President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been on a collision course since the start of their political careers. It is essential to know exactly how the two men developed their worldviews and why their fractious relationship is so crucial to the future of the Middle East—and the world. The Daily Beast Video caught up with director Jacob Septimus to find out what inspired him to direct a documentary based on Peter Beinart’s controversial book, The Crisis of Zionism.
To date, most of your career has been directing and producing commercials, music videos, and other cool stuff. What motivated you to direct a documentary about the future of Israel?
I’ve been doing cool for a long time. I wanted to balance cool with something more analytical. I’ve always been passionate about Israel and the issues it faces. I consider myself a Zionist and am comfortable with all that implies. When The Daily Beast offered me the opportunity to direct for the Doc Incubator, I figured I’d follow one on Skrillex with one on The Crisis of Zionism.
You’ve directed videos for Rage Against the Machine and Mos Def. How do you think they’d respond to this documentary?
I’d hope it wouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction like “Zionism is evil.” Mos and I have had lots of political conversations in our time. I respect his outlook even when he says things I disagree with. Zack [of Rage] and I never really got deep on the Palestinian issue. I think there’s a tendency among some in the artistic class to demonize Israel, which is unfortunate, as the issue is much more complex than right and wrong. I hope that artists who choose not to play in Israel, like Elvis Costello last summer, are not condemning the whole country, but articulating a specific critique, while artists like Radiohead or Madonna that do play there are not necessarily condoning the actions of every Israeli government, but rather expressing solidarity with a nation that has a very complicated set of problems.
Peter’s book, The Crisis of Zionism, kicked off a firestorm of criticism by calling for, among other things, a boycott of all products made by Israeli settlers in the West Bank. But your Doc Incubator piece is focused on the intellectual history of Netanyahu and Obama. Why did you choose this approach?
Well, partially because I don’t agree with divestiture at all. I agree with most of Peter’s reporting and analysis, but the idea of divesting from Israel or even the West Bank seems disproportionate when you consider some of the incredible human-rights abuses taking place around the world, in countries we have no qualms doing business with. I agree with Peter’s premise that American Jews should make their position known and put pressure on Israeli governments to make peace. But I think American Jews on the whole are not pro-divestiture.
There was a “boycott Israel” movement at my local co-op in Park Slope, one of the most left-leaning Jewish communities in the world, and they couldn’t even get the requisite votes to bring the issue to referendum.
So I don’t think a boycott is acceptable at all to the American Jewish mainstream. I also think it’s counterproductive, as it reinforces the Israeli right’s narrative that everyone is out to get Israel. As a guy who has negotiated with many Israeli cab drivers, I can tell you threats don’t work with that crowd. That, and I found the Bibi-Obama story far more dramatic.
As a director, are you in total agreement with your subject, with Peter Beinart?
For the most part in his analysis; less so in his recommendations. I very much agree with Peter that the Bibi-Obama fight is a debate over competing versions of Zionism. I think Obama is very pro-Israel; it bugs me when I hear Jews talk about him like he’s an anti-Semite. I also think Bibi’s position is sincere; he is doing what he thinks he should do to protect his people in a hostile neighborhood. I also found it interesting how vehemently people have reacted to Peter’s book, calling him all sorts of names, accusing him of treason, nitpicking over little factual errors, rarely arguing with him on the merits. I think Peter is right in pointing to a generational shift between Jews of an older generation who see the world through the prism of the Holocaust and “never again,” and those of a younger generation who do not relate to the fears of the older generation and see the issue as one of social justice. I find myself in the middle, generationally and philosophically. I don’t think the fears are at all overblown when we still have nations speaking openly of annihilating the state of Israel. At the same time, I think fear clouds clear thinking and is often used cynically toward a political aim.
How did you come up with the title?
I called it Frenemies: A Love Story, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s title of a similar name, because I do think these two men are growing to love each other. Certainly, in Netanyahu’s case, he has gotten a lot of love back home for sticking up to the president. For Obama, he may still find reasons to love Netanyahu in the future. Like a friend of mine likes to point out, “In Israel it is the left that talks peace and makes war and the right that talks war and makes peace.” There is more to this love story than what has transpired so far. I think they’re still courting each other. It’s still like Twilight: New Moon. They haven’t even gotten in bed yet.
Newsweek and The Daily Beast gave you the seed money to get the project off the ground. How do you plan to expand this into a feature documentary?
I see the story becoming more of a “Bizarre Love Triangle” with the entrance of Mitt Romney. Mitt and Bibi go way back to Boston Consulting. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out over the course of the election, who will get to marry Bibi.
Who do you want to see the film?
Mos and Zack.
Who do you think actually will see the film?
Park Slope co-op members.