The Russia- and Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria employed chemical weapons against its own citizens again last week. It’s hard to imagine that the atrocities in Syria could be any worse. Indeed, it is chilling to imagine what Syrian forces would be doing right now had Israel not neutralized that country’s nuclear capabilities in 2007.
Despite the horrific images coming out of Syria, much of the world’s attention, including that of the United Nations, was focused on Israel’s response to rallies on the Gaza border. It was striking to hear the outrage about Israel’s reaction to the Gaza events while a few hundred kilometres away the most atrocious acts were being perpetrated on a people by their own government. That said, the loss of life in Gaza is startling and we hope that the Israel Defence Forces can find non-lethal ways to defend against the protesters.
At the same time, it has been difficult not to be frustrated about the placement of blame. Portrayed by apologists as a peaceful rally – the so-called March for Return – the Friday events, for the second consecutive week, were a violent assault on the Israeli border. The planned action featured Gazans burning hundreds of tires in order to obscure the visibility of IDF soldiers. While tallying up the number of dead – 26 have been killed, according to the Associated Press Monday – it’s clear that the associations of some of the dead have been lost on most audiences, as at least 10 have been reported to be known combatants in the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, Islamic Jihad and Hamas’ terrorist wings.
On Friday, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Yehya Al-Sinwar, was employing what outside observers will likely dismiss as flowery rhetoric for domestic audiences when he exclaimed on Al-Jazeera that “We will take down the border [with Israel] and tear out their hearts from their bodies.”
Whether the actions of the IDF are deemed justified, the Diaspora community must continue to press for a non-military solution where possible and demand that the IDF remain restrained when demonstrators are unarmed. With a video surfacing that allegedly shows an IDF sniper shooting an unarmed Palestinian man while other soldiers cheer, there are calls for an investigation within Israel from across the political spectrum. As one Israeli politician said in the Times of Israel, “The battle isn’t just between us and Hamas; it is also for ourselves, for our values and for the identity of Israel society.”
It was, however, a leading figure in the Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas, which runs the West Bank, who pointed out what should be obvious to the world. Dr. Mahmoud Habbash, a supreme judge in the Palestinian Authority Islamic court and Abbas’s adviser on religious and Islamic affairs, accused Hamas of “trading in suffering and blood, trading in victims” to get sympathetic headlines worldwide.
It seems to be working. “Solidarity” marches around the world included chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will soon be free.”
Against this backdrop, it may seem odd to raise the issue of Israel’s treatment of African refugees. As a Jewish newspaper, we feel it is our obligation to defend Israel from unjust accusations and attacks, and it is our duty also to condemn actions by Israeli governments or others that betray what we believe to be the just course.
Last week’s flip-flop by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a disgrace and an insult to the values on which Israel prides itself.
A week ago Monday, Netanyahu announced an agreement with a United Nations refugee agency to alleviate a conflict about what to do with 38,000 African asylum-seekers currently in legal limbo in Israel by relocating about half of them to Western countries, including Canada. The next day, after getting pushback from right-wing members of his coalition and some aggressive residents of south Tel Aviv (where most of the migrants live) who want few or no migrants to remain in Israel, the prime minister reneged on the deal, seeking again to eject all 38,000.
As we have said in this space previously, it is ludicrous to suggest that 38,000 Africans – or half that – threaten the Jewish nature of the state. Neither, contrary to Netanyahu’s allegations, would the acceptance of these refugees – who fled violence and war – create a precedent.
If Israel wants to create a situation where it can avoid unwanted refugees while ensuring that it meets the obligations of a democratic state, it must develop the systems to appropriately adjudicate refugee claims. At present, situations like this – affecting the lives of 38,000 individuals – are being addressed arbitrarily and inappropriately. Israel, like Canada, Germany and other democracies, needs to have a standard by which the world’s homeless, who happen to find temporary refuge within its borders, are assessed and treated fairly within clearly defined legal parameters that recognize both the rights of individual non-citizens and the necessities of Israel, from the perspective of both the security of its citizens and the Jewish nature of the state. These are not incompatible objectives.
There is no shortage of challenges facing the Middle East. The situations in Gaza and Syria seem intractable. The fate of 38,000 migrants should not be so difficult to resolve.
