Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu talks about the rockets being fired from Gaza. (photo by IGPO via Ashernet)
Rockets were falling on southern and central Israel as the paper went to press this week. After the Israeli military killed Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata, Gaza once again erupted into full war footing.
The Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad called the assassination “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people” and declared, “Our response to this crime will have no limits.” Because they’re usually so restrained.
Schools were closed and Israelis, especially in the “envelope” area near the Gaza Strip but also in Tel Aviv, hunkered down in bomb shelters as Iron Dome deflected some but far from all of the rockets launched from the enclave.
The new, or renewed, conflict does not occur in a vacuum. Political leaders in Israel are in the midst of difficult negotiations to form a government after the second inconclusive election this year. Some critics claim the fighting is a scorched earth attempt by incumbent Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to shake up the status quo and tip domestic politics in his favour. But, among those who reject this assessment is Netanyahu’s chief rival, Benny Gantz, who is now leading the efforts to cobble together a working alliance in the Knesset.
It all has a feel of déjà vu, of course, because this scenario, in different permutations, has played out repeatedly. As we posited in this space recently, some people say the status quo cannot hold. It can. It has for decades. But intermittent, terrible flare-ups like this are a part of and a price for that status quo, a high price paid by both Israelis and Palestinians. Until someone finds a path for both peoples to coexist more peacefully, this is life.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu places his vote on election day. (photo by Haim Zach/IGPO from Ashernet)
Unless something dramatic happens between when we write this and when you read this, the future of Israel’s government remains uncertain. To avert a third election in a year, the most viable option for a stable government would appear to be a “national unity” or “centrist coalition” involving both major parties, Likud and Blue and White.
This was the subject of face-to-face discussions between leaders and President Reuven Rivlin, but no agreement was reached. So Binyamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, has a few weeks to try to cobble something together. If he fails, Rivlin will probably call on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to give it a go. Some bets are that, if it comes to that, there will be enough Knesset members desperate enough to avoid a return to the polls that some accommodation will be made. Perhaps the likeliest possibility is a Likud-Blue and White unity government without Netanyahu. (This scenario would become likelier if Netanyahu officially faces criminal charges in the next few days.)
Any broad coalition of this sort would lead to a degree of progress on some fronts – if far-right and religious parties are excluded, some policies and legislation that appeal to the secular majority are likely to advance – while progress on some other fronts would likely stall.
One example is the peace process – although there is, basically, no progress to stall at this point. There is great divergence in Israel over what the next steps should be vis-à-vis the Palestinians. In a broad-based coalition government, that uncertainty would define government policy, probably leading to inaction.
During the recent election, Netanyahu went further than previous leaders, promising to annex chunks of the West Bank to Israel. Gantz and the centre-left in Israel have been confounded by the reality that, while they seek a two-state solution and recognize a one-state situation as demographically unsustainable, until Israel sees a benefit to ending the occupation and can be certain that an independent Palestine in the West Bank will not be a launch pad for terror, independence will not come and the occupation will not end. Without that, no peace, no Palestine.
As a result, we will likely see more of the status quo, until some force acts to alter it. While Netanyahu’s provocative promise to annex areas would have altered the status quo for the worse, a precipitous end to the occupation that left a vacuum to be filled by those wishing to do Israel harm would likewise be a change for the worse. The tense status quo Israelis and Palestinians have now is definitely not great, especially for Palestinians, but it is better than outright war.
An old tale has the rabbi of a medieval Jewish community visiting the duke who has threatened to throw the Jews from his realm. The rabbi returns to his community and tells his people, “I convinced the duke to let us stay – if I can teach his dog to talk within five years.” The Jewish community is dumbfounded. “What a promise? It’s impossible!” The rabbi says, “Relax. I’ve got five years. The dog could die. The duke could die. I could die. Meanwhile, I bought us five years.”
The occupation, the statelessness of the Palestinian people, the recurring missile attacks from Gaza and the violence against civilians are not things we should understate or dismiss. But neither should we believe that any change is necessarily an improvement. The status quo is better than war and it is better than the dissolution of the Jewish state. The status quo is not ideal, but it may be better than currently available alternatives.
One of Tag Meir’s annual events is Flowers of Peace. Participants hand out roses on the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day. This year, they gave out some 2,000 flowers as a message of peace to Muslims and Christians in the city. (photo from Tag Meir)
To counter what Tag Meir head Gadi Gvaryahu described as incitement by radical settlers through Tag Mechir (Price Tagging), Tag Meir (Light Tagging) was formed.
Tag Meir, which started in 2011, is operated by members of the same segment of religious Zionistic Judaism that started price tagging (attacking Palestinian property and people) in 2009. Members of Tag Meir started visiting victims on both sides of the conflict in an effort to show solidarity and repair physical and psychological damage.
Today, Tag Meir is supported by many organizations and institutions in Israel from all segments of Jewish society – secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews – coming together to stand against hate and intolerance.
Though he now lives in Rehovot, Gvaryahu still considers Jerusalem home. He is the eighth generation of his family to live there.
Gvaryahu was deeply affected by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the fact that the killer had come from his segment of religious Zionism, Kippot Srugot (Knitted Kippot). He decided he had to put his passion for helping animals aside – he is a farm animal behavioural researcher by training – to find ways to mend Israeli society.
“I decided it’s about time to be more involved in public business – not politics, but more education,” said Gvaryahu. “Me and a few other families initiated a synagogue, an Orthodox synagogue in Rehovot, named after Yitzhak Rabin.”
Gvaryahu realized there was something wrong with the education system when he received a call from the head of his son’s yeshivah, demanding his son apologize for an outburst.
“Six months after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, a famous rabbi came to my son’s school,” recalled Gvaryahu. “He said that now, with Rabin dead, all his bad things were forgiven. And he didn’t even mention that he was murdered. He just treated him like someone who’d sinned a lot, talking to the whole synagogue, like 400 students, including the head of the synagogue … and they were all silent, except one person – my son.
“My son said, ‘How dare you say that? He just passed away! And, how dare you say that he has sins? He was killed, murdered!’ Then, he left the room, crying.”
When the rosh yeshivah called, Gvaryahu commended his son’s actions and said, “This rabbi should apologize. I’m not going to ask my son to apologize.”
