From left: Lee Broda, Shani Atias, Noa Tishby, Azita Ghanizada. Photo by Gerri Miller

Israeli, Muslim Women Team to Fight for Equality in Hollywood

Stories of sexual misconduct and abuse, workplace discrimination and pay inequality have dominated the headlines recently, drawing attention to issues women face every day in Hollywood. But for women of Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian heritage, there are additional issues of stereotyping and racism that make getting ahead that much harder.

Women Creating Change hopes to counter that through networking, creative collaboration and bridging the long-standing divide between Jews and Israelis on one side and other Middle Easterners on the other.

The new organization, founded in June by Israeli actress-producer Lee Broda, held its inaugural event on Nov. 18 at Los Angeles Community College, featuring a panel discussion, workshops on writing and branding, as well as one-on-one mentoring sessions.

“It’s one thing to talk about empowering women and another to actually make it happen,” Broda told the Journal. “We’re bringing the Arab-Muslim and Israeli-Jewish worlds together to create opportunities, refer each other, hire each other. We’ve connected writers with producers. There already are results.”

Broda acknowledged that “there are issues on both sides” that may make it uncomfortable for some Israelis and non-Israelis to work together at first. “But just by understanding and talking about it, we can be a voice and show our communities that it is possible to find common ground. It’s a small shift that we’re making, but we’re hoping it will trickle down,” she said.

Israeli actress, singer and activist Noa Tishby (“The Affair,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past”), the daughter of a feminist mother whose father was Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, never faced discrimination as a young actress in Israel. “It never occurred to me that women can’t do the same things men can,” she said on the panel. “Then I moved to the States, and people wouldn’t even take meetings with me because I’m Israeli and a woman. It was shocking to me.”

Tishby talked about being bumped from a project she created and said she’s been “humiliated and propositioned” in the past. Nevertheless, she said, “It’s important that we acknowledge the difficulties. We will not win all the time. It’s going to continue to be hard. But we should not shy away from trying.”

“We will not win all the time. But we should not shy away from trying.” — Noa Tishby

Actress Azita Ghanizada (“Alphas,” “Complete Unknown”), who was born in Afghanistan, has often faced negative ethnic stereotyping in her acting career. But the Jewish creators of “Alphas” changed her character from Chasidic to Muslim when they cast her. And the character she plays in the forthcoming “Kilroy Was Here” originally was written as Latina but is now a Muslim. She sees both “small steps” as a victory for diversity and inclusiveness.

Ghanizada is encouraged that filmmakers like Ava DuVernay “see things through a differently colored lens” and believes Women Creating Change “is a step in the right direction. It creates an open dialogue between women from different regions of the world,” she said. “We have similar stories based on common threads of how we grew up and what we struggle against. There are way more similarities than differences created by politics and religion.”

Moroccan-Israeli actress Shani Atias, who has a recurring role on “Ten Days in the Valley” (returning to ABC on Dec. 23) will appear in the Starz series “Counterpart” in January. The younger sister of Moran Atias (“Tyrant”) will play the title role in the biblical movie “Jezebel” and star in “The Color Red,” a short film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s a founding member of Women Creating Change.

“With SAG-AFTRA, Women in Film, and other great organizations backing us up, we’re already one step ahead of the game,” she said. “The next step would be passing laws and regulations that [state] you have to hire a certain amount of women, and that women have to get paid equally. It has to start with us.”

Gal Gadot in the 2017 film “Wonder Woman.” Photo by Clay Enos/DC Comics

Could Gal Gadot become the biggest Israeli superstar ever?

Try to think of the most famous Israelis in history. Not necessarily the most consequential or “important” ones — like any number of Nobel Prize winners or behind-the-scenes Middle East peace deal negotiators — but those who are most universally recognizable.

Most lists would likely include a pioneering role model (Golda Meir), a supermodel who once dated Leonardo DiCaprio (Bar Refaeli), its seeming prime minister for life (Benjamin Netanyahu), a politician with crazy hair (David Ben-Gurion), a war hero with a pirate-style eye patch (Moshe Dayan) and a virtuoso violinist (Itzhak Perlman).

Some might even mistakenly include a fictional character — Ziva David, the former Mossad agent on “NCIS,” America’s most-watched TV show, who is played by a Chilean actress.

But a new name may soon go at the very top of the list: Gal Gadot (pronounced “gahl gah-DOTE”).

The actress and model is set to star in the upcoming remake of “Wonder Woman,” a film based on the legendary DC Comics series that hits U.S. theaters June 2.

[MORE: Why casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman really matters]

Starring in the average Hollywood superhero blockbuster instantly makes any actor an international sensation — but this isn’t your average superhero flick. “Wonder Woman,” featuring one of the few iconic female superheroes, carries the kind of symbolic weight that could turn Gadot into a global feminist torch-holder for decades to come. (That’s assuming the movie doesn’t tank, that she’ll continue to appear in sequels, and that feminists will accept a role model whose everyday outfit is essentially a one-piece bathing suit.)

For those who don’t know her yet, Gadot, 32, has long been a household name in Israel, where she has been a supermodel since winning the Miss Israel pageant at 18 in 2004. Unlike Refaeli, the famed Israeli model she is often compared to, Gadot is known, too, for carrying out her mandatory two years of military service in the Israel Defense Forces. And if you’re wondering: Yes, she is married (to Israeli real estate businessman Yaron Versano).

Gadot scored a part as an ex-Mossad agent in the fourth film of “The Fast and the Furious” franchise in 2009 — in part, she has said, because director Justin Lin was impressed with her military experience. Since then she has had a few other small roles in Hollywood films, such as “Date Night” (starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey). Her first appearance as Princess Diana of Themyscira (Wonder Woman’s real name) came in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in 2016.

