history on screen

Valley of Tears Is Historical Fiction for Today’s Grim Reality

Aviv Alush as Yoav Mazuz and Shahar Tavoch as Avinoam Shapira in Valley of Tears. Photo: VERED ADIR / HBO MAX

For a little more than six years, there was a widespread belief in Israel that the country had found something resembling peace. A brief, preemptive, deliriously successful war in 1967 resulted in a massive expansion of the territory controlled by the Israeli military and, so the thinking went, a significantly improved range of options for self-defense. The armies of neighboring Arab nations, hostile toward Israel’s presence in the Holy Land since the country was founded in 1948, had been humiliatingly defeated. A free-floating notion in Israeli culture and politics took hold, one that came to be known, simply, as the conceptzia — the conception. It held that Israel had become strong and daring enough that its foes would never beat it, perhaps not even try to do so. It was a self-image born of lethal force. And it was a self-image that died of it.

Valley of Tears, a new television series that premiered in Israel a few weeks ago and launches in the U.S. on HBO Max today, begins in the conceptzia’s final moments of life. We are dropped into 1973 and shown a montage of triumphant archival footage: streaking jet planes and lumbering tanks propelling themselves forward at celebrations of Israel’s 25th birthday, glistening Israelis building homes in the cities and growing grapes in the orchards, winsome pop singer Ilanit belting out her country’s debut entry in the Eurovision Song Contest, and so on. Contemporaneous news footage shows the smiles of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, defense minister Moshe Dayan, and military chief of staff David Elazar as they assure the public that all is well. “We’ll fight the battle,” the stubborn Meir says in her Yiddish-inflected Hebrew, “and win again.”

But entropy is typically the true winner after moments of foolish pride. The show offers up a half hour of scene-setting in which Israeli Jewish characters of many stripes — religious, secular, old, young, soldier, civilian, white, nonwhite — prepare for and enter the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are technically on guard, but understaffed and distracted due to the holiday. So when Egyptian and Syrian forces launch a surprise attack, everyone’s on their back foot. Chaos ensues. The conceptzia is shattered beyond repair, never to fully return.

As it turned out historically, Israel regained the upper hand and technically won the conflict in just a little over two weeks. But it was a Pyrrhic victory: There were somewhere around 10,000 Israeli casualties, making up roughly .27 percent of the country’s population (for comparison, that percentage in the U.S. today would add up to more than a quarter million people). As such, it’s hard to overstate the war’s impact on the country. “The first air-raid siren meant the first Israel had died and a second Israel was born,” says Valley of Tears’s co-creator, writer Ron Leshem. “Everything changed at one point in 1973. It was a different country. And when it ended, it was the most awful trauma.”

He pauses for a beat, then adds, “An unnecessary trauma.”

History has a nasty habit of rhyming in the most tragic way, and such a rhyme has been glaringly obvious in the timing of the series’ release. A different kind of self-conception had emerged in Israel during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it appeared that the populace was handling the disease relatively well, thanks to the technological superiority, can-do mass mobilization, and sense of collective purpose that they have prided themselves on. However, recent weeks have brought a devastating second wave of infections and subsequent massive protests that are bringing the government and the governed to their knees. Valley of Tears, filmed before the disease emerged on the world stage, has inadvertently been launched against the backdrop of a new fatal failure of leadership, giving the series an unsettling significance for Israelis — and, its creators hope, a similar one for Americans.

The show — which took its two co-creators, Leshem and writing partner Amit Cohen, a decade to make into a reality — is a daring gambit insofar as it depicts one of Israel’s psychological third rails. The 1973 war, known to Jews as the Yom Kippur War and to Arabs as the October War or Ramadan War (to add to its tragic significance, it also took place during the Muslim holy month), was a defining moment in the history of the Jewish state and, indeed, the entire Middle East. But Israel’s filmmakers have produced precious little work about it. A well-regarded, impressionistic meditation on the war, Amos Gitai’s Kippur, was released in 2000, and that’s about it. “For us, in a way, it’s our Vietnam War, but nobody’s making movies on it,” says Valley of Tears director Yaron Zilberman. “It shows you that it’s very hard for people to touch the story.”

Given all that, the team of creators feel they have a higher threshold of quality to reach in order to justify touching the topic. “We wanted Israelis to ask themselves at the end of the show, did they become better?” says Leshem. “Did events change us for the better? Are we better people after this war? I don’t know. Everyone will judge.” As with all the best historical fiction, it’s only partially about history at all, Leshem thinks: “We really wanted it to, through the story of 1973, talk about us in the present,” he says.

And what of the audience in the U.S.? The show is making a play for such viewers in a rare way for an Israeli TV series, in that it’s a big-budget project released here at almost exactly the same time as it is there. It’s just the latest step in a growing market for Israeli TV in America, exemplified by adaptations such as Homeland and Euphoria (the Israeli version of which was created by Leshem, in fact) and direct exports like Fauda and Our Boys. The Valley of Tears creative team have their theories about how the Israeli Wave came to be: Co-creator Cohen says the shows have dynamite core premises because Israeli TV budgets are so low that you can’t shine up a turd with fancy bells and whistles; Leshem thinks it has to do with intense international hustling on the part of Israeli creators, who know the Israeli market is too small to offer much of a payoff.