U.S. President Donald Trump with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Presidential Palace, Bethlehem, May 2017. (photo by the White House)
Mahmoud Abbas has had enough. Thirteen years into his four-year term as elected leader of the Palestinian people, he has nothing of substance to show for his efforts and his friends are abandoning him.
On Sunday, his frustration was on full display during a two-and-a-half-hour speech.
Things have been building up lately for Abbas and his Fatah faction and, at a meeting of the Palestinian Central Council, he finally let loose.
Naturally, he focused on Israel, which he declared a European colonialist enterprise and denied Jewish connection to the land.
“Israel is a colonialist project that has nothing to do with Jews,” Abbas said. “The Jews were used as a tool under the concept of the Promised Land – call it whatever you want. Everything has been made up.”
Abbas, who has a doctorate in history, has taken a creative approach the discipline from the start, when his dissertation discounted the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis and contended that European Jews were collaborators in their own genocide in order to advance the cause of Zionism.
Of course, Abbas also railed against the U.S. president for his announced intention to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. Abbas accused Donald Trump of destroying the prospects for peace.
“Yekhreb Beitak,” Abbas said in the general direction of Trump. According to the Associated Press, the curse literally translates as “may your house be demolished.”
“In colloquial Palestinian Arabic,” AP explained, “the phrase can have different connotations, from a harsh to a casual insult, but its use in a widely watched speech seemed jarring – and could exacerbate his already fragile relationship with an American president who is particularly averse to criticism.”
If the U.S. president is a notorious hothead, that’s exactly how Abbas appeared Sunday, but certainly not without reason.
What must hurt more than anything is that Abbas now sees those who have been the Palestinians’ historic allies softening their resolve. As a New York Times investigation earlier this month indicated, while Arab leaders from Egypt to Saudi Arabia were making appropriate noises in public about Trump’s Jerusalem gambit, behind the scenes they are giving every indication that they won’t expend political energy on the matter.
The irony is clear – and for Abbas and his allies it must be especially painful.
The welfare of Palestinians has never been a genuine priority for the Arab world, even as they have propelled the Palestinian cause to the top of the global agenda, paralyzing the United Nations in the process. For Arab leaders, Palestinians have always been little more than a battering ram with which to land blow after blow against the Zionist entity. Palestinian life under Israeli occupation and autocratic leaders is filled with small and large indignities.
Now that geopolitics suggests Israel is not so much the regional threat that Iran poses, the Palestinians, once a useful weapon for the Arabs in their 70-year confrontation with Israel, are being cast aside.
Abbas’s obvious frustration Sunday suggests there may finally be a change afoot to the status quo that has been unsatisfactory for Israelis and even more so for Palestinians. What the future looks like for the Palestinians – and for their relations with Israel – remains unclear.
Note: The headline of this editorial has been changed. In the Jan. 19 newspaper, the piece ran as “Abbas rightly irked,” which misled some readers to think that we agreed with Mahmoud Abbas’s remarks. We in no way condone his abandonment of historical fact, his inhumane accusation that Jews were complicit in the Holocaust or the many other false and immoral statements in his two-and-a-half-hour diatribe.
September 2016, Jerusalem. At the funeral of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres, U.S. President Barack Obama offers a tissue to Peres’ son Chemi. (all photos from Ashernet)
In reviewing the Jewish year 5777, one name stands out – Binyamin Netanyahu. Despite having to fend off accusations of various wrongdoings at home, the Israeli prime minister has had a successful diplomatic year.
This year, Israel welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi’s visit marked the first time since the foundation of the state of Israel that a sitting Indian prime minister had visited. Meanwhile, Netanyahu was warmly received by China in March and, a month prior to that, by Australia. Closer to home, he established good relations with Greece and Cyprus.
In September 2016, Israel bade a final farewell to former president and prime minister Shimon Peres. His funeral was attended by many sitting and former heads of state, including former U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
Last December, the Israel Air Force received its first F-35 fighter plane from the United States. In January, settlers in the West Bank outpost of Amona fought with police following a court order that declared Amona an illegal Jewish settlement.