Gadot, 32, shown in a scene from “Wonder Woman.” Photo by Alex Bailey/DC Comics


So she isn’t yet widely known outside of Israel (except maybe to a hardcore cadre of “Fast and Furious” fans), but her public profile is about to radically change. “Wonder Woman” isn’t an amazing piece of art, though it will likely satisfy fans of the other over-the-top superhero films released in the past decade or so. It is projected to perform at least as well as some of its male-centric counterparts, such as “Captain America” or “Thor,” at the U.S. box office (at least $65 million to $83 million) and should rake in hundreds of millions of dollars around the world.

Beyond the numbers, “Wonder Woman” must also bear the weight of the feminist anticipation that has been building steadily around the film for years. The hype only increased when a female director (Patty Jenkins) took over the project in 2015, making “Wonder Woman” the first female superhero film to be directed by a woman.

And Gadot is actually already well on her way to becoming embraced as a feminist icon. Last fall, she was included in a U.N. ceremony honoring the Wonder Woman character as an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. (The United Nations soon dropped the character as an honorary ambassador after staffers there complained that the comic book superheroine was “not culturally encompassing or sensitive.”) Gadot recently proclaimed that Wonder Woman “of course” is a feminist in an Entertainment Weekly interview that is being cited across the internet. From her lack of underarm hair to the kind of shoes she wears, everything is being analyzed through a feminist lens.

It won’t hurt Gadot’s popularity that she seems to be, as the original Wonder Woman character was in the comics, sculpted from clay by a god. On screen, she has a magnetic quality — simultaneously graceful, elegant, tough, athletic and bursting with sex appeal.

How popular will Gadot become? It’s hard to say. Other recent female superhero movies have starred actresses who already were well-known, such as Jennifer Garner in “Elektra” and Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” Neither movie made much of an impact. Hollywood is also prone to reboot its most popular franchises, swapping out actors and diluting a star’s connection to a character (see Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield in the various Spider-Man films, and the many actors linked to Batman and Superman).

Cast member Gal Gadot poses at the premiere of “Wonder Woman” in Los Angeles on May 25. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters


One thing is for sure: Gadot will go down in history as a distinctly Israeli actress. Unlike Natalie Portman, an international superstar and Oscar winner who was born in Israel but left at age 2, Gadot speaks English with an Israeli accent. She talks openly about being from a small Israeli city, Rosh Haayin, and her love of the Israeli character.

“In Israel, people have chutzpah,” she said in a recent cover story in Marie Claire. “People take issue with it, but I’d rather have that than play games. Here, everyone’s like, ‘We love you; you’re so wonderful.’ I prefer to know the truth, not waste time.”

So if Gadot finds the the superstardom she seems headed for, Israel will have a new most famous face.

Hollywood should engage with Israel

The BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment Sanctions) is against a lot of things.  It is against the Jewish State of Israel, its government, institutions and civil society.  It is against engagement and dialogue with the people of Israel.   And it is against other people experiencing the beauty, contradictions and complexities of Israel first hand. 

These are the motivations behind the current effort by the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and Jewish Voice for Peace, prominent leaders in the BDS campaign who are against Oscar nominees accepting an Israeli invitation to visit Israel.

While each recipient of this gift bag will decide whether to take Israel up on the offer, they should not decline it because of what those who only stand “against” say.

In their demonization of all things Israel, and the spurious and incendiary labeling of Israel as “apartheid,” this campaign is presenting one extreme view of Israel.  Yet as anyone who has traveled anywhere in the world knows, seeing the on-the-ground reality with your own eyes offers insights that underscore how superficial and simplistic second hand reports – and allegations – are.

Travel to Israel, China, India, Spain, or even the United States does not represent an endorsement of every policy of that country’s government.  Tourists are able to get the perspectives of the locals they meet in cafes and bars or in the back of a taxi — and as we have all experienced, much of it critical — and through this  gain insight into the politics and realities of the place.

The most memorable Oscar-winning films and performances are those that offer the audience a new and personal way of looking at a story, predicament or event.    It opens people’s mind to different perspectives.  So too does personal engagement with Israel.

A few months ago, British cultural figures published an open letter calling for cultural bridges, not boycotts, to bring about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.  As these luminaries, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling wrote:  “Open dialogue and interaction promote greater understanding and mutual acceptance, and it is through such understanding and acceptance that movement can be made towards a resolution of the conflict…Cultural engagement builds bridges, nurtures freedom and positive movement for change.”

It is this message of openness and engagement which Hollywood – even those who are not Oscar nominees – should get behind.

Amanda Susskind is the Pacific Southwest Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League

Learning Hollywood in the Holy City

Rita (Yijing) Zhang, 22, of Beijing is navigating several historic “walls” as she builds her career as a filmmaker. 

It started in China, where Zhang recently worked as an assistant on the set of Matt Damon’s upcoming film, “The Great Wall.” Now, the international student at Columbia University has set her sights on a different wall — the Western Wall — or at least what it represents: the survival of the Jewish people.

Zhang is one of 22 aspiring filmmakers spending the summer in Israel as part of the second annual Jerusalem Film Workshop, a six-week crash course in filmmaking with the Holy City as their production playground.

“It wasn’t a specific goal to go to Jerusalem and Israel to visit,” Zhang told the Journal during the June 29 orientation, held at Jerusalem’s first American-style, state-of-the-art multiplex, Cinema City. “But it has been somewhere on my mind for a long time to discover this extremely old and interesting culture and how it keeps on surviving for such a long time, similar to Chinese culture.”

Zhang is among the few non-Jewish participants, who hail mostly from the United States and this year include budding filmmakers from Argentina, Croatia, England, France and Panama. They come with a shared passion for filmmaking or Israel — but more often both. 

