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Why Israelis pick Tarantino over Spielberg

Latent shame over the Jews' failure to stand up to the Nazis is cited as a reason for the success of "Inglourious Basterds."

Director Quentin Tarantino gestures during a news conference ahead of the screening of his new film "Inglourious Basterds" in Tel Aviv, Sept. 15, 2009. (Gil Cohen Magen/Reuters)

JERUSALEM, Israel — Quentin Tarantino’s "Inglourious Basterds" is the definitive Israeli movie.

The bloodthirsty revenge fantasy of Jewish soldiers crushing German skulls with baseball bats and scalping dying Nazis has been a big hit here since its release in mid-September and, unusually, has been reviewed in every big newspaper or magazine. But that’s not just because Israelis, like audiences elsewhere in the world, seem to enjoy seeing Hitler’s henchmen meet grisly pulp fiction ends.

There’s something deeper at work in Israelis’ responses. It’s tied to the way their country has dealt with the very concept of the Holocaust. More particularly, the way Jews died in the Holocaust.

The response of critics has been almost uniformly positive. One of Israel’s most respected and thoughtful critics, Uri Klein, wrote in the leading newspaper Ha'aretz that "what Tarantino does in 'Inglourious Basterds' seems to me more valid and more decent than what Spielberg did in 'Schindler's List.'"

Instead of trying to recreate the horror that was the Holocaust as Spielberg did, Klein wrote, Tarantino simply made up an alternative reality, dealing with Jews and the Nazis on his own terms. That, in fact, is what Israel did, too.

In that context, the most revealing review was by Avner Shavit in Achbar Ha’Ir, a Tel Aviv weekly. “The truth is that [Tarantino] is on our side. … Like a typical Yankee who has been raised on stories about Ari Ben-Canaan, Moshe Dayan and other Mossad agents, he describes the Jew as the only one capable of kicking the bad guy's ass for humanity's sake.”

In other words, Shavit believes Tarantino’s portrayal of Jewish fighters during World War II is determined by the image created of Israel since then. Ari Ben-Canaan was the hero of Leon Uris’ “Exodus,” which is set during Israel’s founding struggle. Moshe Dayan was Israel’s army chief and the country’s Defense Minister during the victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Mossad agents crop up in almost every popular thriller with inside information and a magical ability to rub out the bad guy.

But what appeals to Israelis about Tarantino’s portrayal of these fantastical Jewish avengers is that they bear little relation to the great bulk of Jews who died in Hitler’s camps without making any attempt to resist.

That gets at the heart of the issue, because the Israeli establishment is, in many ways, still ashamed that so many Jews went to their deaths without a fight. The implication is that Israel created a new breed of Jews who’d have stood up to the Nazis, rather than being herded onto cattle cars.