This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum in association with The New York Times.
Amos Gitai was a young architecture student in Israel when the country came under surprise attack from Syria and Egypt on Yom Kippur in 1973. An army reservist, he reported for duty and was assigned to a helicopter mission rescuing the wounded.
It was a deed that completely changed his life. Seven days later, on his 23rd birthday, a helicopter carrying Mr. Gitai was hit by a missile; the pilot was decapitated before his eyes. Mr. Gitai was injured and suffered psychological trauma that has been with him ever since.
Fifty years on, the filmmaker and artist said he has a new fear: the fate of Israel and its democracy because of a law passed in July by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The law, which limits the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to exercise judicial oversight over the government, has drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in huge protests week after week.
Mr. Gitai, already a fierce critic of Mr. Netanyahu, was one of the Israelis enraged by the new law, which he and many others saw as a giant step toward autocracy.
“This is highly dangerous and disturbing: It’s not a minor event,” said Mr. Gitai, 72, in a recent telephone interview. He described the situation in Israel — the only parliamentary democracy in the Middle East — as an “existential crisis” as acute as the one the country faced when it was militarily attacked five decades ago.
He said Mr. Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges, was “smashing the last instrument which can sanction the executive branch,” and that he was out to “destroy the entire structure of a country” — all to avoid imprisonment himself.
Mr. Gitai will be a panelist at the Athens Democracy Forum this week created in association with The New York Times. He also is marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War with an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art: videos and photographs that he took during and after the war, and drawings of the helicopter episode that he produced shortly after the tragedy but only made public this year.
“I was born and almost killed on the same day, and roughly at the same hour,” Mr. Gitai said. That had always made him reluctant to celebrate his birthday. But not this year. The graveness of the situation in Israel, he said, made it important “not to forget,” so Israel’s leaders do not drive the country into another military conflict.
Born in Israel, Mr. Gitai is the son of an intellectual and an architect. His mother, Efratia Gitai, a Russian Jew, was fearless; at 19, she sailed from Palestine to Vienna, where she met Sigmund Freud, the psychotherapist Alfred Adler and other luminaries, and studied social psychology, economics and politics. A few years later, on a trip to Berlin, she heard a speech by Hitler in Alexanderplatz and decided it was time to get away from Europe.
His father, Munio Weinraub, a German Jew, studied architecture at the Bauhaus in the 1930s. He was one of four students badly beaten when the Nazis shut the school down. He moved to Palestine shortly afterward and met his wife in a movie theater in Haifa.
Mr. Gitai said his parents had “the vision of a more egalitarian society.”
“They taught me moderation,” he said. “There was never any racist mention at home about anyone.”
His father died in 1970, when Mr. Gitai was 20 and doing his obligatory military service in Israel. So when he completed his service, he pursued his father’s craft, studying architecture for nine years and earning a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley.
But when he returned to Israel, he realized that he had no desire to be an academic. Nor did he want to design buildings. So he made a film about a building instead: a documentary about a stone house in West Jerusalem that had been abandoned by its owner, a Palestinian doctor, in 1948, then requisitioned by the Israeli government and lived in by a succession of Jewish families. “House” featured interviews with the house’s residents, but also with the Palestinian stonecutters who had been hired to work on it.
The film was severely criticized by the Israeli authorities, who pressured Mr. Gitai to delete the sections showing Arab workers. He had to choose whether to cave or to fight for his film and keep it whole. He did the latter. And “House,” which was essentially a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, turned him into a filmmaker.
From that point on, he also became a campaigner for peace.
“If you want to single out one big mistake of Israeli politics, it’s the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Mr. Gitai. He said the Israelis could make “all the deals that they want” with Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, but “they will be stuck, in the end.”
“They should have started with the Palestinians,” he said.
Mr. Gitai came to know and respect Yitzhak Rabin, who as Israel’s prime minister in the 1970s and again in the 1990s strove for a two-state solution and came close to reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords. But he was assassinated in Tel Aviv in 1995 by an ultranationalist at a rally in support of the accords.
Twenty years later, Mr. Gitai released a movie about the assassination — “Rabin, the Last Day” — that’s now considered another major career milestone.
A mix of documentary and reconstituted history, the film aims to demonstrate that Mr. Rabin was murdered not only because of his status as prime minister and peace negotiator, but because of the inflammatory messages and hate speech that were circulating at the time.
“His killing was an extremely brutal moment,” said Mr. Gitai. “Rabin was one of these rare statesmen who take the trouble of dealing with the present in order to build something for the future.”
Most politicians, he said, “just think about the immediate reward,” and “look at the public opinion polls in the morning to decide what they will do in the afternoon.”
During his career, Mr. Gitai has made more than 60 films, including features, directing such actresses as Jeanne Moreau and Juliette Binoche. His art has been exhibited within and without Israel (his Kippur War drawings were displayed at the Pompidou Center in Paris this year). And he has staged theatrical performances. He is also an author and essayist.
Still, the contemporary history and politics of Israel remain his central focus — especially the need, he believes, for peace between Israel, the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors.
He recalled a time when he was a young boy having breakfast at the kitchen table and noticed two Haifa-Beirut train tickets on a shelf. Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, one of Israel’s hostile neighbors.
He said he asked his mother, “Did you go to an enemy country? How come?”
“Her answer was very simple,” he said. “She said: ‘It was possible. And I think one day it will be possible again.’”