Judy Kim, 20, is from San Diego and is a film student at Rhode Island School of Design. She felt drawn to Jerusalem because her uncle, an archaeologist, works on digs in Israel. A Christian of Korean descent, she interned last summer for a production company in South Korea that produced documentaries about Israel. 

“This is a good way to collaborate and make one film — and I think that’s closer to what happens in the industry,” Kim said. 

This will be the first time she’ll see her own film through from start to finish; each year, the program divides participants into teams to complete a documentary that will be showcased at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which this year took place from July 9-19, after which they put their energies toward a short fiction film. 

The program is the brainchild of Gal Green-
span and Roi Kurland of Green Productions, an Israeli production company whose most recent pride is the Israeli film “Youth.” The inspiration came during their service in the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) prestigious film unit.

“When we were 18, we went to a film course in the IDF where each soldier that comes to the army, to the film unit, undergoes a month-and-a-half course with the best Israeli filmmakers who come as reserves, and they teach you how to make films,” Greenspan said, speaking from his office in Ramat Gan.

This year, master classes are being given by Israeli industry leaders whose films were either nominated or shortlisted for an Academy Award, including Tom Shoval of “Aya” and “Youth,” himself a protégé of Oscar-winning director Alejandro Inarritu (“Birdman”). Sponsors such as Onward Israel of the Jewish Agency, Bank Hapoalim, United King Films, the New Fund for Film and Television, and the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund have enabled Greenspan to keep costs down to $4,400 per person, covering accommodations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, instruction at the city’s Ma’aleh School of Television, Film & the Arts, and equipment and supplies. The City of Jerusalem is an active partner, continuing its trend of offering incentives for filmmakers to shoot in the capital.

Natalie Portman shot her directorial debut, “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” in Jerusalem, and Richard Gere recently made the ascent for “Oppenheimer Strategies” by Israeli director Joseph Cedar. NBC Universal’s television series “Dig” was shot on location in Jerusalem last year until Operation Protective Edge erupted. And two animation studios have been built in the city, already drawing the interest of Disney and Technicolor. According to Yoram Honig, director of the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund, Jerusalem now holds 20 percent of the market share of Israeli productions, compared to 5 percent two years ago. 

“I believe that when you put the camera in Jerusalem — wherever you put it — you have a film in front of you,” Greenspan said, explaining why he chose to place the program in Jerusalem. “It’s such a complex city that it’s a movie in front of your eyes.”

While the workshop is designed to provide an “Israel experience,” Greenspan said the focus of the program is cinema, not Israel advocacy. This year, teams selected their cinematic subjects from among predetermined organizations or personalities that reflect the broad range of political, cultural, social and religious layers that characterize the city. 

Greenspan’s advice to the neophytes was simple: “Tell good stories, great stories — then your film will be great.”

Israeli producer Ram Bergman to produce ‘Star Wars’ films

Israeli producer Ram Bergman will make the next two “Star Wars” films.

Bergman, who moved to Hollywood from Israel in 1991, will produce “Star Wars” Episodes VIII and IX, according to the Times of Israel.

Bergman was named one of Variety magazine’s Top 10 producers to watch in 2005, the year he produced “Brick.” He also produced the 2012 film “Looper.”

‘Ichilov’: Life behind the stethoscope

Move over “Grey's Anatomy,” an Israeli reality series set in a Tel Aviv hospital is providing a look at life through the eyes of overworked and overtired doctors.

“Ichilov” follows the doctors from several wards at Ichilov Hospital as they care for patients.

The series, which took two years to film, is airing on the Yes Doco channel, a satellite television station.

“The idea was to tell a story through doctors' eyes. A story experienced over their shoulders, through their eyes, through their experiences,” Israeli filmmaker Ruthie Shatz told Haaretz. “We wanted to show what it’s like to be a surgeon and the burden one carries after picking inside human bodies all day long.

“One must deal with these changes, between looking a person in the eye and being human and compassionate and being focused enough to save his live. If you're not the best at this job, you cannot continue doing it.”

Shatz and her partner, movie director Adi Barash, decided to tackle the documentary series after Shatz and her mother were patients at Ichilov Hospital. Shatz's mother had cancer and died, while Shatz suffered from complications of pregnancy.

Three films to focus on Israeli Air Force

Some 65 years after a band of foreign volunteers fought in the skies above Israel to assure the nation’s birth and survival, filmmakers are racing to bring their exploits to the screen before the last of the breed passes away.

Among the competing producers and their financial backers are such famous names as Spielberg and Lansky, and although their budgets fall well short of Hollywood standards, their competitive spirits are just as intense.

In the first desperate months after Israel declared its independence in May 1948 and immediately faced an onslaught from five Arab nations, overseas pilots and their crews made up 90 percent of the fledgling Israeli Air Force. Their role at a time when Egyptian forces were closing in on Tel Aviv may well be compared to that of the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in World War II.

They came mainly from English-speaking countries, almost all of them had fought against the Axis powers in World War II, and one-fifth of their number were non-Jews. In Israel, they were considered Anglo-Saxons and, more officially, members of Machal, the Hebrew acronym for what translates as “volunteers from outside the land.”

Three filmmakers are pushing hard to wrap up separate productions related to the story of these volunteers between the end of this year and 2015.

Nancy Spielberg, producer of “Above and Beyond: The Creation of the Israeli Air Force,” is the youngest of Steven Spielberg’s three sisters and has the considerable advantage of sharing the surname of Hollywood royalty.

Her main challenger is Mike Flint, producer of “Angels in the Sky: The Birth of Israel.” He was raised on tales of derring-do by his father, Mitchell Flint, who battled Japanese planes in World War II and then joined Israel’s famous 101 Squadron in 1948.

