TV review: Valley of the Tears
Effective, but flawed, depiction of war and class divisions
Amnon Cohen, North London Socialist Party
Valley of the Tears is an Israeli TV series which is set in the first days of the war between the Israeli state and a coalition of Arab states, principally Egypt and Syria, in October 1973.
It follows Avinoam, a geeky intelligence analyst, Meni, an improbable TV star trying to rescue his son, and Melachi, an activist in the Israeli Black Panthers who breaks out of prison in order to join his unit in the Golan Heights (the border area separating Israel and Syria, mostly occupied by the Israeli Defence Force since the 1967 war).
The Israeli Black Panthers was a protest movement of North African Jewish Israelis, inspired by the American Black Panthers, who described themselves as socialists and fought against the racist discrimination suffered by Mizrahim (immigrants of North African origin) and against their status as second-class citizens.
The opening episode of the series describes the arrogance of the military and political commanders who ignored all the evidence of Syrian war preparations, leaving the Israeli army unprepared.
This initially led to military humiliation for the supposedly invincible Israeli army before a counter-offensive resulted in a military stalemate. The 1973 war caused a profound crisis in Israeli society, discrediting the Israeli Labour Party which had, up to then, been the 'party of permanent government'.
The class divide between the working-class Mizrahim foot soldiers and the middle-class Ashkenazi Kibbutz members - who formed the elite in Israeli society and the commanders in the army - is a recurring theme, as is the continual discrimination against Mizrahim from the Israeli state.
When the foot soldiers are isolated and outnumbered, the HQ commanders, who claim they could not help them, suddenly find a way to send a rescue party when they are told that a downed Israeli pilot is with them.
The series does portray some Israeli military atrocities, the racism (against Mizrahim) of the Israeli state, and the bureaucratic incompetence of the elites. But it does not escape the genre of Israeli wartime propaganda. Every single shell fired by the Israeli soldiers destroys an enemy tank. In every skirmish, an outnumbered Israeli unit defeats its enemies.
At one point, an Israeli general walks into a field hospital full of mortally wounded soldiers screaming with pain. The general gives a rousing speech, after which the soldiers somehow pull themselves out of their stretchers, climb into tanks and drive off to heroically vanquish their foes!
The Syrians are a hidden enemy. There are only Syrian characters with brief speaking parts, and no real attempt at character development.
The series does show the degree to which the Israeli state was at war with Mizrahim working-class Jews, who were fighting for their rights. But it ends with nationalist clichés about the army being a melting pot where all elements of society are brought together, and tells Israeli viewers that despite their differences, at the end of the day their national unity is what matters.
Unlike previous Israeli TV series such as Fauda, there is no real questioning of the aims of the Israeli war machine, and no real attempt to paint the Arab 'enemy' as real human beings, to identify them or to explain what motivates them.
But despite these faults, the series is entertaining. It does effectively depict the horror of war, and provides a window into the ethnic and class divisions of Israeli society.
- Valley of Tears is currently being shown on Channel4
In The Socialist 1 December 2021: