It took a documentary filmmaker to see ultra-nationalist Baruch Marzel as a doting grandfather.
The Boston-born Marzel, who was raised in Israel and became a follower of extremist Meir Kahane before becoming his right-hand man and then inheritor of the Kahanist movement, has nine children and 23 grandchildren.
In “The Radical Jew,” a documentary about Marzel made by filmmaker Noam Osband, Marzel is shown dancing with his grandkids, cooking with his own children and chatting with the neighbors on the heavily secured streets of Hebron, where he lives.
“There is no cure better than the grandchild,” says Marzel in the film. “Learning with them, playing with them, telling them stories, it’s the best time I could have.”
It’s one of the many surreal images that Osband, a distant cousin of Marzel’s, captured in his 22-minute portrait of the Jewish extremist.
“If you’re going to portray an extremist, you are necessarily humanizing him, but I don’t think that’s problematic if it’s understood,” said Osband, speaking from his home in Brooklyn, New York. “If you want to be curious or honest about people who have views that are scary to a lot of people, well, they’re human beings, of course.”
Marzel, a bearded, bespectacled man in an open-necked white shirt, baggy trousers and a large, crocheted black yarmulke, sits for one-on-one interviews with Osband, his expressive face framed against a white background. His eyes wrinkle when he smiles, his mouth widens frequently under his beard, and his Hebrew-tinged American accent bears the sounds of Boston and Chicago, where his parents were each born.
Osband relishes the artistic touches in his part-time role as filmmaker.
“If you’re going to watch something, the point is only improved by making it aesthetically interesting,” said Osband. “I didn’t want it to be a straight documentary. I want to talk about a radical Jewish extremist and make art.”
“The Radical Jew” cuts back and forth between Osband’s interviews with Marzel — done over the course of a month in the Jewish enclave in the Palestinian West Bank city of Hebron, where Marzel has lived for several decades — and photos and footage of Marzel, his family and his work with Kahane, whom he first met as a child.
Marzel speaks of his fascination with Kahane and explains what drew him to the radical set of beliefs espoused by his mentor.
“To see a Jew that’s fighting for the Jewish people, ready to risk himself for the Jewish people, that’s something that made a big impression upon me as a kid,” he says in the film.
There is footage of Kahane as well, laying out the tenets of his belief system — every Jew should have a gun, Arabs are a “cancer in our midst” — and tracking his development from radical extremist to Israeli lawmaker.
Marzel became an early supporter of Kahane and his political party Kach, handing out flyers and mailing leaflets when he was only in the seventh grade in Israel. He served in the Israeli army during the 1982 war, and talks about killing Lebanese prisoners after one prisoner threw a grenade at him.
“It’s a war,” he says, in reference to his actions in Lebanon, shrugging. “They came to kill us; we have to kill them first.”
Marzel became the new leader of Kach after Kahane’s assassination by an Egyptian-born US citizen in 1990. And when Kach was outlawed by the Israeli government after Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994 (Marzel calls Goldstein “one of the purest people in the world, a saint, a tzaddik”), Marzel went on to join other right-wing parties in the government.
Marzel’s life, Osband makes clear, is about making trouble, and teaching his kids to do the same.
“Baruch Hashem, seven of nine kids had trouble with the law,” he says in the film. He comments about his many times in jail, “it’s a very good vacation.”
It’s impossible to gauge what Osband himself feels about Marzel, his distant cousin.
Osband began making films while working on his PhD — in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania — as a kind of hobby and respite from his other brainy pursuits. His films have been about livestock auctions, a defunct Irish-American church revitalized by Mexican immigrants, and expressions of love at gas stations. He thought of Marzel while pondering gripping characters who could lead a documentary.
A distant relative, Osband had only met Marzel twice before approaching him with the idea of the project.
“I knew we had this crazy cousin Baruch who’s been in and out of jail and was Kahane’s right-hand man,” he said. “For the better part of 2,000 years, Jews weren’t terribly militaristic and to me that was really interesting. In some ways, though, making a film about a particular person who is considered an extremist offered the opportunity to think about how does an extremist see the world.”
Osband grew up in a modern Orthodox household in Boston and had friends who were interested in Kahane’s writings, so it wasn’t a completely foreign world to him.
He had spent some time in Hebron prior to making the film, and found it to be “the world’s most depressing theme park, no matter who you think is right, no matter what version of God you believe in,” he said.
Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, is home to 215,452 Palestinians, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and 500-850 Jewish settlers living in and around the old quarter.
“The Radical Jew” is making the rounds of smaller North American festivals, and while Osband usually puts his films up on YouTube after the festival circuit, he’ll resist with this one because he wouldn’t want “some kid to be watching this in Brooklyn and think that there’s no possibility of peace in the world.”
The current tone of the times has also affected viewers and their reactions to the film, said Osband. He points to the rise of Jewish violence in Israel, and to Kahane’s grandson, Meir Ettinger, who has been in the news as an influential and active extremist. Osband commented that Kahane is “completely forgotten in the US, but it’s the exact opposite in Israel.”
As for Osband’s audiences, they come away finding Marzel well-spoken but an ideologue, although “they occasionally say they understand where he’s coming from,” said Osband. “And that’s the risk that you run.”
“The Radical Jew” was recently screened in Poland, and will be screened in San Diego on February 13. See Noam Osband’s website for more information.