Spielberg, who lives in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and Flint, an Angeleno, also face competition from Boaz Dvir of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who has been working on “A Wing and a Prayer” since 2007.

Of the four Spielberg siblings, Nancy is the most connected to Israel, having spent a year working on a religious kibbutz. With a kosher home and as a Shabbat observer, she is also the most religious of the Spielberg clan.

About 10 years ago, the Hollywood grapevine had it that Steven Spielberg was planning a feature film on the genesis of the Israeli Air Force, so when Nancy started getting serious about her own project, she alerted him.

 “I didn’t want to step on my big brother’s toes,” she said.

However, he encouraged his sister to go ahead, contributed a modest amount toward her $1.3 million budget and noted that if her documentary was well received, it might inspire a future feature film. Backers include other family members, actor Kirk Douglas and “100 small donors,” she said.

Spielberg has assembled a crew, headed by San Fernando Valley-bred director Roberta Grossman (“Hava Nagila (The Movie)”  and “Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh”) but does not expect to complete “Above and Beyond” until 2015.

Her film is aimed chiefly at North American audiences, and although the Machal airmen came from a dozen countries, she is focusing solely on stories of the American and Canadian fliers. Spielberg views her subject and its participants with obvious awe. 

“These men are heroes, and the stories of their exploits are incredible. It is an honor to talk to them and to show others what they did.”

Flint is an ebullient type and an enthusiastic promoter who hardly pauses for breath, or for anything else, when describing his documentary, “Angels in the Sky.”

“I’ve been preparing for this film all my life, ever since I heard my dad talk about his experiences as a fighter pilot,” Flint said. Five years ago, he started thinking seriously about making a film on the exploits of his father and fellow pilots during the 1948 War of Independence.

On his resume, Flint lists his background as former head of the story department at Paramount Pictures, his participation in the development of such films as “Top Gun” and “Forrest Gump” and now as founder of the Producer & Management Entertainment Group.

He pegs his budget for the documentary at about $4 million, or three times the size of Spielberg’s, and said that he has two-thirds of the amount pledged or in hand. By far the largest backer of the film — and its executive producer — is Mark Lansky, the nephew of Meyer Lansky, best remembered as the “brains” and “accountant” of the Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel gambling empires in the United States and Cuba during the 1930s and ’40s.

In addition to his association with the film, Mark Lansky producing a film on the life of his uncle, Meyer Lansky, based on the book “The Devil Himself” by Eric Dezenhall, and other sources that will focus on the more savory side of his uncle’s activities in helping to break up pro-Nazi rallies by the German American Bund in New York, his efforts to aid the U.S. war effort by keeping mob-controlled dock worker unions in line, and his clandestine work to supply an emerging Israel with money and weapons.

A retired businessman and financial adviser, Mark Lansky said that he and a small group of fellow investors are covering the bulk of the film’s budget, although he would not give specific dollar figures. The motive, he said repeatedly, is his conviction that “those who support Israel are blessed.”

Flint envisions that his “Angels in the Sky” will have a broader approach than Spielberg’s “Above and Beyond.” He wants to credit the contributions of the foreign airmen from all countries, not just North American, and pay special tribute to the Christian volunteers who joined their Jewish comrades in the battle for Israel.

Dvir, the third producer to tackle the Israeli Air Force story, teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of Florida. He has the advantage of hands-on experience in the genre and the handicap of a very modest budget of $189,000, mostly his own money.

Born in Israel, Dvir has interviewed 20 pilots, co-pilots and radio operators, as well as surviving family members of those who died during and since the 1948 war. Like Flint, Dvir has a personal link to his film, “A Wing and a Prayer,” which he hopes to release to television and through DVD sales by the end of this year.

“My father told me that, as a little boy in Tel Aviv, he stood on the balcony of his Tel Aviv apartment while an Egyptian Spitfire was bombing the city.

“Then my father looked up and saw a plane piloted by one of the Machal volunteers blast the Spitfire out of the sky. These men saved the city … but for them, I would not be here today.”

Dvir has finished shooting his 60-minute film and is now going into post-production.

It is not unusual in filmmaking, as in scientific and technological breakthroughs, for almost identical projects to go public at about the same time, but the nearly simultaneous arrival of these three films raises some questions.

For one: Why focus on the Israeli Air Force? Some 4,000 Machalniks from 58 countries fought in Israel’s War of Independence, the overwhelming number in the infantry, artillery and other ground forces, as well as in the navy.

Two low-key documentaries, which include interviews with overseas volunteers who served in the ground forces, were released last year. One is “My Brother’s Keeper” by New York Machalnik Ira Feinberg, the other by Stephanie Ronnet, whose film “804” refers to the number of South Africans who came to Israel’s aid during the war.

However, the lion’s share of film and press attention has been on the dashing flyboys, to the intense annoyance of the grunts of World War II and of Israel’s war (such as this reporter), who always saw the beribboned airmen walk off with the prettiest girls.

When the question was put to Spielberg, Flint and Dvir, they agreed in general that, for one, the airmen lent themselves to more dramatic treatment, and, second, that trying to tell the story of thousands of foot soldiers would diffuse the focus of their films.

More germane to the case at hand is why the three producers don’t pool their resources and talents and come up with one really major production.

There actually have been a number of attempts to do so, which have foundered so far on such Hollywood clichés as “creative differences,” as well as on conflicting egos. Dvir said he tried to make common cause with the two other producers, while Flint said he tried several times to enlist Spielberg’s cooperation.

A somewhat embittered Flint also charged that Spielberg had lured away some of the pilots slated to be interviewed in his production. Spielberg responded that filmmaking is above all a collaborative effort and that she felt that a joint enterprise with Flint “wouldn’t be the right fit.” 