On Jan. 8, four people were killed when a released Arab prisoner ran a truck into a group of people on the Armon Hanatziv Promenade in Jerusalem. This act of murder was referred to as the “truck intifada.” In Gaza, Hamas activists handed out sweets in celebration. This method of terror was soon to be repeated many times in countries all over the world.
At regular intervals during the year, announcements were made concerning important archeological finds all over Israel. Israeli law states that the Israel Antiquities Authority must be notified as soon as there is indication of archeological remains and that, only after specialist examination and, if necessary, excavation, can the development proceed.
The year also saw the celebration of the 50th year since the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War ( June 1967).
It has been an outstanding year for Israel’s high-tech sector. In particular, 2017 saw the largest business deal in Israel’s history when Mobileye was bought by Intel for some $15 billion.
The Jewish year ended with a bit of confusion, as the region once again became unsettled as Iran attempts to get a stronger foothold in Syria, along with their continued efforts to arm Hezbollah.
In a wide-ranging lecture addressing Israel’s place in a rapidly changing Middle East, Prof. Asher Susser claimed that, without a continued focus on cutting-edge technology and modernization, Israel will not survive in the long run.
Susser, who is a professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, spoke at the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel in Vancouver on Aug. 9. The event was presented by the Kollel, Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University, Congregation Schara Tzedeck and Vancouver Hebrew Academy.
The professor believes that the key to Israel’s survival is its universities, which he described as the “powerhouses of Israel’s future.”
“Without that basic education, we will not have the wherewithal to withstand the absurdity of the neighbourhood,” he said.
In opening the evening, Kollel director Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu noted the “tough neighbourhood” in which Israel lived.
Stephen J. Adler, executive director of the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University’s Ontario and Western Canadian division, said that TAU is not only the largest educational institution in Israel, with more than 33,000 students, but that it also houses the largest research centre in the country. He highlighted the university’s affiliations with the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and also with the Sackler School of Medicine in New York. Adler said TAU alumni have created, among other things, technological innovations like the Iron Dome and the navigation app Waze. Adler invited members of the Vancouver Jewish community to come visit the TAU campus, then introduced Susser, “one of our treasures.”
Susser has taught at TAU for more than 35 years and was director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies for 12 years. In addition to various visiting professorships in the United States over the years, he teaches an online course on the Middle East that has been taken by more than 85,000 students in more than 160 countries, including attendees of the Vancouver event. He is the author of several books, including Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative, On Both Banks of the Jordan: A Political Biography of Wasfi al-Tall and The Rise of Hamas in Palestine and the Crisis of Secularism in the Arab World.
Susser discussed the root causes of some of Israel’s past successes – including its ability to modernize and the Arabs’ failure to do so – and remaining challenges. One of those challenges, he noted, is the conflicting narrative regarding the establishment of the state of Israel.
“These narratives are not just slightly different between Israel and the Palestinians, but they are completely contradictory and have virtually nothing in common,” he said. “I would say that this is one of the major reasons why Israel and the Palestinians have such great difficulty coming to terms with each other and the difficulties remain.
“Our narrative,” he continued, “is a heroic story of the self-defence of the Jewish people,” which represents “literally rising from the ashes of Auschwitz to sovereignty and independence from 1945 to 1948, in three very short years.” This was viewed, he said, as “a miraculous redemption and justice for the Jewish people” but is viewed by Palestinians as “the epitome of injustice.”
Susser also noted that the establishment of Israel, wherein “the few against the many” prevailed, is, ultimately, “a monument to Arab failure.” He said, “For the Arabs, when they look at us every day for the last 70 years, it is to look at the monument [of] their failure to modernize successfully.”
He pointed to the Six Day War as a turning point that “proved that Arabism is an empty vessel.” And he listed three reasons why Arab states have failed to advance: a lack of political freedom, a lack of first world education systems and a lack of economic equality and inclusion of women in the workforce.
These weaknesses in Arab civil society, he said, have led to “a human disaster” that has “prevented Arab countries from advancing,” and is worsened by the sectarian divisions that exist in Arab countries. The one exception, he said, is Jordan, which is a stable state in large part due to the fact that its Jordanian and Palestinian citizens are Sunni Muslims.
