Over the past two decades there has been a flurry of films on the Holocaust. Most of these films present hope in the face of the Nazi evil through portraying the heroism of righteous gentiles whose compassion for the suffering of others is greater than their fear of the Nazis. In these men and women, the virtue of empathy and common humanity triumphs over racial prejudice. While such films promote the idea of building a better world through depicting strengthened relations between Jews and gentiles, one element is conspicuously absent from these films: courageous Jewish heroes.
The movie Defiance, directed by Edward Zwick and based on the book written by Nechama Tec, emerges as one of the first Hollywood movies to suggest that the problem facing modern Jews is a lack of courage. (While this may sound as if it is simply a plea for the necessity of Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state, the film manages to show the importance of courage without foreshadowing into the future or making Zionism a necessary message of it.) Defiance is about two brothers, Tuvia and Zus Bielski, who transform an eclectic group of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in a Polish forest into a militia that not only fights for its survival but also challenges the Nazi forces that seek to destroy them. But while the uniqueness of this movie is its attempt to display and perhaps even revive Jewish courage, the depth of the film derives from the way it depicts the moral complexities inherent in being courageous.
One of the first difficulties that the film's heroes must confront is the necessity for leaders to overcome popular opinion. True leadership requires making tough choices despite the unpopularity of such decisions. Tuvia and Zus Bielski embody that code. Although the idea of transforming a group of weak and pious Jews into an army seemed insurmountable to many of those around them, the Bielskis were able to succeed because of their stubborn commitment to their ideals. For example, Tuvia was compelled to face the mutiny of a group of soldiers who wanted more food than the women and children because they risked their own lives while others did not. Tuvia argued that all members of the camp contributed in different ways and hence deserved equal portions for the overall well being of the group. Enforcing this policy though required the strength and confidence in one's decision to squelch the rebellion. In this regard, Tuvia is justly portrayed as a modern Moses, struggling with the complaints of the people for food, challenges to his authority by rebellious factions and even having to lead the people across a Polish version of the Red Sea. Tuvia also overcomes the jealous rumors that he is a tyrant who snatches any woman that he desires. Ignoring these rumors required many evenings of solitary existence.
The movie also deals with the morality of warfare, though refuses to transform the Jews into "idealists" or "realists". It finely portrays the timeless question of when it is justified to kill innocent enemy civilians for one's own survival. As Aristotle explains in the Nicomachean Ethics (Book 5) justice can mean different things depending on the time and place. It can mean at times distributive justice, where one divides the goods of the society fairly among all its members, while at other times it can mean doing what is right for the common good. The movie attempts to bring out this tension. It begins with the premise of justified revenge as Tuvia breaks into the house of the killer of his parents and shoots the whole family at the dinner table. The scene leaves the viewer divided between feelings of horrific shock and a sense of justified revenge. But Tuvia himself realizes the inherent danger of this course of action and not wanting to sink to the level of the Nazis attempts to only steal food from local farmers without killing them. But this proves hazardous as well since the milk man they spared ends up being the very one who reports the location of the Jewish forest hideout to the Nazis. This leads to a near disaster and the Jews barely escape alive. Thus, being too moral almost leads to their deaths.
The film also does not boil down the problem of courage to a pure impulse of spiritedness. Wisdom plays an important role in both guiding courage and raising it to a new height. This is similar to how Plato describes the education of the guardians in the Republic, showing that uncontrolled courage can degrade into viciousness and hence there is a necessity for wisdom to control and elevate courage. The representatives of wisdom in the movie are the rabbi and the socialist journalist, an unlikely pair which in ordinary circumstances would not be allies. The rabbi attempts to place a moral limit on toughness, while also endowing the fight with a higher meaning. The socialist uses Marxist theory to organize the camp and creates a structured society, assigning everyone a role. The differences of these two compliment each other as a society cannot live on courage alone, but must have an organizational structure and a higher purpose. But perhaps the greatest wisdom derives from Tuvia himself, the leader who inspired hope in the fight. His climactic speech is inspiring and gives new meaning to Jewish existence, almost echoing Emil Fackenheim's 614th commandment. The purpose of Jewish existence, he says, is no longer piety alone, but merely living and existing ("the revenge is to live"). Since the Nazis purpose was to eradicate the Jewish people, the Jews are defeating the Nazis each and every moment they stay alive.
While Defiance bestows almost a religious meaning to the fight for survival, it does not reduce religion to this alone and in fact challenges the problem of theodicy: how a benevolent God can allow good people to suffer and evil to be victorious. At the beginning of the film, it appeared as though the soldiers would fight and the rabbis and pious men and women would simply sit on the side. This would seem to suggest that one must renounce religion in order to survive. But the film ends with a message more reminiscent of the well-known Protestant ethic as articulated by Max Weber, “God helps those who help themselves.” In other words, fighting for oneself is not in contradiction to God's will, but can be seen as part of God's will. In the movie, everyone who was able was trained to fight, including the women and children who were taught to be soldiers and go on missions. The rabbi's line at the end before he dies is his realization of this new form of religion, when he says that God sent you Tuvia to redeem us. Although this may seem to indicate a kind of messianic attribution, it is unlikely that this is what is meant by it. In fact the significance of the rabbi's statement lies in the very fact that a religious leader gives divine sanction to human leadership. Without a doubt, this is the paradoxical tension that is at the very core of the film.
On a practical level, the enclave established by the Bielski brothers can perhaps be seen as a microcosm of the independent Jewish state that would soon be established. In many ways, the moral and political challenges faced by the Bielskis are not that different from those faced by the political leaders of Israel today. Indeed, the vision and subtle understanding displayed by Tuvia Bielski could serve as an example to Israeli leaders who are still struggling to come to terms with how to best justify the need for Israeli courage on the world's stage.