have been successful," Ben says. "If I can open up one apathetic student, then personally In telling sl:(00ry of fledgling Israeli Air Force, three filmmakers going their own ways up 90 percent of the fledgling Israeli Air Force in the first desperate months after Israel declared its independence in May 1948. The pilots came mainly from English-speaking countries; nearly all of them were veterans of World War II. In Israel, they were officially members of Machat, the He- brew acronym for "volunteers from outside the land." Of the four Spielberg sib- lings, Nancy is the most con- nected to Israel, having spent a year working on a religious kibbutz. About 10 years ago, the Hollywood grapevine had it that Steven Spielberg was planning a feature film on the genesis of the Israeli Air Force. So when Nancy started to become serious about her own project, she alerted her Academy Award-winning brother. "I didn't want to step on my big brother's toes," she said. But Steven encouraged his sister to go ahead, contributed a modest amount toward her $1.3 million budget and noted that if her documentary was well received, it might inspire a feature film down the road. Spielberg's film, which she aims to complete in 2015, is aimed at a North American audience and highlights the stories of American and Cana- dian fliers. She speaks of them with obvious awe. "These men are heroes and the stories of their exploits are incredible," Spielberg said. "It is an honor to talk to them and to show others what they did." Mike Flint is similarly ebullient. An enthusiastic promoter, he hardly pauses for breath--or for anything else--when describing his documentary. "I've been preparing for this film all my life, ever since I heard my dad talk about his experiences as a fighter pilot," Flint said. Flint, the former head of the story department at Paramount Pictures, pegs his budget for the documentary at about $4 million, or three times larger than Spielberg's. He says he has two-thirds of the amount pledged or in hand. By far the largest backer of the film, and its executive producer, is Mark Lansky, who is also producing a film about his uncle, Meyer Lansky, best remembered as the "accoun- tant" of the Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel organized crime empires. That film, "The Devil Himself," will focus on his uncle's role in breaking up pro-Nazi rallies in New York, aiding the U.S. war effort by keeping dockworker unions in line, and clandestinely sup- plying an emerging Israel with money and weapons. The film is based on the book "The Devil Himself" by Eric Dezenhall and others. Mark Lansky, a self-de- scribed retired businessman and financial adviser, would not give specific dollar fig- ures, but said he and a small group of fellow investors are covering the bulk of the Flint film's budget. The motive, he stressed, is his conviction that "those who support Israel are blessed." Dvir in making"AWing and a Prayer" has the advantage of hands-on experience in the genre--he teaches docu- mentary filmmaking at the University of Florida--and the handicap of a very modest budget of $189,000, mostly his own money. The Israel native has in- terviewed 20 pilots, co-pilots and radio operators, as well as family members of those who died during and since the 1948 war. Like Flint, Dvir has a per- sonal link to his film, which he hopes to release to television and through DVD sales by the end of this year. "My father told me that as a little boy in Tel Aviv, he stood on the balcony of his Tel Aviv apartment while an Egyptian Spitfire was bombing the city," Dvir said. "Then my father looked up and saw a plane piloted by one of the Machal volunteers blast the Spitfire out of the sky. These men saved the city.., but for them, I would not be here today." Though it's not unusual in filmmaking for similarly themed projects to go public at about the same time, the nearly simultaneous arrival of these three films raises some questions. For one, some 4,000 volunteers from 58 countries fought in Israel's War of Independence, the overwhelming number in the infantry, artillery and other ground forces. Two low-key documentaries about their expioitswere released lastyear. But the lion's share of film and media attention has been on the dashing flyboys--to the intense annoyance of the land- based grunts who always saw the beribboned airmen walk off with the prettiest girls. The producers of the forth- coming films counter that the airmen lend themselves to more dramatic treatment and that telling the story of thou- sands of foot soldiers would diffuse the focus of their films. On the question of why they didn't pool their resources and talents and produce one major production, the filmmakers say several attempts to do so 'Putting a face on every soldier' A flyer for the StandWithUs "Israeli Soldiers Stories" program. StandWithUs Ben, an IDF reservist who is part of the Stand- WithUs "Israeli Soldiers Stories" program. StandWit bUs Jossi, an IDF reservist who is part of the Stand- WithUs "Israeli Soldiers Stories" program. people come, who have been to Israel, and share something positive and personal about their experience?" Jossi says. For Ben and Jossi, the most effective tool on their speaking tour was recalling their army experience and of- fering students an unfiltered perspective about Israel and the threats it faces. "It is important for people to understand the kind of day to day weights and measures we have to deal with in the army. When you're confront- ed with moral dilemmas, how do you balance the ethics of the IDFwith keeping yourself I feel like I have achieved something." "However, I do think there needs to be larger campaign for pro-Israel students to be informed and to know how to counter such [negative] claims about Israel," he says. "I also think they need to be taught on how to answer." But Jossi, another sol- dier who participates in the program, tells that he feels students shouldn't always need to worry about countering their anti-Israel counterparts. "Why should they always be countering? Why can't safe?" Jossi rhetorically asks. The soldiers said that to their dismay the speaking tour confirmed the general apathy, ignorance, and latent anti-Israel hostility they had heard existed on American campuses. "I sort of had a precon- ceived notion [about cam- puses being bad here for Israel]; I was sort of secretly hoping was wrong. But after traveling here, what I was told about American campuses in Israel is mostly true. There is a large amount of apathy in the student body and anti- Israel feelings that come from misinformation or no real knowledge of the situation," Ben says. At one event at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., a group of students from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), an anti-Israel organization with chapters throughout the U.S., showed up to protest the event. "They stood up a few min- utes into Ben's story, took off their jackets to expose their black shirts with pa- pers that read a Palestinian child's name, death, and 'SILENCED.' They walked out a few minutes later. Both Ben and Jossi asked them to stay and ask questions during the Q&A, but they silently all continued to walk out," StandWithUs New England Campus Coordinator Lihi Benisty tells Jossi criticized the stu- dents, who apparently be- longed to an SJP chapter from nearby Hampshire College, for their closed-mindedness. "If you're at a time at university when intellectual curiosity is supposed to be at its peak and your eager to come listen to a group of people from a different coun- try where you don't live and foundered on such Hollywood cliches as "creative differ- ences" and on conflicting egos. Dvir said he attempted to make common cause with the two other producers, while Flint said he tried several times to enlist Spielberg's coopera- tion. Flint also charged that Spielberg had "lured away" some of the pilots slated to be interviewed in his production. Spielberg denied the claim and observed that filmmaking is above all a collaborative effort. A joint enterprise with Flint, she said, "wouldn't be the right fit." Such squabbles aside, the volunteers who served in the ground forces generally agree that the war was won by the Israelis themselves, who bore the overwhelming brunt of ca- sualties in dead and wounded. Moreover, few would question that the story of the Machal volunteers on the ground, in the air and on the seas is worth telling, if only to redeem in some small measure the inac- tion of Diaspora communities during the Holocaust. With the vagaries of film- making and shuttered projects endemic to the trade, the hope is that one of the projects, or even all three, will stay the course and preserve a brave chapter in Israel's history for this and future generations. IDF IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (far left) with a reserve division that held a joint-training drill at the Tzalim base, involving forces from the Israel Air Force, Armored Corps, Paratroopers Brigade and Artillery Corps. don't have experiences in. And then you decide the best way to learn from them is to make sure they know you are not listening to them, seems to be a futile and self-defeating exercise," Jossi says. Nevertheless, the tour had its positive moments for the soldiers. "I spoke to a Muslim girl from Yemen. She asked me ifI thought the rest of the Middle East would be able to accept Israel. l said historically it seems unlikely, however I still remain hopeful. I then asked her the same question and asked if Yemen would ever be able to accept us and after breaking out into a smile she said 'no,'" Ben says. "However, from the talk, I think she came to understand that not all Israeli soldiers are how she was taught grow- ing up m Yemen. That was really a highlight for me on my tour, you could really see that she came to understand that there is something much deeper than what her country had been telling her about Israelis," he says. For many pro-Israel stu- dents, overcoming apathy and generating interest in Israel is the main problem, not debating the conflict with anti-Israel activists. "Not every studentwants to get into these types of 'cam- pus wars.' A lot of people who support Israel support the country for positive reasons," Jossi says. For these students, shar- ing their personal Israel experiences or highlight- ing the positives of Israeli society, such as its diversity and its high-tech industry, can be effective. Groups like StandWithUs, meanwhile, provide the tools, resources. and programs such as Israeli Soldiers Stories that can help students develop their own positive personal narratives about Israel. But for those students on the campuses with active anti-Israel groups like SJP, it is challenging to work up the courage to overcome anti- Israel hostility. . "I am hoping for-a future where people everywhere will let others talk about Israel more openly, however there is still this open hostility to Israel on campus, we have also often heard of hostility from the faculty, which is the most disheartening thing to hear. The biggest thing is getting involved and getting support from other groups," Jossi says.