Unpacking Israel’s history at the Oscars

Here are some of the highlights from Israel’s history at the Oscars through the decades.
Israeli director Guy Nattiv and American actress Jaime Ray Newman, winners of Best Live Action Short Film for "Skin," pose in the press room during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 24, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

With Hollywood as the epicenter of the film world, the Oscars typically focus on American movies. But did you know that Israel has a proud history at the Oscars as well?

While “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” are getting most of the publicity leading up to this year’s awards, one lesser-known film is the Israeli short, “Letter to a Pig,” which was nominated for best animated short film.

The film, which explores the theme of intergenerational trauma, has already won awards at the Jerusalem Film Festival and the Brussels Animation Film Festival. 

This is far from the first time an Israeli film has earned recognition at the Oscars. In fact, since the Academy officially opened the awards to international countries with the “Best Foreign Language Film” category in 1956, Israel has earned 10 nominations in the category and achieved significant wins in others as well.

Here are some of the highlights from Israel’s history at the Oscars through the decades.

Director Ephraim Kishon receives Oscar nominations for “Sallah Shabati” (1964) and “The Policeman” (1972)

Born in 1924 to a middle-class Jewish family in Hungary, Ephraim Kishon survived several concentration camps before immigrating to Israel in 1949. 

He began his professional career as a columnist for Israeli newspapers, and quickly rose to prominence as one of Israel’s best-known satirists.

Kishon also wrote, produced, and directed five feature films, with his first, “Sallah Shabati” (1964), earning both him and Israel their first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. This comedic movie depicts the challenges and triumphs of Israeli immigration and resettlement.

Then, in 1971, Kishon’s “The Policeman” earned him (and Israel) their second nomination in the category. The film, now considered an Israeli classic, follows the life of Officer Avraham Azoulay, a kind-hearted and naive policeman who navigates the complexities of his job in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv. 

It is particularly known for its final scene of a teary-eyed Azoulay, which is regarded as one of the most iconic shots in Israeli cinema history. 

Chaim Topol is nominated for Best Actor as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” (1972)

Born in Tel Aviv in 1935 before the founding of the Jewish state, Chaim Topol began acting at age 18 as a member of the Israeli army’s Nahal entertainment troupe.

Topol’s breakthrough performance was his portrayal of the titular character in Ephraim Kishon’s “Sallah Shabbati,” which was the first Israeli film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. 

Topol would go on to star in such films as “Flash Gordon,” the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only,” and over 30 films both within Israel and abroad. 

However, his most famous and critically acclaimed performance is undeniably his portrayal of Tevye the Milkman in “Fiddler on the Roof.” “Fiddler” tells the story of a Jewish milkman who insists on remaining true to his Jewish values despite increasing outside influences.

After years of portraying the character on stage in both London and New York, Topol was cast by director Norman Jewison for the 1971 film, beating out A-list celebrities such as Danny Kaye and even Frank Sinatra for the role. 

Topol was nominated for Best Actor for his performance, making history as the first Israeli to be nominated in the category. 

Although he didn’t win, Topol later remarked fondly on his career: “How many people are known for one part? How many people in my profession are known worldwide? So I am not complaining.” 

Topol passed away in March 2023. At the Oscars ceremony, which took place a few days after his death, many criticized the Academy for not including Topol in the “In Memoriam” segment. 

Director Moshe Mizrahi wins for “Madame Rosa” (1977)

Born in Egypt in 1931 to a Jewish family, Moshe Mizrahi later immigrated to Israel as a teenager. He studied filmmaking in Paris before eventually moving back to Israel. 

His first internationally acclaimed work is the 1971 film “I Love You Rosa,” which is based on the life of his mother. The story revolves around a Sephardic widow grappling with the ancient law of marrying her brother-in-law. The film earned Mizrahi a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The following year, Mizrahi was nominated again in the same category for “The House on Chelouche Street.” He ultimately won the Oscar for “Madame Rosa” in 1978.

“Madame Rosa” is a touching drama about an elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor in Paris who cares for the children of prostitutes, exploring themes of survival and the impact of the past.

Although the film was France’s Oscar submission and therefore didn’t secure the win for Israel, Mizrahi made history as the first Israeli director to take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Joseph Cedar revives Israeli nominations (2007, 2011)

Born in New York City in 1968 to an Orthodox Jewish family, Joseph Cedar moved to Jerusalem at the age of 6. 

His filmmaking career began with “Time of Favor,” which won six Ophir Awards ( Israel’s version of the Oscars), including Best Picture. His follow-up film, “Campfire,” also received acclaim in Israel.

It was Cedar’s third film, “Beaufort,” that earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007, ending a 24-year drought for Israel in the category. 

In 2011, his film “Footnote” secured Cedar’s place among Israeli cinema’s greats, such as Ephraim Kishon and Moshe Mizrahi, as the third Israeli director to receive two nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category. 

“Footnote” tells the story of a father and son whose relationship is tested by academic rivalry and professional recognition within the competitive world of Israeli academia. 

At the time, Cedar noted the irony of receiving his second Oscar nomination for a film that explores the theme of recognition. However, he added that he believes that recognition serves as a valuable affirmation of one’s contributions and existence. 

Natalie Portman wins Best Actress as Nina Sayers in the “Black Swan” (2011)

Born in Jerusalem, Natalie Portman moved to Washington D.C. with her family as a child, moving to Connecticut and ultimately Long Island, attending Jewish day schools throughout.

Portman got her start in acting at the age of 13 in the film “Leon: The Professional.” Since then, she has starred in some of the most popular movie franchises such as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

But it was her performance in 2010’s “Black Swan” that earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress. “Black Swan” tells the story of a talented but psychologically fragile ballerina who descends into madness as she competes for the lead role in “Swan Lake.” Portman made history as the first Israeli to win the prestigious award in either the Best Actress or Actor categories. 

In 2018, she was due to receive the Genesis Prize for her commitment to Israel and Jewish values. However, Portman turned down the prize for political reasons and the event was ultimately canceled. 

However, her devotion to the Jewish people and the State of Israel is undeniable; Portman has shared her support for Israel and the families of the hostages during the Israel-Hamas War and is an outspoken advocate for the Jewish people. 

Israeli film “Skin” wins Best Live Action Short (2019)

Israeli director Guy Nattiv is known for his films that often explore themes of identity, prejudice and social issues, capturing the complexities of human experiences.

Nattiv graduated from the Camera Obscura Film School in Tel Aviv in 2002, with his graduate short film “The Flood” garnering critical acclaim.

In 2019, Nattiv’s short film “Skin” won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, making history for the first win in the category by an Israeli-born director. It was also the first win in this category for the distributor, Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The short film tells the story of a white supremacist’s hate crime and its impact on both a Black and a white child. The film was featured in over 400 film festivals and won more than 30 awards for its poignant storytelling.

In his acceptance speech at the Oscars, Nattiv mentioned that he moved from Israel five years prior and playfully greeted his homeland with a “Layla Tov Israel” (Goodnight Israel). He also honored his grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, noting the bigotry they faced.

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