Eventually, they consulted a leading rabbi who declared that Gvaryahu’s son “did a wonderful job and there’s no reason for him to apologize.”
It was at that point that Gvaryahu decided they needed to start their own school.
The first time that Israelis heard the term “Price Tag” in the context of payback was in December 2009. It was dubbed so by a small group of extreme right-wing West Bank settlers who had begun indiscriminately attacking Palestinians.
Gvaryahu explained the psychology behind it: “Something happened to us by Palestinians, by the army, by politicians, whatever … someone will pay the price. The thinking is, we don’t care that you’re innocent, we don’t care that you are Christian, Muslim…. You’re not Jewish, you’ll pay the price. We’ll burn, damage your mosque, your house, your car, your olive trees, and that’s called, ‘Price Tag,’ happening almost daily in the West Bank. Most of them, we don’t hear about. But, after a terror attack by Muslims, unfortunately, we have a bunch of them in the last two months … there’s been attacks by extreme settlers.”
While Tag Mechir destroys, Tag Meir aims to rebuild and bring light. “So, we call the people, the victims, in hospitals, villages, wherever, mosques, monasteries or churches, and we create a solidarity visit,” said Gvaryahu.
“Over the years, we’ve gained many, many Jewish, Christian and Muslim friends, and that’s very important. It’s important, because it’s a correct response to that crime, because they want to create terror or fear, especially among Muslims and Christians. So, those visits strengthen the relationship between Jews and Muslims and Christians. We have three Facebook pages – one in Hebrew, one in Arabic and one in English – with 35,000 followers.”
People in Israel not connected to Tag Meir have started solidarity visits by themselves, aiming to mend fences with Palestinian neighbours. “First, you know, I’m happy about Tag Meir,” Gvaryahu said about this development. “Second, that they get that this is the right way to respond to a hate crime or a price tag attack – it’s wonderful. It’s what we want to happen.
“This isn’t something that can be solved quickly. It’s education. We try to educate society, especially the Zionist society, we hope.”
This year, due to the rise in Tag Mechir attacks, Tag Meir held an education symposium on Sept. 10 at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, near the home of the president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. Among the speakers were the former head of the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, Yaakov Peri, senior rabbis from different segments of society, and the mother of one of the Jewish victims of terror, Sarah Rosenfeld.
“Her son [Malachi Moshe] was murdered and she will give her strong condemning opinion about ‘price tag,’” said Gvaryahu prior to the symposium. “When we came to visit the Rosenfeld family, she said that, if Malachi would be with us, he would join Tag Meir.
“This is very unique about Tag Meir, that we visit both settlers and victims of Tag Mechir on the Palestinian side. It’s not that pleasant an activity sometimes, but we feel it’s very important.”
One of the yearly events Tag Meir hosts is a flower giveaway called Flowers of Peace. They go out into the streets of the Old City in Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day and hand out roses. “This year, we spread 2,000 flowers all over the Old City,” said Gvaryahu. “It’s a symbolic act, sending a message of peace to Muslims and Christians in Jerusalem.”
While Gvaryahu said 40% of the people in Jerusalem are Muslim, Jerusalem Day is only celebrated by the Jewish population. He said some of the songs that are traditionally sung must irritate the Muslim population. “Unfortunately, we don’t celebrate it, in our opinion, in the right way,” he said. “We just march with Israeli flags from West Jerusalem to the Western Wall through the market. Not all the songs are horrible, but a few of them are. So, this is our response. We march with Flowers of Peace.”
Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour is recently out in paperback. (photo by Ilir Bajraktari / The Tower)
Yossi Klein Halevi grew up in the right-wing Zionist youth movement Betar, the ideological stream of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin. As a youth, he wore a silver outline of the land of Israel “as we understood it” that included not only the West Bank but also the area that became the kingdom of Jordan, which the British had severed from historic Palestine. As he’s aged, he’s emphatically mellowed.
His book Letters to My Palestinian Neighbour, recently out in paperback, is, he writes, “an attempt to explain the Jewish story and the significance of Israel in Jewish identity to Palestinians who are my next-door neighbours.”
He lives in the French Hill neighbourhood of Jerusalem and repeatedly throughout the book reflects on how he is face-to-face with the division between their places.
Each chapter – essay, really – begins with “Dear neighbour.”
“From my apartment, I can just barely see the checkpoint you must cross – if you have a permit at all – to enter Jerusalem.” He talks about when, “before the wall was built, before so much else that went wrong, I tried to get to know you.”
In 1998, he set out on a pilgrimage into Islam and Christianity, a religious Jew “seeking not so much to understand your theology as to experience something of your devotional life. I wanted to learn how you pray, how you encounter God in your most intimate moments.”
During those comparatively placid times, he recalls, Israelis made little effort to accommodate their neighbours.
“For many years we in Israel ignored you, treated you as invisible, transparent. Just as the Arab world denied the right of the Jews to define themselves as a people deserving national sovereignty, so we denied the Palestinians the right to define themselves as a distinct people within the Arab nation, and likewise deserving national sovereignty. To solve our conflict, we must recognize not only each other’s right to self-determination but also each side’s right to self-definition.”
Klein Halevi made aliyah from the United States in 1982. Now a senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute – “Israel’s preeminent centre for pluralistic Jewish research and education” – he co-directs the institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, is the author of numerous books and is a prolific commentator and former contributing editor of the New Republic. He has made the book’s Arabic translation available to download for free.
He argues that each side must be allowed to define themselves.
“So who are the Jews? A religion? A people? An ethnicity? A race?… That question impacts directly on our conflict. It goes to the heart of the Arab world’s rejection of Israel’s legitimacy as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” Klein Halevi writes. “Even Palestinian moderates I’ve known who want to end the bloodshed tend to deny that the Jews are an authentic nation. So long as Palestinian leaders insist on defining the Jews as a religion rather than allowing us to define ourselves as we have since ancient times – as a people with a particular faith – then Israel will continue to be seen as illegitimate, its existence an open question.”
He acknowledges that the problem occurs on both sides.
“Some Jews continue to try to ‘prove’ that Palestinian national identity is a fiction, that you are a contrived people. Of course you are – and so are we. All national identities are, by definition, contrived: at a certain point, groups of people determine that they share more in common than apart and invent themselves as a nation, with a common language, memory and evolving story. The emergence of a nation is an inherently subjective process.”
