‘Lincoln’ is an argument for equality in Israel and Palestine

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I saw Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” last night, with screenplay by Tony Kushner, and saw it through an Israel/Palestine lens. I feel justified in this by Lincoln’s last delivered dialogue in the film, when he says to his wife in a carriage that he wants to travel to the Holy Land and– after a considerable pause– “Jerusalem.”

The theme of the film (which is pretty good) is that it was worth the deaths of hundreds of thousands including Lincoln himself to make a global example of democracy as a progressive social arrangement. And the conflict in the film is between the expedient, who favor the tolerance of slavery in the name of peace, and the idealists who insist that a peace must include slavery’s abolition. The idealist faction is led by Lincoln, and they win with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in January 1865, followed by the south’s surrender.

The film’s premise is best, and most mockingly, expressed by the scenes in Congress involving conservative Democratic congressmen who oppose the passage of the 13th Amendment. Among their arguments for tolerating slavery are:

–Abolition will affirm a human equality between black and white that does not exist;

–It will lead to blacks voting and to intermarriage;

–It will lead to women being allowed to vote;

Even as these arguments are advanced earnestly, the viewer is of course against them. We know better. We are on the right side of history, thanks to Lincoln and his friends– and Susan B. Anthony too, and Barack Obama…

The arguments that cut some ice in the film have to do with the consciousness of the South. Yes, slavery is wrong, says one congressman, but an entire region is behind it out of the belief that blacks are inferior. The South won’t know what to do with itself if slavery is abolished. Abolition will destroy its way of life and its economy, its spirit.

In one of the best scenes of the film, Lincoln says softly to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens that slavery is done and you will just have to adjust your way of life, you don’t know what positive fields of engagement this will open up to you (paraphrasing, New Agedly).

All these arguments have their parallel in the Israel/Palestine conflict, as Tony Kushner (who co-edited a landmark book on Jews overcoming Zionism) knows. Israelis and their American friends are utterly indifferent to Palestinian human rights… They are as backward in these beliefs as the American South was… History is about to leave them by the side of the road, in the growing global affirmation of the principle that all people are created equal, including Arabs. 

But then there is the consciousness of Jewish Israelis. They believe that they should have the land, they believe that they need a Jewish state with a government dominated by Jews. Supported by American Jewish organizations, they will never abandon these beliefs. Spielberg and Kushner want us to take Lincoln’s ideas to Jerusalem, and explain that their way of life is premised on inequality, and Israelis must let go of it, without forcing a massive bloodletting.

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