“Israel’s major challenges now come not from the strength of the Arab states but the weakness of the Arab states,” said Susser. Unlike the period between 1948 and 1967, when Israel was threatened by Arab states like Egypt, Israel is now threatened by non-Arab states like Iran and non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and ISIS. The problem, according to Susser, is that, “You can’t destroy Hamas or Hezbollah in six days.”
“Fighting the non-state actors is a much more difficult prospect,” he said. “These non-state actors are less of a threat to Israel but ending the conflict with them is a lot more difficult.”
The threat from Iran – which he considers to be one of the three principal non-Arab Middle Eastern powers (along with Turkey and Israel) – is “not necessarily that the Iranians will drop a bomb on Israel,” he said. The main problem is “the constraints that a nuclear Iran will pose to Israeli conventional use of military force.”
“If Israel is attacked by Hamas from Gaza or by Hezbollah from Lebanon, or by both of them together, and Israel wishes to retaliate by conventional means against these two Iranian proxies with a nuclear umbrella provided by Iran, will Israel have the freedom of operation to do it?” he asked.
One other challenge Israel faces, said Susser, is demography. He noted there are six million Israeli Jews and an equivalent number of Arabs residing in the area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, including the West Bank and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. “Can Israel remain a Jewish democracy with these demographic realities?” he wondered.
Susser concluded on a somewhat optimistic note. The conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, he said, has allowed Israel to forge alliances with Sunni Arab nations like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, all of which, he said, “have common cause with Israel to block Iranian regional hegemonic design.” In addition, he noted, “We have cooperation with Jordan against ISIS and its allies, so the idea that Israel is against everyone in the Middle East is not the reality.”
David J. Litvakis a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.
Stratford Hall Sabres and Ultimate Peace leaders-in-training in action this past April. (photo from Ultimate Peace)
Ultimate Peace uses team sports – specifically Ultimate Frisbee – as a vehicle for peace education in the Middle East (and beyond). It starts with throwing a Frisbee but leads to friendship, trust, shared leadership opportunities and powerful life lessons in communities where conflict is rife.
Founded on the core principles of mutual respect, friendship, non-violence, integrity and fun, a group from Ultimate Peace embarks on a North American Friendship Tour every year. Karym Barhum is the Middle East regional director for UP. Originally from Ein Rafa, an Israeli Arab village about 15 kilometres northwest of Jerusalem, he described this year’s cohort of 14 Israelis as “Arab, Jewish, Muslim and Christian youth living in very close proximity. They don’t go to the same schools, they just live in [separate] communities: Arabs with Arabs, Jews with Jews.”
This year, Ultimate Peace added a Vancouver leg to their usual itinerary. Following a stop in Seattle, a group of 15-to-18-year-olds was in Vancouver April 11-16. This part of the tour was made possible by Danie Proby and Ari Nitikman, co-founders of and head coaches at UltiPros; both are alumni of Stratford Hall school on Commercial Drive. Working with their connections, Proby and Nitikman set the ball rolling for an extraordinary experience for both the visitors and their hosts.
UP alumni and leaders visit schools, community centres, places of worship, homes and universities to spread awareness of UP’s Leaders-in-Training program. Barhum said it is a tremendous opportunity to see people “accepting everybody no matter who you are. We hope they’ll come back to the Middle East as ambassadors of UP, so they can educate others on how to accept differences.”
Samantha Gayfer, director of community development at Stratford Hall, said the school teaches students “they have a responsibility to give back and make a difference.”
Having arranged for Stratford Hall to host the UP event, families from the school billeted the 14 visiting students, who also spoke at other schools during their time here.
Gayfer described the billeting experience as “outstanding.”
“Arrangements were made for kosher and halal diets,” she said, “and the Jewish players had Passover while they were here. They organized a full meal with cultural and religious understanding.”
The impact of this gesture was not lost on her. “These are kids from families who live three miles from each other but never visit each other’s homes. Now they’re good friends.”
Naturally, there were questions. Gayfer asked the Arab students what their parents thought about their involvement in Ultimate Peace. The answer was always, “My family supports this.”
