On Saturday night my wife and I went to see the new movie ‘Defiance.’ The movie is about the Bielski Partisans, a group of Jews who lived in the woods from 1942-1945 while running from and fighting against the Nazis. Natalie had been looking forward to this event for a long time, as her father’s family were Partisans (not in the Bielski brigade), and the movie thus brought to life many of the stories of her grandparents.
As I tried to figure out my own reaction to the movie, a few things came to mind. First of all, it’s a very well-done film. As Natalie described it, “It’s a Holocaust movie, but it’s an action Holocaust movie.” There is definitely some Hollywood license-taking (the actors are too good-looking, their teeth are too perfect, and the big scene at the end is entirely predictable). But that’s what you have to do to sell tickets. Most people seem to agree that the events as portrayed are pretty accurate. And the long stretches of Russian and Ukranian spoken by the actors are very impressive-sounding. (Though some of them had a hard time correctly pronouncing the name Chaya.)
It was impossible watching this movie not to think about the current situation in Israel. I was taken back to one of the most moving experiences of my life, the swearing in ceremony for a group of new IDF officers. As they marched in formation to the sounds of a military band, I couldn’t help but think, “How would the world have been different if these guys had been around 60 years ago?” Well, the movie shows you that some people did in fact fight back. And it certainly evokes a strong sense that has been captured in the saying evidently being used in Israel to describe the just-concluded war on Hamas: “Ba’al habayit hishtagea,” “The homeowner has gone nuts.” In plain English we would summarize this sentiment as “Don’t mess with us.” Watching the Bielski brothers, one has a strong urge to give them an ‘amen.’
Yet it goes deeper than that. The central moral drama of the film takes place between Tuvia, the older brother played by Daniel Craig, and Zusia, played by Liev Schreiber. I’m not spoiling anything with this: At the beginning of the film, the Bielski parents are killed pogrom-style by the local police. Upon learning the perp’s identity, Tuvia sneaks into his house and kills him along with two henchmen at point-blank range. When he returns, Zusia asks him, “How was it, killing them?” And Tuvia, clearly shaken, tells him to shut up.
This sets up the tension between the brothers that will endure throughout the movie: Tuvia wants to limit the use of force and focus on saving and preserving life; Zusia wants to fight back and blow up Nazi tanks and soldiers. As a result of his reluctance to employ violence–both against the Nazis and against unruly troops in his own unit–Tuvia is continually challenged and forced to run. His brother’s indictment rings out: “You are not willing to do what must be done.”
I have brought it up time and again, but it bears repeating: This tension, of not wanting to be killed and also not wanting to kill others, is a fundamental Jewish tension, borne out most poetically in Rashi’s comment on Jacob’s encounter with Esau. I’m not huge on Jewish particularism, but I know of no other tradition in which this dilemma receives as much weight and force as my own. Tuvia is right of course; one cannot allow oneself to be an animal just because one is hunted as an animal. But Zusia is also right: there is a time for war and a time for peace, and wartime morality is different from that of peacetime. As the Talmud would say: Teiku, there is no answer.
I am particularly interested in how my friends from pacifist traditions will respond to this movie. What is the right thing to do when one is under merciless attack?