When we first meet Eyal (Lior Ashkenazi), a hardened Mossad agent and the protagonist of Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water (2004), his girlfriend has just committed suicide, but he does not shed a tear. Here is the classic Israeli man, the macho attitude of hiding emotions in order to project a hard, impenetrable exterior to his enemies. This feigned toughness of Israeli machismo culture comes from Israeli paranoia of being seen as weak, as the poor Jew suffering in European ghettos without power to change his circumstances or protect his family or belongings.
This attitude recalls a moment in Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955), another classic Israeli macho war film, in which soldiers are retelling their stories from the War of Independence. We see the main character in combat with a wounded Egyptian soldier, who has an S.S. insignia tattooed on his chest. All of a sudden, we see the main character’s hallucinations of the Egyptian/Nazi soldier in a Nazi uniform and himself in the European rags of the Holocaust Jew. Since the Holocaust, Israeli Jews have struggled with their self-image, making paranoid assumptions that their enemies see them as weaklings easy to defeat, and therefore obsessed with showing strength and power. Fear has turned into hate and the only thing preventing the enemy from victory is Israel’s tough attitude and hard shell.
Walk on Water is about breaking that hard shell. Though the tactic of speaking softly and carrying a big stick may be useful on the battlefield for Israelis facing constant annihilation from their various surrounding enemies, the personal battlefield of Israeli men and their relationships suffers from such an unemotional approach. Our main character realizes this only after fulfilling his Mossad mission of meeting and befriending a young German, whose grandfather is a former Nazi general living in hiding.
Trained from birth to see all Germans as disguised Nazis harboring hateful feelings towards all Jews, Eyal constantly shelters himself from being able to connect with this man. Until Eyal is standing over the bed of the sleeping Nazi war criminal grandfather, he has not seen what the cycle of fear, hate, violence and retribution has done to himself and his country. It has prevented them from living as free human beings, free from the baggage of the Holocaust and the added pressure of each terrorist attack in Israel, free from assumptions of their own weakness and suspicions of their enemies’ aims of destruction. Eyal is simply standing over an old man with a needle filled with poison. He backs off. He needs not prove his strength to anyone but himself.
In this post black-and-white world, Eyal has realized that Israel needs to break the cycle of violence and revenge with an open hand, not a closed fist.