While she conceded that liberal parents are the most likely to enrol their kids in programs like this, it doesn’t take away from the power of showing Canadian kids what is possible, even in troubled regions. If such friendships are possible among Arabs and Jews in Israel, what can’t we achieve here in peacetime? she asked. “The more families you touch, the better,” she said, “to show that it’s not an insurmountable challenge, that we could live cohesively together.”
During their stay, Ultimate Peace won a tournament – a highlight of their trip. Gayfer said it was “an amazing experience for the kids.”
UP is an opportunity for youth to educate others about life in Israel. In talking about how one can be part of positive change by learning about multiple perspectives, they are also modeling new kinds of relationships: relationships that are necessary before conflict can diminish on a larger scale.
Stratford Hall student Matthew Chiang said he had an “awesome and unforgettable” experience with Ultimate Peace. “The kids were awesome, super-enthusiastic, funny and kind,” he said. “Personally, the two kids that stayed over at my house, Ohad and Faris, had a lot of common interests with me, such as ping pong, Rubik’s Cubing, playing cards, Ultimate, and even shopping. I had never met a person from Israel and I had no idea that they were so similar to me.”
Asked what he thought of the group as a whole, he described it as strong and cohesive. “The Jewish and Muslim students seemed like great friends who got along really well…. My family and I talked to them about their culture and religion. They seemed open and spoke without conflict,” he said.
“Kids involved in this program can send a message to adults that, although there is heavy conflict and anger here, in the end, we are all people who share interests and hobbies,” he said. “Ultimate really breaks the barrier in that conflict and embraces two different ideas and shares one common goal – to have fun.”
He added, “I think Ultimate Peace has strengthened the bond between Jewish and Muslim people and has started to break the barrier between them.”
As well as promoting physical and mental fitness, Ultimate Peace teaches life skills like leadership and communication and reinforces the importance of hope, kindness and collaboration.
“I thoroughly enjoyed how kind they were and how many common interests we had,” said Chiang. “Ultimate Peace is such a great organization with such an important purpose. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to be a part of their journey and I hope that I see them again.”
Barhum is already seeing the impact of UP’s tour on the students. “Many of them are making plans for a twinning program between schools in North America and schools in Israel. This would allow the Israeli kids to take turns playing host to overseas students.” Not satisfied with a single trip to Canada, he said, “They are looking to develop a stable program.”
None of this would be possible with the UP infrastructure behind it. Barhum described a spirit of openness and optimism in the leadership of the program.
“The board of directors trust and allow me and my staff to do things differently, always trying out new ideas,” he said. “They allow us to be open, to learn from others and to be able to change if necessary. This is one of the big things that inspires me and keeps me doing my job.”
The Vancouver stop, he said, was “a highlight – seeing our kids learning new stuff, recognizing that it is possible to live and share their lives with others from a different culture or religion.”
Speaking at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump quoted Theodor Herzl. “Whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind,” Herzl said.
This is not Herzl’s most famous quote, but the words were well chosen. In seven decades, Israel has contributed such an immense amount to the knowledge and culture of the world that Herzl himself could probably not have foreseen it in his wildest imagination – and he had a wild imagination.
The only barrier to the great redounding of which Herzl spoke has been the rejection of Israeli people, knowledge, technology and existence, first by those who would have benefited most – the country’s nearest neighbours in the Middle East – and latterly by many around the world, from the United Nations to college campuses across the West, where boycotting all things Israeli has become almost a rite of passage.
Trump also said Tuesday: “I had a great meeting this morning with President Mahmoud Abbas and I can tell you that he is ready to reach a peace deal.”
The president’s reputation is founded on his deal-making abilities and this is perhaps why he made it his first order of foreign business to travel to the Middle East, site of the world’s most elusive deal. But, telling an audience of Israelis, and global observers who have far deeper knowledge of the situation than Trump does, that Abbas is ready to reach a peace deal displays a degree of naiveté, to say the least.
Herzl’s vision of Israel as an oasis of excellence sharing its knowledge and advancements with neighbours was unquestionably imbued with the colonial attitudes of his era. But it was also founded on assumptions of enlightened self-interest.