But he attempts to disabuse Palestinians and Arabic readers of the idea that Israel can be overcome.
“I’ve often heard from Palestinians that, just as the Ottoman Turks came here and left, and the British came here and left, so, too, will the Zionists one day leave. That analogy ignores Zionism’s singular achievement. None of those invaders founded a thriving society, let alone a sovereign state. They eventually went back to their own homelands. More than anything else, I need you to understand this: the Jews succeeded where the Crusaders and the Ottomans and the British failed because we didn’t merely come here. We returned.”
This sense of destiny is evocatively expressed when Klein Halevi writes about the War of Independence.
“Our side began the war with three tanks and four combat planes. And we were alone. That, as it turned out, was a crucial advantage, because desperation forced us to mobilize our entire society for a war of survival. If your side had prevailed, few if any Jews would have been left here. As a result, the Jews fought with such determination that only a handful of our communities fell. There was nowhere left to run; we’d reached the final shore of Jewish history.”
But the author makes an effort to acknowledge some of the harsh realities of that victory and the subsequent Israeli control of Palestinian areas and its effect on people. He recalls a moment during a call-up during his reserve service.
“A chubby teenage Palestinian boy, accused of stone throwing, was brought, blindfolded, into our tent camp. A group of soldiers from the border police unit gathered around. One said to him in Arabic: ‘Repeat after me: one order of hummus, one order of fava beans, I love the border police.’ The young man dutifully repeated the rhymed Arabic ditty. There was laughter.… That last story haunts me most of all. It is, seemingly, insignificant. The prisoner wasn’t physically abused; his captors, young soldiers under enormous strain, shared a joke. But that incident embodies for me the corruption of occupation. When my son was about to be drafted into the army I told him: there are times when as a soldier you may have to kill. But you are never permitted, under any circumstances, to humiliate another human being. That is a core Jewish principle.”
He acknowledges his pain over an eventual partition that would, for example, see the Jewish holy city of Hebron as part of an independent Palestine. But, he says: “The only solution worse than dividing this land into two states is creating one state that would devour itself. No two peoples who fought a 100-year existential war can share the intimate workings of government. The current conflict between us would pale beside the rage that would erupt when competing for the same means of power. The most likely model is the disintegration of Yugoslavia into warring ethnic and religious factions – perhaps even worse. A one-state solution would condemn us to a nightmare entwinement – and deprive us both of that which justice requires: self-determination, to be free peoples in our own sovereign homelands.… If Jaffa belongs to you and Hebron belongs to me, then we have two options. We can continue fighting for another 100 years, in the hope that one side or the other will prevail. Or we can accept the solution that has been on the table almost since the conflict began, and divide the land between us. In accepting partition we are not betraying our histories, neighbour; we are conceding that history has given us no real choice.”
Near the end, Klein Halevi reflects that some simple human goodness could have made a massive historic difference.
“Israel is a restless society of uprooted and re-rooted refugees and children of refugees, and the dark side of our vitality is a frankness that can easily become rudeness, the antithesis of Arab decorousness. Israelis often don’t know how to treat each other with respect, let alone those we are occupying. We are a people in a hurry to compensate for our lost centuries of nationhood, a people that doesn’t pay attention to niceties. Sometimes I think that, if only we’d known how to show your people simple respect, so much could have been different here.”
The new paperback edition includes an epilogue of “letters” in response to his neighbourly missives. Some, the author admits, are predictably harsh, dismissive and threatening. But many are long, thoughtful and inspiring. Klein Halevi has started a conversation. It is invigorating and heartily recommended to be a part of it as a reader.
Joseph’s Tomb, inside the gate. (photo by Gil Zohar)
“The bones of Joseph, which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt, were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob.” – Joshua 24:32
“‘And he bought the field where he pitched his tent.’ (Genesis 13:19) Said Rav Yudan bar Simon, ‘This is one of the three places regarding which the nations of the world cannot slander Israel and say, “You stole them!” The places are the Cave of Machpelah [in Hebron], the Temple [in Jerusalem] and the Tomb of Joseph [in Shechem/Nablus].” – Bereshit Rabba, 79:4
There’s little inspiration to be found in the unadorned tomb of Joseph, the favourite of Jacob’s 12 sons. The holy site, located in the gritty eastern outskirts of Nablus among parched olive groves and graveyards of wrecked cars, is today a flashpoint between those who revere the site – Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, Christians of all stripes, and the 600-member Samaritan community living on Mount Gerizim overlooking this West Bank city of 160,000. The traditional anniversary of Joseph’s death on Tammuz 27 (which fell on July 31 this year) is considered an especially auspicious pilgrimage time.
The group of 1,200 pious Jews, armed with permits and prayer books, arrived at the shrine in a convoy of bulletproof buses protected by the Israel Defence Forces. Most were Bratslaver Chassidim, who set great store in their practice of praying at the graves of tzadikim (righteous ones).
The IDF-escorted pilgrimage on the first Tuesday of every month often leads to riots. IDF sappers neutralized a pipe bomb hidden at Joseph’s Tomb prior to the visit of the 1,200 pilgrims and 12 Palestinians were injured during clashes with the IDF. The list of security incidents, arson and terrorism is long and bloody.
In the secular West, the story of Joseph – whose 11 jealous brothers sold their 17-year-old sibling into slavery in Egypt – has been popularized by the rock opera Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Librettist Tim Rice and fellow Academy Award-winning composer Andrew Lloyd Weber, along with actor Donny Osmond as Joseph, captivated audiences from Broadway to the West End with their account of Joseph’s rise to become the vizier, second only to Pharaoh in the Egyptian empire.
But Joseph, the hero of Bible and Quran stories, has hardly been given the royal treatment by Middle East politics. Dotan, where Joseph was thrown into a pit, called Jubb Yussef (Joseph’s Well) today is a ruined caravanserai that collapsed in an earthquake in 1837. Joseph’s tomb, enshrining the bones brought back from Egypt by the Children of Israel some 3,300 years ago together with the remains of Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, has fared better.