Such squabbles aside, it needs to be said that the War of Independence was first and foremost won by the Israelis themselves, who bore the overwhelming brunt of casualties in dead and wounded.

However, few would question that the story of the Machal volunteers on the ground, in the air and on the seas, is worth telling, if only to redeem — in some measure — the inaction of their Diaspora communities during the Holocaust.

With the vagaries of filmmaking and the shattered projects endemic to the trade, the hope is that one, or even all three, of the projects will last the course and preserve a brave chapter in Israel’s history for this and future generations. 

Seth MacFarlane: Not an anti-Semite

No one sends out press releases to announce that something is not anti-semitic. 

That’s why this morning’s media is full of reports that host Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar performance last night was just shy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech. 

The Anti-Defamation League was first out of the gate, calling MacFarlane, “offensive and not remotely funny” — which in and of itself is funny, the idea that the ADL is not just the arbiter of anti-semitism, but of humor.

Then came a press release from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, seeing the ADL’s umbrage and raising it to world-historical levels.

“It is unfortunate that at a time when anti-Semitism is so prevalent throughout the world,” said the Center, “that Seth MacFarlane used the pulpit of the Oscars, before an audience of more than a billion people to contribute to the myth that Jews own Hollywood.”

[ANOTHER TAKE: Oscars win awards for sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism]

I found these reactions more annoying than MacFarlane’s comments, which varied from the very funny to the remotely funny, but never came close to anti-semitism. 

Seth MacFarlane was joking.  He was poking fun.   He was mocking the widespread understanding that Jews are disproportionately represented in the entertainment business.  This fact comes as a shock to exactly no one, and the idea that joking about it “feeds” anti-semitism misunderstands both the nature of humor and of anti-semitism.

One thing humor does well, even better than press releases, is difuse prejudice.  It does that through mockery, exaggeration and sometimes by just bringing prejudice to light.  That explains everything from Charlie Chaplain in “The Great Dictator” to Sascha Barron Cohen’s character of Borat,  who got hundreds of Arizonans at a rodeo to sing the “famous” Kazhakstan folksong, “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”   Cohen wasn’t out to whip up Jew-hatred, he was out to expose human — hmm, what’s the word? — stupidity.

MacFarlane doesn’t really believe you have to change your name or give to Israel to make it in Hollywood, he was riffing on the simplistic belief that that’s all it takes.

Billy Crystal could make a dozen Jewish references at the Oscars and no one would do anything but kvell. Granted, MacFarlane’s humor is more in-your-face — but it goes nowhere that Crystal, or Adam Sandler in his “Chanuka Song,” or Lenny Bruce in his Jewish/Gentile rift, or a hundred other comedians, haven’t gone before.

So why the outrage?  Maybe because against the backdrop of increasing anti-semitism in Europe and elsewhere, Jews are extra sensitive.  Maybe because an older generation of Jews is unfamiliar with a newer brand of Family Guy/South Park humor.  Even Amy Davidson, writing on the New Yorker blog, took offense — this from a magazine whose editor David Remnick once wrote a much-deserved, flattering profile of Howard Stern.  Stern's brand of satire paved the way for comedians like MacFarlane.   

Or maybe the outrage arises because Jews are still uncomfortable with the notion of being powerful.   But here's the fact: Jews are disproportionately represented in Hollywood.   The Jewish state has over 200 nuclear weapons and a hegemony of power in the Middle East. Jews are also disproportionately represented in government, finance, law, publishing and medicine.   Only Jews can read these factual statements and think, Oy!  I often wonder if our instinct to cringe and keep quiet, to not publicly own our power, as a self-help guru might put it, is also a way of avoiding having to think about what the responsibilities of that power are, what our true potential is, and what it means to be both Jewish and powerful.  

The ADL and the Simon Wiesenthal Center not only miss the humor, they are missing the opportunity.  MacFarlane’s jokes, like all good comedy can get people thinking, can open a conversation:  Why are Jews so prevalent in Hollywood?  How does their Jewish identity inform their creative choices?   How would Hollywood look if it were composed, disproportionately, of WASPs, or Thais, or anti-semites?

Hollywood is one of the Jews' greatest gifts to the world — why else would 2 billion people tune in to see “Lincoln” get robbed of Best Picture?   There is nothing to hide, and plenty to joke about.

Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Journal. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Israeli missing in Los Angeles

[UPDATE: Syril Zimand, aspiring Israeli filmmaker, missing in Hollywood]

The son of an Israeli businessman and philanthropist is believed by his father to be missing in Los Angeles.

Henri Zimand posted on Facebook on Jan 2 that his son, Syril Zimand, 28, has not been heard from for “several weeks.”

Zimand has been reaching out to people and organizations in Los Angeles to help with the search.

“If anyone should come across my son Syril in Los Angeles please advise me urgently,” Zimand wrote online.

Zimand added that his son, in the midst of a six-month trip in Los Angeles, was last seen at USA Hostels in Hollywood, located at Hollywood Boulevard and Schrader Boulevard. It was unusual for Syril to go several weeks without contacting him, Zimand wrote on Facebook.

Brigit Nickol, director of operations at USA Hostels, Inc. confirmed that Syril Zimand was a guest at USA Hostels in Hollywood, having stayed there from Nov. 10-24, the maximum amount of days allowed for guests at the hostel.  Nickol did not have any additional information regarding Zimand’s whereabouts, she said.

Zimand’s father, a resident of Monaco, did not respond immediately on Wednesday to the Journal’s attempts to contact him.  Via social media, he has asked that anyone who has information about his son call the Los Angeles Police Department’s missing-person unit at (213) 996-1800 or (877) 527-3247. The Journal will be updating this story as more information becomes available.