“Israel is a thriving nation,” Trump said, “and has not only uplifted this region, but the entire world.” True enough, but it could have done so much more uplifting if others in the region had not rejected most of what the state has had to offer.
When the Arab Spring had its limited expression, it seemed that the peoples of the region might finally be rising up against not just the leaders who oppressed them, but the very scapegoating ideologies and miseducation that kept them down. One by one, most of the oppressors regained the upper hand and the greatest hope for Israeli-Arab peace – that the people and leaders would see coexistence as synonymous with self-interest – faded again.
If Trump thinks he has the magic beans to succeed where so many have failed, may he go from strength to strength.
Donald Trump’s first international trip as president of the United States will include Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican. This breaks a longstanding tradition of a new U.S. president shuffling north or south to drop in on one of America’s nearest neighbours.
The snub of Mexico, if that’s what it is, is not surprising. Trump has built his political career on demonizing Mexicans. If his first official foreign visit is also a snub of Canada, that also should not surprise, given Trump’s recent extemporaneous attacks on our supply management system and his general beefs with NAFTA.
Trump’s choice of Israel and Saudi Arabia is strategic. He is signaling support for the countries he sees as America’s leading allies in the war on terror. Of course, while Saudi Arabia produces its share of terror (including most of the 9/11 perpetrators), it is officially a close ally of the West, in spite of its atrocious human rights record, in part because it is the regional bulwark against Iran. On Israel, Trump has been bombastic, insisting when he was still Candidate Trump: “I’m going to be great for Israel.” Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has hit it off better than most world leaders have with Trump, so the coming visit will probably cement that chummy relationship. (The Vatican? God only knows what that meeting will produce.)
Israel and Saudi Arabia, for their vast differences, are the most important allies of the United States in the Middle East. With Saudi Arabia, the friendship is certainly a matter of pragmatism over principle. The West needs their oil and the stability and counterbalance they provide in the region.
The Israeli relationship is quite different. While American politicians and diplomats will focus on military and intelligence cooperation, as with Saudi Arabia, they also salute Israel’s democracy and our shared values. The long history of friendship between the United States and Israel also frequently comes up. What is less prominent in words of friendship is Israel’s Jewishness. This is common even among pro-Israel voices. We extol Israel’s democracy, diversity, the immense contributions to science and medicine, technology, culture, foreign aid – even Tel Aviv’s funky nightlife. But we don’t always emphasize the foremost case for Israel’s existence: that the Jewish people deserve and require self-determination in our ancient and modern homeland.
This is an interesting tendency. Are we acknowledging that, perhaps, Israel’s democracy, scholarship, vibrancy and beaches are all great selling points, but its Jewishness is not? Maybe we are. And maybe we’re right. But, by not continually promoting Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish homeland, we undercut the most important case we can make and, in the process, probably bend our position somewhat to suit the tastes of casual antisemites.
We need to make the case forcefully that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and deserves to exist for that reason – first among the many reasons Israel deserves to exist and be respected. However, there is an effort afoot in Israel to affirm its Jewishness in a way that is divisive, exclusionary, even possibly racist.
On Monday, Netanyahu threw his support behind a so-called “nation-state” bill proposed by Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter that would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.” This statement is undeniable – or it should be. But the bill goes on to declare that “the right to realize self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” and would revoke Arabic as an official language in Israel. These latter aspects of the bill deliberately insult and diminish the rights of non-Jewish citizens of Israel.
Here is the difference between the case we made about Israel’s Jewishness and the bill’s intent: Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people – but Israel is also the homeland of people who are not Jewish, up to one-quarter of the population. These two things need not be exclusive, but the bill would make it so and, in the process, expressly deny the equality of minority populations.
The prime minister called the bill “the clearest answer to all those who are trying to deny the deep connection between the People of Israel and its land.” This is a morsel of red meat for hungry Zionists because we are tired of people diminishing or outright denying the right of Jewish people to live in Israel. So, the bill might deliver a frisson of delight for those of us who bristle at the latest United Nations nonsense or campus apartheid week.
Yet, whatever the merits of such a bill, it is an unnecessary and intentional hot stick in the eye of Israeli minorities – and indeed those of us in the Diaspora who make the case for Israel as a diverse, welcoming, multicultural and multifaith place. Though the comfort of Diaspora Zionists should not direct Israeli policy, this example is merely harming Israel’s cause with no commensurate upside.
That said, one person who would see this kind of exclusionary, divisive, unnecessarily nasty bill as a good idea is going to be visiting there soon: the president of the United States.
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
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Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
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Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
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Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
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Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.
The Peace Factory founders Joana Osman and Ronny Edry spoke at the University of British Columbia on Feb. 6. (photo by Zach Sagorin)
“Israel loves Iran,” “Palestine loves Israel,” “Israel loves Palestine,” “Iran loves Israel & Palestine.” The Peace Factory uses social media to connect people in the Middle East, to build relationships and see one another as human beings with visions of peace.
“People may not like the idea of inclusion, the idea of welcoming everyone, but that’s why we are here – to invite those people to learn about the various cultures and faiths that are around us,” said Shem Arce when introducing the Active Community Dialogue (ACD) event Make a Friend, Make Peace. “With some dialogue and understanding we can create a community for everyone – no matter their religion, culture or ethnic background.”
Arce, a University of British Columbia film studies student from Mexico, recently began ACD with the goal of combating discrimination through meaningful, respectful dialogue and interactions.
ACD’s Make a Friend, Make Peace event on Feb. 6 featured a presentation from the founders of the Peace Factory: Ronny Edry, an Israeli graphic designer living in Tel Aviv, and Joana Osman, a Palestinian living in Munich. The pair also spoke at King David High School.
The UBC event drew dozens of people, and Edry showed the crowd a poster he uploaded to Facebook in 2012, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “was calling for preemptive strike on Iran,” when “it was quite stressing.”
The graphic designer decided to send something else to Iran. He designed a brightly coloured poster with a photo of him holding his daughter and bold text declaring, “Iranians / we will never bomb your country / We ♥ You.” Edry told the audience that the “five first comments were ‘delete it’” but, after leaving the poster online, he was surprised to find that “Iranians were commenting on the picture” and a line of communication was created.
“If something works, do it again,” said Edry. Soon, he added, “a lot of Iranians and Israelis started having a conversation.”
Interestingly, the security guard of the ACD event, an Iranian-Canadian man, had participated in the Peace Factory movement.
“When you don’t know someone and you close your eyes and think of the enemy, you end up thinking of some kind of monster,” said Edry. In Israel, “most of the time on the TV, they won’t show you the nice people of Iran.”
But, after starting the “Israel loves Iran” campaign, Edry received pictures from Iranians wanting to join. The movement has enabled many Iranians and Israelis to connect and build friendships online. And it continues to grow, with more than 121,000 likes and more than one million unique visitors each week to the “Israel loves Iran” Facebook page and more than two million views of Edry’s Ted Talk. The movement is continuing, with “both sides sharing stories and pictures of themselves,” said Edry.
With the success of “Israel loves Iran,” Edry said people were “coming up to me and saying, ‘Why don’t you do the same campaign with the Palestinians?’”
Soon after, Osman founded the group “Palestine loves Israel” to create a platform for Palestinians and Israelis to get to know one another through social media.
Together, Edry and Osman created the Peace Factory to “try to rehumanize the [other side] and give them a face and a story.”
Osman said building these connections “changes everything because, once you make a friend on the other side, everything changes for you.”
Osman said she asked herself, “As one person what can you do?” Her answer was, “You can be part of the change and you start communicating … if you can change one person’s mind, that may be enough.”
She added, “The enemy is nothing like you have in your mind … and, when you get to see his face and you see nice people,” you realize “they are not that bad.”
The Peace Factory’s vision is of a free and democratic Middle East, and they intend to build bridges and friendships to connect people with the same vision.
“It is not that we deny there is a conflict,” Osman said. “We have to pay attention to it, but I strongly believe that the solution can’t come from politics, it comes from people, real people connecting to each other…. Once you understand the other side is a real people with real pain … you come to the conclusion we are one people, one human race, with one goal to live in peace.”