The plain one-storey is called Qabr an-Nabi Yúsuf (Tomb of the Prophet Yúsuf) in Arabic and is revered by Jews as Kever Yosef ha-Tzadik (Tomb of Yosef the Righteous). The whitewashed limestone building is capped with a cupula and protected by a massive black gate. Barbed wire crowns the looming walls. Signposts in Arabic and English indicate the nearby sites of Tel Balata and Jacob’s Well. None directs visitors to Joseph’s Tomb.
Tel Balata is the nondescript Canaanite/Israelite Iron Age stratified archeological mound that few tourists bother to visit. Jacob’s Well is covered by a 20th-century Greek Orthodox basilica marking where the patriarch camped when returning to Shechem (ancient Nablus) from Paddan Aram in today’s Iraq. In one of the Torah’s three real estate deals – along with Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and David’s acquiring of Mount Moriah in Jerusalem – Jacob bought the plot of land from the sons of Hamor, the father of Shechem. There, Jacob pitched his tent and erected an altar (Genesis 33:18-20).
Some 1,500 years later, Jesus “came to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near the field which Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s Well was there.” (John 4:5-10) Drinking water, he chatted up a Samaritan woman, known in Greek as Photine (the luminous one; hence, the church’s name, St. Photini). Christian pilgrims flock to the site to reverently drink drafts of cool water from the deep well in the church’s vault.
Across the street is Balata Refugee Camp, administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Today the largest camp in the West Bank, it houses 27,000 people in a quarter-square-kilometre site that was designated for 5,000 refugees when it was established in 1950.
Even for an intrepid, multilingual tour guide like this writer, it is daunting to find the unmarked way to the holy site. The drab building is located next to the Qadari Tuqan School, along a dusty unnamed road where only recently were sidewalks laid. The easiest way to find the landmark is to look for the Palestinian Authority police vehicle parked outside the locked gate. Then, one must locate the pair of PA police officers loitering in the shade nearby, smoking cigarettes and nervously fidgeting with their rifles. Ask politely in Arabic and they’ll let you in, no questions asked, no baksheesh (tip or bribe) required – just don’t mention that you’re Jewish.
Inside the locked gate, you’ll find a simple barrel tomb and the stump of a column of indeterminate age. There’s no evidence of the repeated vandalism that has punctuated the tragic history of Joseph’s Tomb since 1995, when Israel withdrew from the West Bank city, ending the occupation that began in 1967 with the Six Day War.
A photo from 1900 shows the well-maintained compound around Joseph’s Tomb. A carriage road facilitated the pilgrimage of pious Jews from the Old Yishuv who regularly came to pray there. The holy site stood in isolation. Nearby was the Arab hamlet of Balata, with eight houses.
The name Nablus is a corruption of the Latin Colonia Julia Neapolis, which was founded by the Roman emperor Vespasian in 72 CE. In the old city, in 1906, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II erected a clocktower to celebrate 30 years on the throne of the Sublime Porte.
In the Six Day War, Israel captured the territory, which had been occupied by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 1948. Once-somnolent Nablus experienced a burst of prosperity, though today, under PA self-rule, the Palestinian economy is floundering. Expanding from a population of 30,000, the city spread out to swallow the nearby villages, including Balata. Joseph’s Tomb became entangled in urban sprawl.
Jewish settlers began to frequent the mausoleum. By 1975, Muslims were prohibited from visiting the site, which some claimed was the tomb of Sheikh Yúsuf Dawiqat, an 18th-century Sufi saint. In 1982, St. Louis, Mo.-born kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh established the Od Yosef Chai (Joseph Still Lives) yeshivah at the site.
Conflict mounted following the Oslo Accords. Tensions boiled over in September 2000, in the wake of then-prime minister Ariel Sharon’s controversial visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. A full-scale battle broke out.
On Oct. 1, 2000, Border Police Cpl. Madhat Yusuf, 19, of Beit Jann in the Upper Galilee, was wounded in the neck in a clash with Palestinians at Joseph’s Tomb. Over the course of four hours, the Druze warrior bled to death because the IDF considered it too risky to evacuate him without a ceasefire.
A week later, on Oct. 7, 2000, the site was handed over to PA police. Within hours, Joseph’s Tomb was pillaged by Palestinian protesters. Using pickaxes, sledgehammers and their bare hands, they demolished the holy site. It was rebuilt by Italian stonemasons.
In the Bible, Joseph – the chaste and handsome prisoner – is wooed by an unnamed would-be lover only identified as Potiphar’s wife. Though many midrashim about Joseph are incorporated in the Quran’s 12th chapter, known as Surat Yusuf, the lady’s name is similarly omitted. However, within several centuries, various Islamic sources identified her as Zuleika. Among these medieval texts, the most popular was the epic Farsi poem “Yusuf and Zulaikha,” composed in 7,000 Persian couplets by 15th-century poet Jami.
The Sufi master regarded the story of Joseph’s temptations as an allegory for the mystical striving after divinity. In Nablus today, pilgrims continue to come to Joseph’s Tomb seeking that union. Alas, Israelis and Palestinians have not found a coat of many cultures to fit them both equally.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem, Israel.
The U.S. president accused Representative Rashida Tlaib of a political stunt when the American politician of Palestinian descent rejected Israel’s offer of permission to visit the West Bank on humanitarian grounds.
Israel’s government had first announced that it would permit visits to Palestine by Tlaib and fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar, another of the four members of the “squad” of progressive women of colour elected to Congress as Democrats in last November’s U.S. midterm elections. Then, apparently after Donald Trump intervened with his continued vendetta against the women, the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu changed their minds and declared that the congresswomen would not be permitted to go to Palestine. Then, in another twist, Israel decided to allow Tlaib admission based on “humanitarian” grounds to visit her grandmother and other relatives in the West Bank. Tlaib rejected the offer.
“Silencing me & treating me like a criminal is not what she wants for me,” Tlaib tweeted about her grandmother. “It would kill a piece of me. I have decided that visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in – fighting against racism, oppression & injustice.”
Putting ideology over seeing a nonagenarian grandparent seems a tad distorted, but she’s probably correct that Israel’s actions were over-the-top.
The idea that Israel should ban members of the United States Congress from entering the country (en route to the West Bank, which is occupied by Israeli forces, which means Israel controls who can enter and move around there) is a highly dubious move. Given Tlaib’s and Omar’s unrelenting condemnation of Israel and its policies, including support for the BDS movement, some people argued that Israel should ban them. But almost every mainstream Jewish and Zionist organization in the United States that spoke up argued that they should be permitted to go.