David Siegel — A year in L.A.

In the early-morning hours of Sept. 12, this reporter was awakened by a phone call from a Jerusalem newspaper asking for details about a man named Sam Bacile.

According to seemingly credible global news reports at the time, Bacile was an “Israeli Jew” living in Los Angeles whose virulently anti-Muslim film, “financed by 100 Jewish donors,” had sparked fatal riots in Libya and Egypt, and uprisings were rapidly spreading across the Arab world.

I immediately phoned the mobile number of David Siegel, Israel’s consul general for the southwestern United States.

Siegel was on an official visit in Arizona but already on top of the situation. He and his staff had checked with government offices in Jerusalem and contacts in Hollywood and the local Israeli community. The upshot was that not a single person knew of a Sam Bacile, and Siegel expressed doubts that a man by that name actually existed.

His conclusion, backed by separate investigations by other Journal reporters, was the first step in unraveling a purposefully misleading story that could have had grave repercussions for Israel and Jewish communities worldwide.

Not every day has been quite as exciting since Siegel took up his present post a year ago, but each day has brought its own quieter concerns and challenges.

During a recent wide-ranging interview in his West Los Angeles office, Siegel — an Israeli diplomat born in Burlington, Vt. — discussed some of the challenges Israel faces internationally and in his jurisdiction locally.

Siegel leaves no doubt that his overriding concern as Israel’s top regional representative is to impress upon all to whom he speaks that the Iranian nuclear threat targets not only his country but also the entire Middle East and, indeed, the world.

Putting it starkly, Siegel said that Tehran’s almost daily pronouncements on annihilating the “Zionist entity” are worse than even the threats uttered by a Hitler.

Neither sanctions nor diplomacy have dissuaded Iran from trying to develop a nuclear bomb, nor from exporting terrorism internationally, Siegel said, and the clock is running out on when Iran will have the capability to make good on its most dire threats, or unleash a “geopolitical hurricane” in the Middle East.

Siegel acknowledged a “robust debate” within Israel as to if and when its air force should strike first, but he insisted that “all options are on the table.”

Turning to Israel’s immediate neighbors, Siegel noted that the Arab Spring uprisings and, especially, “the terrible tragedy in Syria,” showed once again that the problems of the Middle East “are not just about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

Asked about the American presidential election campaign, in which each party claims to be more supportive of the Jewish state than the other side, Siegel avowed that Israel’s position, as always, is strictly nonpartisan.

“I would only hope that neither party would use Israel as a wedge issue,” he said.

In most other areas, the United States and Israel have much to give to each other, not only in shared intelligence findings but also in high-tech research and development, Siegel noted.

When Siegel, his wife, Myra, and their three children  arrived in Los Angeles a year ago, he set up as one of his primary goals to “bring the real Israel to the community. “Too many people still relate to Israel only in terms of war or politics, but there is much more to our country,” he declared. “As in America, Israel is an innovative and vibrant society, and we can learn much from each other.”

For example, the United States can learn something from Israel’s integration of vast numbers of immigrants and helping inner-city kids achieve educational success, while Israel could learn from the success of Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles drug and alcohol rehab center.

Los Angeles prides itself on the diversity of its citizenry, but so does Israel, with about 100 distinct ethnic groups. In this respect, Siegel feels that the L.A. Jewish community could step up its outreach to the city’s other ethnic groups.

He also emphasized the existence of 27,000 civil associations in Israel, which promote everything from tikkun olam, or healing of the world, to raising fish in the desert.

“So there are 27,000 opportunities for everybody to connect with Israel, regardless of political leanings or professional interest,” he said.

Like his predecessors, Siegel works at maintaining productive relations with Hollywood, including its studio chiefs and celebrities.

But while some would like to see the TV and film industries produce works with a “pro-Israel” slant, Siegel looks more to the economic side of the enterprise.

“I’ve learned that Hollywood is a business, and Israel, as a locale, could do more to attract major feature productions to shoot in the country,” he said.

One effort along that line was a visit last March by Israeli President Shimon Peres to Los Angeles, where he met with a virtual who’s-who of the Hollywood power structure.

But Siegel cites as perhaps his most important contribution during the past year his part in expanding relations between UC Irvine (UCI), frequently in the news for campus tensions between Muslim and Jewish students, and Israeli universities, including Ben-Gurion University (BGU).

“Both UCI and BGU are about 40 years old, and both are strong in solar energy and biotech research and development. So they are a natural fit,” he said.

UCI has also established joint programs with the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Technion, while UCLA, USC, Chapman University and Arizona State University also are strengthening their ties with Israeli institutions.

In serving as a kind of matchmaker between Israeli and American universities, Siegel said that he tends “to work from the top down,” first contacting the chancellors or presidents of the U.S. universities, who can then motivate their staffs and faculties to follow through.

Among the to-do projects on Siegel’s list is one that is unique to the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Currently, about 5,000 foreign volunteers are serving with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), half of them from North America.

They are called “lone soldiers” because they have no family to visit during holidays or furloughs, so Israeli families try to fill the gap with home hospitality.

Siegel points out that the lone soldiers also leave behind “lone parents” or “lone grandparents” in their respective home countries. He would like to mobilize the resident Jewish community to complement Israel’s example by giving moral support and friendship to such lone parents and grandparents of IDF solders from Los Angeles.

To foreign observers, Angelenos are usually defined by either the perceived glamour of Hollywood or the wealth of Beverly Hills.

Although Siegel knows America well, both by his upbringing and service with the Israel embassy in Washington, he is still surprised by the warmth and vibrancy of the local Jewish community.

“I am constantly learning more about the community and expect to still be learning when my four-year term here is up.”