EcoPeace Middle East is an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organization dedicated to environmental peace building, primarily through water diplomacy. (photo from EcoPeace Middle East)
EcoPeace was created by Gidon Bromberg some 22 years ago after he made the connection between ecology and the lack of cooperation between the region’s various authorities regarding water issues.
At the time, he was studying for a master’s in environmental law in Washington, D.C. When he returned to Israel, he organized the very first gathering of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian environmentalists. On the second day of the meeting, in December 1994, an agreement was struck to create EcoPeace Middle East.
Bromberg has been working together with Jordanian Munqeth Mehyar since then and Palestinian Nader Khateeb since 2001 to create an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian organization dedicated to environmental peace building, primarily through water diplomacy, and to the advancement – through both top-down advocacy and community-led grassroots work – of cross-border cooperation concerning shared water resources, pollution issues and sustainable development issues. Half of their programming is bottom-up community work through the Good Water Neighbors (GWN) project, now into its 15th year of operation.
“The second half of our work is advocacy aimed at influencing the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian governments, as well as at garnering support from the international community in advancing dialogue and cooperation between them,” Bromberg told the Independent.
The underlying assumption behind their efforts on all fronts is that regional cooperation is in each party’s best self-interest. “As altruism is not a common feature of foreign policy, particularly not in the midst of conflict, speaking to the self-interest of each side enables us to create political will for cooperation that ultimately serves the region as a whole,” said Bromberg.
Over the years, EcoPeace’s major areas of work have been focused on the rehabilitation of the Jordan River; a regional plan for sustainable development in the Jordan Valley; water and the peace process; Gaza’s water, sanitation and energy crisis; the water-energy nexus in the region; and the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit.
Since its establishment, EcoPeace Middle East has seen many periods of extreme hostility and bloodshed in the region but, in the midst of that, has been able to make headway.
“Joint work of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians through EcoPeace’s programs has brought the leveraging of more than half a billion U.S. dollars in recent years for water supply and sanitation solutions in the GWN communities, all with a strong cross-border effect, i.e. removal of sewage from shared resources,” said Bromberg. “EcoPeace has also been able to convene Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian government representatives together and generate dialogue between them around issues such as the Jordan River, at a time when no such meetings were taking place.”
At the community level, EcoPeace holds many cross-border youth gatherings every year, wherein kids not only learn about the interdependency of their and their neighbors’ water reality, but also about each other, in an effort to break down negative stereotypes.
One of the biggest achievements of EcoPeace in terms of bringing together people from the three countries has been the facilitation of relations between Jordan Valley mayors, who have rallied together to demand joint governmental cooperation toward rehabilitating the river.
“As far as positive ripple effects, very much due to our work, there is a growing realization amongst the various stakeholders, including decision makers, that regional sustainable development is crucial for geopolitical stability and for security in the region, for economic growth, public health and other aspects of life in the region,” said Bromberg.
EcoPeace’s notion of water as a political game changer in the region, for example, is slowly but surely becoming a part of the political discourse.
“The Jordan River is a good example of persistence that has recently started to pay off,” said Bromberg. “Ten years ago, when we were trying to convince the Israeli Water Authority (IWA) to release fresh water from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River, something which had then not happened for almost 60 years, one of the seniors raised his palm and said, ‘Gidon, when hair grows on this palm, that’s when fresh water will flow again from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River.’”
Nonetheless, by mid-2013, following years of advocacy by EcoPeace and others, the IWA released nine million cubic metres (mcm) of water into the river, committing to raise this volume to 30 mcm in the near future. This is only a drop in the bucket, however. Based on research commissioned for the project, the estimate is that 400 mcm overall is required to rehabilitate the river – and not all from the Sea of Galilee, which is in Israeli territory, but also from Jordan and Syria.
This is a very important first step, said Bromberg, who is certain of EcoPeace’s ability, with the help of many partners, to convince the relevant decision makers to allow for more significant volumes of water to flow into the river.
“Times now are particularly difficult in our region,” he said. “Hostility between Israelis and Palestinians has reached a whole new level, a frightening environment that, for the most part, does not react well to cooperation.”
Bromberg believes that, through providing youth in each of their communities with opportunities and cooperation with their neighbors, even this complex environment can be overcome.