In fact, it would have been smart to invite the two as guests of the Israeli government and give them the VIP tour of Israel. Then, they would have at least have heard the Israeli side of the story, take it or leave it. More to the point, had they refused the invitation to see the modern miracle that is the Jewish state, they might have looked closed-minded.
Instead, the two Democrats have come out of it looking righteous, while Netanyahu looks like Trump’s puppet and Trump looks like, well, like he usually does. Especially when he tweeted that the only winner in the scenario is Tlaib’s grandmother because “She doesn’t have to see her now!” One wonders about what goes through the minds Trump’s grandchildren when he blusters into the room.
On the one hand, the recent vote in Congress to criticize the BDS movement was massively lopsided and indicates that Israel’s special relationship with the United States remains steadfast. But among grassroots Democratic voters and some other Americans, the Netanyahu-Trump bromance is repellent and makes some people naturally less amenable to the bilateral relationship – specifically because it has been so spectacularly and cynically politicized by both leaders.
There are serious and legitimate fears that the solid bipartisanship that has defined this relationship for 71 years is fraying, possibly irrevocably.
It doesn’t matter what one thinks of Trump. It doesn’t matter if you agree with the board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition who told the New York Times, “When I look at what he’s done for Israel, I’m not going to take issue with anything he’s said or done.” The day-to-day cut-and-thrust of politics means we will agree and disagree with our leaders in Canada, or those in the United States or Israel or elsewhere. But the deterioration of the nonpartisanship around the foundational importance of the bilateral relationship between Israel and its most significant ally is a grave concern.
We have an election campaign about to launch here in Canada. There will be moments when Middle East policy comes up and we will disagree. What we should strive to ensure is that, regardless of our opinions about Israel’s leader – and what position he may hold after next month’s Israeli elections – or our thoughts about our own political leaders, one thing we should avoid at all cost is turning Israel into a partisan tool. Let’s just not. And let’s not reward politicians who try.
Tzahi Grad, left, and Ala Dakka are great together in The Cousin. (photo from Shaxaf Haber/Venice Film Festival)
The 30th annual Vancouver Jewish Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7-Dec. 2, has an impressive lineup. Not only is there a wide range of quality films from which to choose, but the reach of the festival has widened, with screenings this year also taking place in West Vancouver and Port Moody. Here are just some of the great films you’ll be able to see.
After Naftali, a successful Israeli actor-director, proudly shows his newly hired Palestinian worker, Fahed, the trailer for his latest creation – an internet series called One by One, which will bring Israelis and Palestinians together to talk and, eventually, Naftali believes, help bring about peace – Fahed’s response is, “Yes, it’s nice. It’s a little, um, a little naïve, isn’t it?” Begrudgingly, Naftali admits, “Totally, but not impossible.”
Maybe not impossible, but certainly beyond the scope of a web series, as Naftali soon finds out in The Cousin. When a ninth-grade girl is attacked in the neighbourhood, suspicion immediately falls on Fahed, who is arrested, then let out on bail – bail paid for by Naftali, who is pretty sure that Fahed is innocent. As the film progresses, Naftali’s beliefs are seriously challenged, both by his neighbours, who are champing at the bit to mete out their own justice on the not-proven-guilty Fahed, and by his wife, who wasn’t comfortable having a Palestinian worker in the first place. The pressure forces Naftali to confront his own latent racism, which arises rather quickly.
The acting in this film is excellent. Writer, director and star Tzahi Grad is convincing as the somewhat pompous but well-meaning Naftali and Ala Dakka is wonderful as Fahed, a compassionate, laidback, not-so-handy handyman who shows some promise as a rap musician. The supporting characters fulfil their roles believably. The oddball neighbours, who at first just seem to have been added for comic relief, become truly menacing, and Osnat Fishman as Naftali’s wife aptly portrays her transformation from merely nervous and annoyed to scared and angry.
The writing in the film is mainly good. The serious dialogue and action are compelling and there are humourous interjections that work to both lighten the material and shed light on it. However, there are other attempts at humour that are inconsistent with the overall mood and message. And the last three minutes of the film are completely bizarre, and really should have ended up on the cutting-room floor. But this should not stop you from seeing what otherwise is an entertaining, gripping and thought-provoking movie because, if nothing else, it’s such a bad ending that it’s almost good; at the least, it’s memorable, in a shake-your-head-in-wonder way.
The Cousin has three screenings: Nov. 10, 6:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue Cinemas; Nov. 25, 2 p.m., at Kay Meek Studio Theatre (West Vancouver); and Nov. 26, 6:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre (Port Moody).
A tragic thriller
Bram Fischer is one of the great Jewish heroes of the 20th century, yet he is not widely remembered outside his native South Africa. The crackling moral thriller An Act of Defiance, which recreates the attorney’s gutsy exploits during the Rivonia Trial in the early 1960s, brilliantly revives his legacy.
From the outset, the film defines Fischer (played with verve and intelligence by Peter Paul Muller) less by his considerable legal skills and reputation than by the company he keeps: he is a strategist and ally of Nelson Mandela and the other leaders (several of them Jewish) covertly plotting against the apartheid regime. In fact, Fischer is supposed to be at the meeting where the police bust in and arrest the activists.
Free and available to represent the accused against charges of sabotage, Fischer is more than their defender and advocate: he’s an active member of the resistance whose actions – epitomized by a tense, protracted sequence in which he smuggles key documents out of a government building, inadvertently placing his family in danger – express his commitment and courage even more than his legal challenges and parries.
Fischer’s extracurricular activities have the effect of pushing An Act of Defiance out of the realm of courtroom drama and into a full-bore thriller. That said, the film never loses sight of the plight of the Rivonia defendants, who face death sentences if convicted.
Dutch director Jean van de Velde fills the cast with South African actors such as Antoinette Louw, who imbues Molly Fischer with backbone, wit and warmth to match her husband. Along with its other attributes, An Act of Defiance is a moving love story.
An Act of Defiance screens Nov. 11, 3:30 p.m., at Fifth Avenue.
Faith and family
Redemption, which is called Geula in Hebrew, after the main character’s daughter, is a powerful film, the emotional impact of which builds up imperceptibly, such that you may only find yourself teary-eyed awhile after it has ended, when all the feelings it evokes finally reach the surface.
Co-directors and co-writers Joseph Madmony and Boaz Yehonatan Yacov grab viewers’ attention right away, with a lyrically and musically edgy song accompanying us as we follow Menachem through the streets to the drugstore, where he gets his photo taken – even though his attempts at smiling fail – then pausing to have a smoke before returning to his apartment to relieve the babysitter. Within the first five minutes, we know he is an awkward, sad, kind and generous Orthodox Jew, as well as an attentive, caring and loving father.
Other aspects of his life come into focus as he reconnects with his former friends and band mates, including his reason for reuniting them. Menachem’s 6-year-old daughter, Geula, needs expensive cancer treatments if there’s a chance for her to survive the cancer that killed her mother. Menachem, who works at a supermarket, needs the money that the band could make from playing at weddings.
The renewal of the friendships involves the reopening of some old wounds, and the men’s paths to healing are stories well told, though the film is mainly about Menachem, who, we find out, broke with the group when he became religious 15 years earlier. Moshe Folkenflik plays the widower with nuance, humility and depth, and Emily Granin as his daughter, Geula, captures the strong will, intelligence, bravery and fear of this young girl, playing with subtlety what could have been a maudlin role.
Redemption will be screened twice: Nov. 12, 8:45 p.m., at Fifth Avenue and Nov. 29, 8:45 p.m., at Inlet Theatre. [It will also screen as part of the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival on nov. 4, 1:30 p.m., at the Vic Theatre. For tickets and information to the Victoria festival, visit vijff.ca.]
Smiles and belly laughs
Sam Hoffman’s resoundingly funny debut feature, Humor Me, imagines a well-appointed New Jersey retirement community as the setting for mid-life rejuvenation and resurrection. Neatly avoiding or flipping every cliché about seniors (cute, crotchety or flirtatious), the adult son-aging father dynamic and the theatre, Humor Me is a warm-hearted, flawlessly executed fable.
When his wife takes their young son and leaves him for a billionaire, talented-but-blocked playwright Nate Kroll (New Zealand actor Jemaine Clement) has to move out of their Manhattan brownstone and into the guest bedroom at his dad’s town house at Cranberry Bog. Bob (a note-perfect turn by Elliot Gould) is an inveterate joke teller, but his repertoire doesn’t work on a 40-year-old failed artist.
“Life’s going to happen, son, whether you smile or not,” he declares, a philosophy that the audience can embrace more easily than Nate can. If it contains a bit of Jewish fatalism, well, that’s Gould’s voice. So Bob’s jokes, which are consistently risqué and constructed with an ironic twist, have a faint air of the Borscht Belt about them. (It’s not a coincidence that Hoffman produced and directed the web series Old Jews Telling Jokes.)
There’s not a single stupid character in Humor Me, including Nate’s bland, successful brother (Erich Bergen), and this generosity of spirit means we’re always laughing with Nate’s foils, not at them. It helps immeasurably that Hoffman (best known for producing the TV show Madame Secretary) assembled a veteran cast – Annie Potts as Bob’s girlfriend, Le Clanché du Rand as a flirtatious senior and Bebe Neuwirth as a theatre heavyweight – that nails every last punch line and reaction shot.
Humor Me plays out the way we hope and expect it will, which is to say it delivers on its implicit promises. En route, it provides lots of smiles and several belly laughs. Even Nate, who’s well aware that he’s earned every joke that he’s the butt of, gets his share of one-liners. There’s plenty to go around, you see.
Humor Me is at Fifth Avenue on Nov. 14, 1 p.m.
For the full Vancouver Jewish Film Festival schedule and tickets, visit vjff.org.
Michael Fox is a writer and film critic living in San Francisco.
Left to right: Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994. (photo by Saar Yaacov via VIFF)
It’s almost painful to be reminded of how close Israelis and Palestinians were to achieving peace 25 years ago with the Oslo Accords. Yet, Mor Loushy, co-director of The Oslo Diaries with partner Daniel Sivan, hopes that the documentary inspires audiences to believe that peace is possible. After all, the impossible almost happened in the 1990s, so why not in the future?
The Oslo Diaries screens as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs Sept. 27-Oct. 12. The film is based on the personal diaries of the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in the initially secret peace talks that unofficially began in 1992 in Oslo, Norway, after the late-1991 Madrid Conference – at that time, it was illegal for the two sides to communicate. Those meetings, which eventually became public and official, led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in Washington, D.C., in 1993.
The narrative of The Oslo Diaries comprises archival footage, reenactments and interviews, including the last interview former prime minister and president of Israel, Shimon Peres – who was foreign minister during Oslo and a signatory of the accords – gave in his life. It takes viewers through an abridged version of the negotiations and offers insight into the leadership and compromise that was needed to reach an agreement.
That leadership and the prospects for peace took a literally fatal blow when Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated on Nov. 4, 1995. Binyamin Netanyahu, who, the documentary shows, was fierce in his opposition to the peace accords – passionately addressing rallies at which supporters held signs calling for Rabin’s death – was elected prime minister in 1996. The documentary ends with the start of his victory speech: “Dear supporters, friends, the state of Israel is embarking on a new path today.”
The Oslo Diaries is the third film Loushy and Sivan have worked on together; Censored Voices and Israel Ltd. being the other two. The couple is based in Santa Monica, Calif., for a year, after which they and their two children, ages 3 and 6, will return to Tel Aviv. Loushy was born and raised in Tel Aviv and Sivan, born in Haifa, moved to Tel Aviv when he was 18. The Jewish Independent spoke to Loushy by phone recently, in advance of her arrival in Vancouver to participate in VIFF.
While The Oslo Diaries does an admirable job of attempting to present the material without commentary, the filmmakers’ political perspective does come through, in particular with Netanyahu being depicted as the bad guy, so to speak.
“First of all, we never hide our opinion,” said Loushy. “We’re from the left-wing, or part of it. We stand behind our views and, if someone from the right-wing would have made that specific film, it would have been a completely different one. But, what ‘film’ is about, I don’t think that there is an objective film. Every cut that I make in the film, it’s a decision. But, I think that it’s really more important for us to keep it balanced, and we fought a lot about it, we had a lot of discussions about it.”