Super mogul Kathy Ireland is the new super model for Israel

In the ever-unwinnable image war, maybe what Israel needs is a Cover Girl.

I’m thinking someone tall, curvy and striking, who boasts a record number of appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (say, 13, with three covers), a role-model type who has created a billion-dollar company, someone wholesome and spiritual, with solid family values (like a doctor husband and three kids) — someone like Kathy Ireland.

More than a former supermodel, Ireland is CEO of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, an international branding company that has grown into a billion-dollar empire and earned her the venerable title Super Mogul. She is also a furnishings designer, a committed mother, philanthropist and, lately, a passionate and public advocate for Israel.


At one-film-a-year pace, Woody Allen not slowing down

Funny, serious, and controversial, Woody Allen’s films evoke many emotions—but his Jewish upbringing sticks out in them like a matzo ball in chicken soup.

With Allen’s new movie, “To Rome With Love,” opening this summer and his “Bullets Over Broadway” set for a musical theater adaptation, this 76-year-old American filmmaker is not slowing down and remains at the top of his game.

According to Leonard Quart, professor emeritus of cinema at the City University of New York Grad Center and contributing editor of Cineaste, Allen’s comic style and vision differ significantly from other Jewish filmmakers like Mel Brooks.

[The Woody Allen Israel Project: Help #sendwoody to Israel for his next film]

“Allen, in his middle period, was the more controlled, stylistically rich, and gifted director,” Quart told “His works then seamlessly combined the comic and pathetic, with characters who had internal lives, and weren’t merely cartoons. Brooks is the more manic and anarchic, and he can provoke belly laughs that Allen rarely does. Both engage in social criticism, though Brooks’ use of pop culture makes his work broader and less subtle. For a time, these two Brooklyn products, who did stand-up comedy and wrote for Sid Caesar, were, albeit in different ways, the two best American directors of comedy.”

Born Allan Konigsberg in the Bronx and raised in Brooklyn (the son of Nettie, a bookkeeper at her family’s delicatessen, and Martin Konigsberg, a jewelry engraver and waiter), Allen’s parents were born and raised on the lower east side of Manhattan and his grandparents were German immigrants who spoke Yiddish. He pays homage to New York City in many of his films, including the critically acclaimed “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

Bespeckled, diminutive, and neurotic, Allen makes many short lists of the most important comedy directors of all time. A writing, acting and directing triple threat, he has received 15 nominations for Academy Awards, winning three.

For years, Allen has managed to release one film annually, oscillating between brainy comedies and stark dramas, full of funny wordplay and incisive characterizations. According to Foster Hirsch, author of Love, Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life: The Films of Woody Allen, Allen carved out a unique place for himself in American movies, becoming our national auteur as well as the most prolific director in the country, and creating a singular world with each film released since his first in 1969.

Hirsch said he was drawn to Allen’s films when he saw “Annie Hall.” “Something about that film struck a nerve,” he told “In my work I usually avoid comedy but something about his New York Jewish humor I respond to. It’s very fresh.”

Allen’s Jewish background has a total impact on his work, Hirsch said.

“Everything he writes and acts and films has direct roots in a New York Jewish sensibility, which he presents to the world, and he then becomes an ambassador of that sensibility,” Hirsch said. “In literature Philip Roth would be a good equivalent. What does that mean? There are a litany of complaints, grievances, family trauma, the over-possessive mother and the distant father, the feelings of exclusion and inferiority. All of the angst associated with being Jewish is transformed in Woody Allen and lit by his radiant humor.”

Allen is typically inspired by European filmmakers.  When “To Rome With Love” opened in June, he told Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times how profoundly Italian filmmakers influenced him.

“They invented a method of telling a story, and suddenly for us lesser mortals it becomes all right to tell a story that way,” Allen told Itzkoff. “We do our versions of them, never as shockingly innovative or brilliant as when the masters did them.”

Always serious about his art but never self-involved, Allen’s best work, like the masters he idolizes, touches deep human issues. Although rooted in a Jewish sensibility, his subjects are universal. For example, in Hirsch‘s favorite film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” the universal issue of self-forgiveness resonates.

“It’s about a person forgiving himself for committing a horrendous crime,” Hirsch told “This is the one film of his that has continuing resonance for me. I cannot get the Martin Landau character out of my mind.”

Additionally, Allen’s “schlemiel” character—the outsider, apparent loser, underdog, and person not part of the dominant culture—is indeed imprinted on our collective consciousness.

“With his figure of the schlemiel, Woody Allen has made a permanent contribution to the history of American film,” Hirsch said. “His artistry is inseparable from his Jewishness.”


Remembering Vidal Sassoon

It was only a few weeks ago that I was sitting with Vidal Sassoon in the living room of his sprawling Bel Air home. It was a chilly early evening and we warmed ourselves by the heat of the fire that was roaring in the fireplace.  We were drinking green tea – it was always green tea for Vidal – and he’d been reflecting on his earlier years in Hollywood.

He stared at me intently across the coffee table, his eyes probing mine.  Penetratingly. And then with a sudden sigh, he leaned forward and carefully, softly, uttered the words.

“I’ve got leukaemia,” he revealed flatly.  Before I could react, he inhaled deeply and added, “I’m really quite ill.”

He saw the shock in my face and continued softly, “I’m resigned to it. I’ve had a wonderful life. A fantastic life.” He gave a slight smile that was tinged with sadness. “I can’t complain. I’m 84, I just had my birthday a short while back. It’s been a fabulous ride.

“I got diagnosed two years ago but I wanted to keep it quiet. Now it’s progressed and I have to go to the hospital for treatment a couple of times a week. My life revolves around that now. And reading.  I used to swim every day for exercise but I don’t have the energy to maintain that regimen.