Whatever the case, the show is a major opportunity to reach Americans who know little to nothing about the 1973 war. Its creators want to use their platform to play with universal themes of war, trauma, and national upheaval without being didactic. They also want to delicately pull at the knotted moral quandaries of the bloodshed between the Jewish state and the Arabs that live both within and near it. If they play their cards right, they hope, Americans will gain a new perspective on that clash. “We don’t want to say, ‘Okay, this is a history lesson,’” says Cohen. “I really hope that [Americans] will watch it the same way as Gomorrah or Babylon Berlin. You look at a period in time, you look at a different society that you didn’t know about, and you learn about it — not in the way of who’s right or who’s wrong or to push them toward a specific direction in the Israeli-Arab conflict.”

“We really wanted it to, through the story of 1973, talk about us in the present,” says Valley of Tears co-creator Ron Leshem. Photo: VERED ADIR / HBO MAX

It’s a tough balance to strike, and one that — at least in the episodes released to media pre-premiere — relies greatly on a single scene in the fourth episode where a Jew and an Arab abruptly find themselves conversing. Without spoiling the scene, which is indelible and surprising, suffice it to say it feels like nothing else in the show — for better and for worse. For the vast majority of the series, Arabs are spoken of and depicted as little more than killing machines with unexplored motivations. The action takes place almost entirely in the Golan Heights, a region to the northeast of Israel proper, to which the country had no prior claim other than having taken it from Syria in the 1967 war. (Leshem says, if there are future seasons, they’ll be set during the same war but in other geographic locations.) One can make a pretty compelling argument for Syrian revanchism, but Valley of Tears doesn’t seem interested in exploring it.

If the show marginalizes Arabs from neighboring countries, it entirely ignores the Palestinian Arabs who live under Jewish rule. That means no airtime for Palestinians in the territories Israel has militarily occupied in defiance of international law since 1967 who undergo daily human-rights abuses and lack all political self-determination; nor for the Palestinian citizens of Israel proper, who account for roughly 21 percent of Israel’s population and are regarded with racist disdain by much of the country’s people, leadership, and legal system.

As such, few, if any, Palestinians are interested in watching a show that valorizes the bravery of Jewish soldiers. “They don’t want to contribute to it financially or put themselves through the mental anguish of watching it,” says Palestinian Israeli commentator Amjad Iraqi, who is an editor at the left-leaning online magazine +972. “These Israeli shows are coming from very particular places that don’t accurately reflect realities on the ground. They don’t interpret the conflict in a way that centers the biggest victims of the entire place.” The boom in Israeli television exports is, for Palestinians, a bust, says Iraqi: As he puts it, “To see these shows being praised and getting this massive attention and seeing [Jewish] Israeli voices be super-amplified to the international community and international watchers, it’s a really difficult thing to see.”

Be that as it may, the show does tackle another form of prejudice, which is discrimination against Sephardim, Jews whose proximate origins lie in the Middle East and North Africa. Often darker-skinned and occupying lower economic strata, such Jews were (and, to a great extent, still are) greatly abused in Israel by the light-skinned Ashkenazim, Jews from Europe. A trio of major characters in the ensemble are Sephardim, all of them involved in a controversial radical group that was ascendant in the ’70s and called itself HaPanterim HaShkhorim, which literally translates to “the Black Panthers” — a very deliberate homage to the Black American faction of the same name. These Sephardic characters find themselves caught between their dueling instincts to defend their country and to burn it down.

“Dealing with the Black Panthers was a way to show how the war changed Israel,” says Cohen. And that change was not necessarily for the better, in the creators’ eyes. Without getting too far into the weeds of identity politics in Israel, it’s fair to say the abuse that the Sephardim suffered in the country’s first three decades of existence, when left-leaning Ashkenazi politicians regarded them as a political nonentity, led to a deep-seated resentment that rightist Ashkenazim figured out how to harness in the late ’70s to major political effect. Today, in a situation that looks off-kilter to an American but makes all the sense in the world to an Israeli, nonwhite Jews tend to vote for the right wing, even today. If the Sephardim had been embraced by the likes of Golda Meir, perhaps the history of the country would have been very different. But in reality, the prejudice held by her and her ilk was just another form of fateful hubris, one which inadvertently helped create the phase-two Israel the show aims to ask such wrenching questions about.

So, what is that second Israel that the war birthed? In the eyes of Valley of Tears’s creators, it is one in which the population became so disillusioned with the architects and leaders of the country that they gave up on pursuing national unity. “The Yom Kippur War fractured the Israeli society,” says Cohen. “It symbolized the shift from a unified society, a society that feels it’s more important than the individual, to a different society, where the individual is almost sacred. You call it being selfish, perhaps, but it’s about looking at yourself first and not your country.” There is still an Israeli national idea that everyone is in it together, in no small part due to the constant threat of horrific conflict. But, listening to the show’s creators, one wonders whether the 1973 war and its aftermath turned that unifying idea into little more than a myth.

And now, just as the show airs, perhaps a third Israel is being born, thanks to the novel coronavirus. What that Israel will look like is in the hands of every Israeli. Valley of Tears challenges its viewers to see themselves through its relentless focus on how individuals react to a cataclysm. No person or nation survives a war unchanged, and that’s all the more true when the war’s origins lie in the idiocy of one conceptzia or another. Now, for the first time in history, Americans and Israelis are fighting the same enemy: the plague that is ravaging our planet. Both countries’ societies simply weren’t ready for this war, and it remains to be seen what will be built upon the ruins. Will there be greater equality and cohesion? Or will the cynicism and division generate something even more awful than what we see today?

Leshem isn’t sure, but he hopes against hope that people in Israel and the U.S. at least ask themselves that question as they watch the show. “It’s not a historical piece,” he says. “This is something that is relevant for now. And even for next year.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of the Israeli casualties in relation to population. It has been updated.

Valley of Tears Is Historical Fiction for Today’s Reality