Given the reactions she has received, Loushy said, “I think that this film is completely not right- and left-wing – this is a film about peace. And I do feel, from the screenings around the world, that it’s past this boundary of camps, on the one hand. On the other hand, in Israel, the situation is difficult: we are divided, there are camps … and our government is the most right-wing government that we ever knew. Every day, there is a new anti-democratic law that passes, and it’s frightening.”
About making the documentary, she said, “We’ve hit such a rock bottom that someone needs to stop for a moment, and it’s part of my duty as a civilian and as a filmmaker to say, OK, let’s talk…. We’ve forgotten about Oslo, and most of the people don’t even know the story behind the code name ‘Oslo.’ Let’s talk for a moment, let’s really see what happened there and what really was there – not from the news or from secondary sources, but from the first sources, the people that were there. Listen for a moment. What exactly happened there? What went wrong?”
She said people have forgotten about the negotiations and that reminding people about them will help. “It gives hope for the future,” she said. “We were that close, we can do it again, it’s not impossible. You just have to stop for a moment and think, what kind of future do we want to leave our children? Do we want the same, as in the present, a future of wars … so many people that are being killed every day, that’s what we want for ourselves? Or do we need a reminder for a second of the place we could have gone to, for the places we can get to? We just need a strong leader that’s going to take us there. And I think that this film does an incredible job of putting this discourse again on the table because, in the past three or four rounds of elections, the word ‘peace’ … [and the prospect of] ‘negotiation’ is no longer on the table, and this is such a crazy thing.”
When asked how much blame she attributes to Netanyahu for the breakdown of the peace process, Loushy said, “It’s a very complex answer because it’s not one answer. I think that he had a lot to do with the peace breakdown but he was not the only one. The people voted for him and, when people voted for him, they knew what they were voting for – it was obvious he was not going to continue with the peace process. So, I think it was the people and I think that, yes, he had an essential part, saying, ‘I believe in the holy grail,’ [in Greater Israel]. This is his belief, and I think he succeeded in that,” she said, citing figures indicating that the number of settlers has quadrupled since 1993.
Loushy said Netanyahu has claimed that “the West Bank is just a part of Israel, and [he] wants more and more settlements, [so] that also the left-wing people right now are saying, OK, how can we resolve it? That there is an unresolved situation because of the settlers.”
Both fanaticism and fear are contributing to the situation, she said, “although I do believe that most of the people want peace, believe in peace, [and] are just too scared to give it a chance.
“And that’s where this film comes in, saying, listen: first of all, the whole Palestinian leadership was interviewed for this film. I was a guest in Ramallah in all of the high places in the Palestinian leadership – there is a partner. He [Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who was also one of the signatories of the Oslo Accords, for the Palestinian Liberation Organization] wants to talk to us. He wants a solution. I believe it in all of my heart that the Abu Mazen government wants peace.
“So, there is the Palestinian leadership that was interviewed for this film, and I do believe there is a chance, but that people are just too scared and [the film’s purpose is to help people] to remember exactly what happened.”
While the filmmakers interviewed several Israelis who were involved, they could not get access to Netanyahu. “We wanted to [interview him],” said Loushy, “but Netanyahu doesn’t give any interviews to the press…. You see Yitzhak Rabin – in all of the archives, Yitzhak Rabin is giving interviews every other day… [Netanyahu] is connecting through Twitter, and that’s it. He doesn’t give interviews to the press.”
The Oslo Diaries premièred at the Jerusalem Film Festival and there have been screenings all over Israel, said Loushy, who noted the diversity of audiences, which have included secular and observant Jews. “This is amazing,” she said, to have people from both sides sitting together in the theatre. “People want the discourse, want to talk about it again. Of course, every screening, [when there’s] someone shouting at me, I know I did my job…. I made somebody think about something he hasn’t thought [about] before.”
The Jewish Independent is VIFF’s media partner for the Vancouver screenings of The Oslo Diaries, which take place Sept. 28 and 29, and Oct. 12. The documentary is a Canadian co-production, co-produced by Ina Fichman (Intuitive Pictures); Radio-Canada is also listed as one of the film’s sponsors. All of the post-production was done in Montreal, said Loushy, “and we loved it.”
For the full VIFF schedule and tickets, visit viff.org.
Danny Ayalon speaks at Trinity Western University on Aug. 30. (photo by Chloe Heuchert)
On Aug. 30, Danny Ayalon spoke at Trinity Western University. Ayalon, a former deputy foreign minister of Israel and former ambassador of Israel to the United States, is the founder of The Truth About Israel website. The event at Trinity was sponsored and co-organized by the TWU Alumni Association with Natalie Hilder, a former political aide at Parliament of Canada, who hosted and introduced the talk.
Ayalon’s presentation, Insights and Analysis of Israel and the Middle East, was thought-provoking. He described the outstanding issues and argued that peace could be attained if both sides would come together for a resolution. Throughout the interactive lecture, Ayalon mentioned Judaea and its importance in our modern day.
Ayalon has served as an advisor to three Israeli prime ministers: Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. In 2002, he was selected as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a role he occupied until 2006, playing a significant part in the Road Map for Peace, a plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He later became involved with Nefesh b’Nefesh, which facilitates aliyah by North American Jews, and then he joined the Yisrael Beiteinu political party, being elected as a member of the Knesset in 2009 and bein//g appointed as deputy foreign minister in Netanyahu’s government of the time; he wasn’t a candidate in the next election.
The lecture at TWU began with Ayalon explaining how Israel strives – and is obligated – to bring about peace. He spoke about the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. President Anwar Sadat, he said, offered Israel an olive branch in 1977 by speaking at the Knesset to identify strategies for peace, which led to Israel’s decision to give up the Sinai Peninsula, an area almost three times the size of the state of Israel. Israel and Egypt have a mutual respect and fight together against Hamas and ISIS, said Ayalon.
Israel also made peace with Jordan, he said. The mid-1990s agreement gave Jordanians land and water and, today, the Israel-Jordan border is peaceful because the governments work together on certain matters, said Ayalon.
