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ON THE FRONT LINE

G.I. Jews

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You don't need much of an imagination to understand the trauma that the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, triggered in his precarious nation, which has been at war, sometimes against four or five nations at once, since its creation in 1948.

But Chanoch Zeevi's documentary On the Front Line brings to light something we in the West might not understand: Rabin's murder, committed by Zionists who opposed his conciliatory policies with Arafat, vividly brought home the reality that simply calling something a "Jewish state" doesn't mean that everyone agrees on the definition of either of those words.

So in response to Rabin's death, Israel created a program that allows 18-year-olds to spend a year doing public service before entering the military (required for men, permitted for women). The kids in the program come from the Left and the Right, from religious homes and secular ones, from cities and settlements, uniting with the hope that these one-to-one connections can help salve their differences of ideology and faith

This concept seems almost too schmaltzy to work, and while On the Front Line is propaganda just as you'd expect, with a subtly pro-settlement slant, it's kinder, gentler propaganda in service to a worthy cause. Its young people are naturally quite bright and well-informed -- one can hardly afford not to be in a society under siege -- and it has plenty of applause lines when someone learns to understand the Other, like when a nonreligious lad says of his new religious friend, "I thought only ignorant fools believed in God."

The jury's still out on that one, but it's the sentiment that counts. On the Front Line is an interesting look at life behind the headlines in Israel, and the kids we follow arrive at their place of learning just as another Intifada begins, so they have to reassure their parents on the phone that they're safe inside from the gunfire on TV. They take classes, play guitar and Ping-Pong, fight poverty (yes, poverty) and street gangs, debate politics and religion. The Leftists tend to talk about democracy, the Rightists about staying put in the settlements. Says one liberal boy, with an endearingly sage innocence, "If there were a simple and just solution, they would have done it long ago."

On the Front Line begins with our future heroes packing their bags and leaving home. One Libyan-born recruit with a shaved head (so you know he's not religious) packs a book on Sephardic Jews that he's reading, then he hugs his mother, who cries. It's a moment not unlike check-in day for any American college freshman (my mom waited until she and my dad drove away to cry), except that when I left home at 18, it was to find a place in the world, and when an Israeli does it, it's to go to war. So we don't exactly know why this boy's mother is crying, although it doesn't take much imagination to guess. In Hebrew, with subtitles. * * *

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