How a film about homosexuals in the IDF improves Israel’s image”Five minutes into Yossi & Jagger, two Israeli soldiers out on patrol are kissing and cuddling in a snowy field somewhere near the Lebanon border.” So begins a Village Voice review of the acclaimed Israeli movie now being screened in one of Manhattan’s top art-house cinemas, the Film Forum. The review then goes on to ask: “Is there snow in Israel? Are there queers in the Israeli Defense Force? ‘Is this a rape, sir?’ riffs the cuter of the two, nicknamed Jagger for his pop-star looks.”

The answers to those questions are yes, yes and no. There is snow in Israel, certainly on the Mount Hermon ridge straddling the Syrian border, which is where the movie is set. There are homosexuals in the IDF, both open and closeted; my own artillery reserve unit, for example, included an openly gay soldier, who incidentally was also one tough customer. And no, there is no rape in Yossi & Jagger, which chronicles the consensual affair between the two army officers named in the title, both still in the closet, but with the latter pressing the former to break away from the societal restraints that keep them from openly declaring their love for each other.

Yossi & Jagger has won critical raves both here and internationally, rightly so in my opinion. It’s almost a back-handed compliment to describe it as one of the best Israeli films ever. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better film anywhere on the subject of gays in the military, or for that matter, one so successful at depicting everyday life in an IDF combat unit.

Yossi & Jagger beautifully captures the mix of boredom, fear, camaraderie and underlying tensions in any front-line unit. Its greatest achievement, though, is in depicting Israeli soldiers as flesh-and-blood human beings, rather than just stick-figure representations of various political attitudes.

Interviewed by the Voice, the film’s director Eytan Fox commented, “Israelis are very aware of how ambivalent the world is about us. There’s this big campaign saying, ‘When you are abroad every one of you is an ambassador.’ But I don’t want to be a fig leaf for Israeli policies. This is an anti-war film.”

I suspect the American-born, media-savvy and openly gay Fox is being a little disingenuous here in telling the left-wing Voice what he probably thinks it wants to hear. In fact, by setting his film on the Syrian border rather than the West Bank or Gaza, he cannily avoids having to address the debate over the territories, or depicting the soldiers in conflict with a civilian Palestinian population. In fact, the Arab enemy is never seen or directly encountered, which is often the case on the northern border.

For the most part, the soldiers in Yossi & Jagger are depicted as a likable, sensitive and sympathetic bunch. The exception is the inclusion of one somewhat caricatured overly-macho colonel, but even this doesn’t qualify the film as an overall critique of the IDF.

In fact, the most effective and dedicated officer in the film is the title character Yossi, superbly played by Ohad Knoller, who is determined to pursue a career in the IDF despite his sexuality. Although the movie’s ending does imply that Yossi has, perhaps, learned to be more accepting of his lover Jagger’s more up-front attitude about sexual identity, it doesn’t suggest that this epiphany means he is also ready to abandon his military ambitions. Hopefully, there just might well be room in the IDF for an exemplary officer who is also a gay gentleman.

Thus I think more effective than any explicit anti-war theme in Yossi & Jagger is a powerful implicit message in its accurate portrayal of Israeli society even in the despised IDF! as far more varied, tolerant and advanced than that of its enemies, or the one-sided negative image of the Jewish State painted by its numerous critics abroad.

Village Voice writer Richard Goldstein clearly picked up on this aspect of the film by noting, “It’s [Israel] one of the world’s more macho societies, and the rules of queer theory dictate that in such a setting intense homophobia (accompanied by furtive homo trysts) ought to be the norm. But this formula doesn’t consider the association between gay culture and the West. The same perception that drives Islam to reject its own homoerotic tradition also pushes Israel to be the region’s most gay-friendly state. Homosexuality is a marker of the boundary between fundamentalism and secular modernity and not just in Israel.”

In other words, Israel with all its faults is still a beacon of enlightened Western attitudes in a region dominated by reactionary Islamic societies. Those are the kindest words I’ve read about Israel in the Village Voice in years and something one would expect more from the nonconservative publications that have long served as this nation’s prime apologists in America.

So Fox’s objections notwithstanding, Yossi & Jagger turns out to be a terrific “ambassador” for Israel, not by preaching to the converted, but by fashioning a meaningful entertainment of special interest to those political/cultural sectors traditionally most hostile to the Zionist endeavor. And not because it is “anti-war,” or raises the banner for gay rights, but simply because it paints a humane portrait of IDF soldiers struggling to maintain their humanity in the most inhuman of circumstances.

(Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post)