Not all peace discussions have gone according to plan, however, and Ayalon described the Oslo negotiations of the early 1990s and the 1993 agreement that was reached, but which was ultimately unsuccessful. The parties would meet again at Camp David in July 2000 and Ayalon was there. He shared some of his firsthand experiences from the discussions, recalling how Israeli prime minister Barak offered Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat Gaza and half of Jerusalem but to no avail. Ayalon also spoke about the unsuccessful attempt at peace that occurred in 2008 between prime minister Ehud Olmert and PA president Mahmoud Abbas. Again, he said, both sides could not come to an agreement even though Israel offered land.
Ayalon said the ways in which Israel strives for peace are not broadcast on the news, but are, instead, ignored in a way. The major headlines are about Israel’s alleged war crimes, he said, but this not the truth. Israelis fear for their lives every day, he said, because of the bomb attacks and other hostile actions of Hamas, who use their own people as human shields.
“There are 22 Arab countries and Israel is one state, and makes up only [a miniscule part] of the entire Middle East,” said Ayalon. “This is not a war about territory or natural resources but of elimination and extinction.”
When it comes to the United Nations, Israel is outnumbered. There are 193 member countries, with 120 voting against Israel, he said. While some of these countries are bowing to the pressure against Israel in order to keep themselves safe, Ayalon said the result is that many resolutions against Israel are made by the UN, so that Israel has little chance on the international front.
He went as far back as UN Resolution 181 in 1947, which called for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arabs states. The Arabs rejected the agreement and denied that Jews had any right to the land. To this day, Ayalon said, Palestinian schools use their curriculum to teach children that Israel is theirs. He said, in order for peace to become a real possibility, the truth must be established – curricula, media and the way in which children are brought up need to change before peace can be achieved.
Chloe Heuchertis a fifth-year history and political science student at Trinity Western University. She was involved in the early stages of the planning for the lecture.
Lili Tepperman is one of five kids featured in Beauty. (photo from NFB)
It’s fine to be who you are,” says Bex Mosch, who turned 9 years old last year, when Beauty was released. Since the age of 3, Bex – formerly Rebecca – says he has known that he is a boy. He and the other “gender-creative” kids interviewed in Christina Willings’ 23-minute documentary have been forced by circumstances to become more mature than most kids their age. And they have more nuanced views on what it means to be human than many adults.
Beauty has its local première during the Vancouver Queer Film Festival’s first short film program, called The Coast is Genderqueer, which takes place Aug. 17. In addition to Bex, Fox Kou Asano, Milo Santini-Kammer, Montreal Jewish community member Lili Tepperman and Tru Wilson are interviewed. Interwoven with the interviews, footage of the kids being kids and meeting their families briefly, parts of Beauty are animated. These illustrations depict some of the kids’ favourite interests and tie together some of their common experiences. None of the parents is interviewed.
“In a way, the concept of this film came to me in the early ’80s,” says Willings in an interview on the NFB media site. “I was thinking a lot about the deconstruction of gender at that time, as were many others. We examined it from every angle, but what’s new now is that it’s children who are leading the conversation, who are saying, ‘Hey! Something’s wrong here!’ Some compassionate, and I would say enlightened, parents are hearing them. The new conversation isn’t ideologically driven, it’s experiential, and there’s a profound purity about that. It’s a breakthrough that I have felt very moved and honoured to witness and, by 2012, I realized this shift was going to be the subject of my next film.”
All of the five interviewees have had to face serious challenges, from being laughed at to being bullied. And, of course, they have had to talk with their parents about how they see themselves, versus how their parents initially viewed them.
“Sometimes, it’s easy to think it would be less stressful just to fit in,” says Lili in the film, “but then I’m not really being myself, and I find that’s an important part of living life because, if everybody’s trying to be like everybody else … it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Another NFB film being screened in Vancouver next month is Wall, which is based on British playwright David Hare’s 2009 monologue on the security fence/wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Wall is not the first extended exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Sir David, who was knighted in 1998. Written in 1997, his Via Dolorosa monologue premièred in London in 1998.
The film Wall has been a long time in coming. According to the NFB media site, in 2010, NFB executive producer and producer David Christensen “had a three-hour drive ahead of him when he chanced upon a podcast of Wall.”
“‘Listening to David Hare’s take on this wall Israel had put up gripped me visually,’ recalls Christensen.
“Riveted by Hare’s reframing of the issue and struck by how he could visualize the piece as an animated film, Christensen immediately called his producing partner Bonnie Thompson, who had the same reaction he did upon listening to Hare’s piece.
“‘For many of us, the issues around the Middle East, Israel and Palestine are complex and polarizing,’ says Thompson. ‘We thought making an animated film was a way to better understand this wall.’”
Canadian filmmaker Cam Christiansen is the animator who brought the concept to life visually, using 3-D motion-capture footage and other “cutting-edge animation tools.”
Wall has been the official selection of six film festivals to date, so it has captured critics’ imaginations. However, most Jewish community members will find it hard to watch, as Hare pays lip-service to the complexity of the situation but never veers very far away from blaming Israel for pretty much everything. When he says, “words become flags. They announce which side you’re on,” anyone with a basic knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only has to look at the title of this work to know on which sides he falls. But then he goes on for 80 minutes about it.
There are a few instances when Hare seems about to offer the Israeli side, or at least condemn Hamas, but then he retreats. When he is told about a Hamas torture tactic, he is at first repulsed but then suggests it’s a metaphor for how Palestinians must feel at the hands of Israel. When he sees a poster of Saddam Hussein in a Ramallah café, he wonders about the appropriateness of such a man as a hero but then concludes it’s OK because Israel put up the wall, after all. And, then there’s his exchange with a Palestinian who says that Britain is to blame for all the problems: “Of course it’s your fault. The British were running Palestine in the 1940s. When they ran away and left everything to the Israelis, they didn’t care what happened to everyone else. There was a life here – a Christian life, a Muslim life, a Jewish life – and that life was destroyed.”
This ridiculous statement – and so many others – is not only left unchallenged by Hare or any of the filmmakers, but gets nods or words of understanding. With Israeli novelist David Grossman as the predominant voice defending or explaining Israel’s motivations and actions in Wall, most Jewish movie-goers will know before seeing it just how limited are the views expressed in this film, no matter what complexity it proclaims to convey.
Wall screens four times between Aug. 17 and 21 at Vancity Theatre. For tickets, visit viff.org.