TV review: Valley of Tears

A rusted tank sits in a clearing of packed red dirt, surrounded by trees Wikipedia Commons

Israeli TV show brings a subtle, emotional perspective to the recent history of war

by hammad ali, contributor

One of the most significant events to take place in the early history of the modern state of Israel was the war that took place in 1973. Known as the Yom Kippur War, the October War or the Ramadan War, it was a tragic and defining moment for many of the people living in the countries affected.

Now, a new limited series is dramatizing the stories of this conflict, bringing 10 episodes to life with vivid characters and a refreshing emotional honesty.

Yom Kippur, arguably the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is usually marked by fasting, prayer and introspection. Particularly in Israel, on Yom Kippur the streets are empty of vehicles and most businesses are closed. So on Yom Kippur 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a surprise attack against Israel, the country’s military was caught on the back foot.

Thanks to the element of surprise, the Arab forces gained significant ground, and for a while it seemed that Israel might not survive as a nation. So much so, in fact, that Jewish youth from all over the world travelled to Israel to volunteer for the army, concerned that the only Jewish state in the world was about to be wiped off the maps. In the end, after three weeks of fighting, thousands of soldiers captured and killed, and substantial losses to military resources, a ceasefire was reached once Israel Defence Forces began to advance on Cairo.

It is the first few days of those tumultuous times that are brought to life in the recent Israeli TV show Valley of Tears, also available on Amazon Prime. However, Valley of Tears is not some action-packed, machismo-oozing show with explosions and gunfights. It is a surprisingly subtle narrative about the early history of modern Israel, which was just over twenty years old at the time. Largely populated by Jewish immigrants from all over the world that wanted to return to their ancestral home, we see the tensions that emerge between Jews of different national origins, particularly new immigrants from Europe and longtime residents of the Middle East. We also see the broader strokes of ongoing Arab-Israeli conflicts played out in the interactions between characters throughout the show.

Valley of Tears is not a shallow tale of pure good versus pure evil. It shows Israelis who are aware of the infighting and prejudice they have encouraged to go on for far too long, and how they make a commitment to do better if there is even an Israel after the war. It is shown that one Syrian soldier loves animals just as much as the Israeli spy who he helps save, along with his pet hamster. One of the most poignant moments of the show soon follows, with the two soldiers talking, promising that once this is over, once there is peace, they will visit each other and try out the best shawarmas in Damascus and Jerusalem. It is apt, if heartbreaking, that this beautiful scene is soon followed by a look at the cruelty that each side is also capable of. Isn’t that what war does? Rob us off our individual values and reduce us to casualty statistics? Soldiers to share a flask of water and talk about home are heart-warming, but war drives us all to violence eventually.

Nor does the show glorify bravery in the face of all odds. Yes, there are scenes where a tank driver decides that if he is dying in the face of insurmountable odds, he will take as many Arab tanks with him as he can. But there are also those soldiers captured by Syrian Army, pale and shivering in fear of the imminent torture, pleading that they do not even know the sort of secrets they are being questioned about. And we are shown how bravery comes from the least likely people, making their peace that they will never go home again if they do not cooperate with the enemy, with just the hint of a smile on their face.

Despite the setting and the context, Valley of Tears should not be defined as a show about war. It is a show about friends, families, and a nation, while a war wages all around them. It is a show about the existential threat many Israelis felt in 1973, and perhaps that is why it is apt that the show ends not with some glorious victory, not with bragging about how they have braved all odds, but with a moment of reflection. As one soldier on the show said, “I am being sent to fight for a nation that does not think of me as its own.” He does go into the fight all the same, because, and many Israelis know this feeling, he thinks of the nation as his own. The show ends with some hopeful notes about the way these attitudes may change in the future.

On the technical side, Valley of Tears holds the record of being the most expensive Israeli TV show. All the actors are Israeli, and will probably not be familiar names to most of us in North America. However, their performance is no less than world class. The people who particularly stand out are the older journalist whose son goes to war, the Sephardi tank driver who goes into battle knowing he is in fact wanted by the Jerusalem police once this war ends, or the brilliant analyst who tried to warn everyone there might be an attack coming. There is currently only one season, and given how it ended it seems likely this will be the only season. For viewers in Canada, the show is available through Amazon Prime with an additional subscription to Hollywood Suites.

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