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TV series on quiet heroes captures Israel's mood

By Nicole GaouetteStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2003


Later, she would compare the sound to the viper-like hiss of a whip, just before it cracks. There wasn't even time to wonder what it was. One second Malka Abramson was in her living room, trying to air out choking fumes from a faulty gas heater. Then the hiss and eruption: angry balls of flame jumping like lightning, dancing up her housecoat, licking the ceiling, clawing their way to the rooms where her children and grandmother slept.

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Mrs. Abramson braved the inferno twice to carry her kids out to neighbors in the street. When a soldier in the crowd refused to rescue her Nana, she plunged in a third time.

Abramson survived - barely - and now her story is part of a hit Israeli TV series. "Heroes, But Not by Choice," features ordinary people who have done extraordinary things in face of the unexpected.

The program's success provides a barometer of the national mood, highlighting the kind of behavior Israelis expect of themselves at a time of great uncertainty. Israelis have always celebrated a certain kind of steely grit, a response to life in a country forged in violence that, a half-century later, still continues.

In its emphasis on civilian heroism - over the military equivalent - the show also reflects the profound economic and social changes Israel has undergone in the last few decades.

"This program shows that there's been a shift in the notion of valor," says Robert Wistrich, professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"The definition is much less collective, less about ideology or self-sacrifice for the state and more individual. It's part of a larger shift in a society that resembles the West more than it used to."

Unhappy the land that needs heroes, wrote the playwright Bertolt Brecht. He could have been thinking about Israel. While heroic myths are essential threads in every country's national fabric, Israel's stories aren't dusted off and brought out for special occasions. They are regularly burnished, told, and retold.

Core legends preceded Israel's existence and gave hope to Zionists aspiring to a state. The story of Masada in AD 70 and Bar Kokhba in AD 135 both outline Jewish battles against the Romans. Joseph Trumpeldor's 1920 defense of a small northern settlement against Bedouins had an enormous influence on the Zionist movement.

"You can't build a nation without heroism, especially a besieged state like Israel," says Joseph Heller, also a Hebrew University historian.

"Heroism is part and parcel of the country's basic national education system." He notes that some Israeli Army brigades take the oath to serve their country at Masada, the mountaintop fortress where militant Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman forces.

"Self-sacrifice is always central in these stories," says Professor Heller. "Militarism without myth is meaningless."

Newer legends joined the pantheon, including the daring 1976 raid by Israeli commandos to free hostages at Uganda's Entebbe Airport. Then in 1989, journalist Yarin Kimor contributed to the genre with the original TV series "Heroes, But Not By Choice," which was about the military.

"The concept was that the story starts when it's seemingly over," says Mr. Kimor, a large, engaging man. "It's about how people find the inner strength to fight a seemingly hopeless battle."

The series garnered 95 percent ratings - some 3 million viewers - and won a prize for best program of the year. Israel was a simpler place then. Television was relatively new and there was only one state-owned channel. The country was a poor place that for decades had been absorbing huge numbers of immigrants with nothing to their name.