“I get terribly tired. It’s very difficult for me to walk far. I have to rely on a walking stick, in case I get into trouble. Some days I’m okay, others I’m just overwhelmed by tiredness.

“But what can you say about it. I’m not in pain. I just get very tired easily.”

It was devastating news. I’d known Vidal since I was a child –  my ‘uncle’, Robert Zackham, was Vidal’s oldest friend and working colleague, and my hairdresser father had partnered Robert in his salon, where Vidal often came to visit.

Our last rendezvous took place very recently. We’d talked on the phone some days earlier and arranged that I’d go to his house a few days later. I wanted to capture some of his memories for a BBC radio documentary I was writing.  He was happy to oblige. “As long as I’m fine on the day,” he added cryptically before ringing off.

Little did I know that it would be his last interview.

His house on Mulholland Drive on the outskirts of Bel Air was partially hidden behind a clump of trees, the number barely visible from the road. Like his previous home in Beverly Hills, it could only be reached via a long, winding driveway flanked with exotic trees and plants. It felt like driving through the Botanical Gardens.

When Vidal emerged from his bedroom and walked down the long hallway, its walls showcasing exquisite sculptures, I was shocked to see him looking frail and gaunt. He was leaning on a cane. “I use it to keep myself steady,” he waved off my concerned questions and offered a swift smile. “I’m no spring chicken after all.”

He had lost weight since I’d seen him last. I put it down to his health regime. He was always a health nut. And he spoke not slowly, yet without speed. I put that down to his having had a busy day.

I was so wrong.

In the vast living room of Vidal’s architecturally-magnificent minimalist home, we sat in front of the fireplace and reminisced. He felt a tremendous pride in everything that he’d done and last year documented it all in his autobiography and a riveting documentary. Yet behind the pride lay a humility. Often self-effacing, never arrogant, Vidal’s demeanour was dreamy and reflective. 

Every now and then, Ronnie, his devoted wife, popped into the living room to check that all was fine. On one appearance she was followed by their two little grey Lhasa Apsas, Lulu and Yoyo. On another, she brought with her a blanket which she lovingly draped over Vidal’s lap in case he got cold. His faithful manservant brought tea for us and with it a plate of English biscuits.

We’d just been discussing some of the voluminous tomes on art and architecture that adorned the room. His passion for the subjects knew no bounds. And he was as knowledgeable on each as if he had made them his life’s work. He viewed hairdressing that way. As architectural shapes. Works of art.

Then he had dropped that shocking news.

There was always something about Vidal Sassoon that set him apart from other men. It wasn’t that he was the best haircutter in the business, although he was. It wasn’t that he was the most famous hairdresser in the world, although he was that too. And it wasn’t that he had turned rags into riches, which he had.

No, it was his gentleness that stood out. Moving in a world notable for being cutthroat, Vidal was that most unlikely of souls –considerate, gracious and very gentle. Devoid of arrogance, he exuded confidence, yet with it a humility, rare in one so successful and ruling over a multi-million dollar empire

In early years, I often saw Vidal (‘Viddy’ to my parents) at hairdressing functions. My father sometimes let me play truant from school and took me with him when he was entered in one of the international hairdressing shows. He knew they excited me and he harboured hopes of my following in his footsteps. I remember one occasion – I must have been about 10 – when my father was designing the hair of a beautiful blonde model and Vidal was doing the same in the next chair with a brunette Miss World. I watched him, glued to his hands, fascinated by the way he worked. Deftly and with immense concentration. Snipping creatively and running his fingers through the hair and letting it swing back naturally into shape.  Layer after layer.  Building the form. He could have been layering and designing a block of flats the way he went at it.

In later years he told me he had always approached hairdressing geometrically, like architecture which he adored. If his mother hadn’t had other plans and if he’d been able to have an education, his dream would have been to become an architect. (“To me, architecture was the extreme art form.”) But in those war years, kids from the East End didn’t have a lot of choice over their career directions. Especially when they came from a single parent home – his father had abandoned the family when Vidal was three; when he turned 5, his mother put him in an orphanage for seven years because she couldn’t afford to keep him.

She’d had a premonition that Vidal would become a hairdresser, so for her there was no question about it when she carted him off to Adolph Cohen’s Whitechapel salon where he became a shampoo boy at 14 by day, while at night vicious German bombs lit up the skies “and rearranged the streets of London”.

He secretly joined the underground Jewish group, The 43, a group determined to quell fascism and anti-semitism. Vidal was its youngest member and was horrified by some of the things he had to witness and even carry out himself. He finally dropped out when it became too violent for him but he continued throughout his life to fight against anti-semitism.

He became a dedicated friend of Israel. A devout Zionist like his mother, in 1948, at 20, wanting to do his bit in the fight for Israel’s independence, he joined the paramilitary arm of the Israeli army and fought in the Arab-Israeli War. Israel remained in his blood to the end and he visited many times. At the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he later established the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Stamping out anti-semitism remained a fervent pursuit throughout his life.

He would have stayed in Israel had his family not needed him back home. He returned to London and to hairdressing. Just a few years later, in 1954, at 26, he opened his first salon in Bond Street.

“I decided if I couldn’t change things from the hairdressing art form into what I considered architectural hair cutting art form then I would leave the craft,” he told me.

He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams and revolutionized the industry by turning hairdressing into an art with his headline-making cuts.

Vidal was the quintessential ladies’ man. With his dazzling smile and keen eye that always spotted the best in a woman’s face he was able to design a cut and style that played up her bone structure. (“You cut according to the angles of the bones, the body, the shape. You never cut to make people look pretty. That’s not what it was about. That was the old way.”)

His ‘Sassoon look’ became the fashion of the day. Movie stars and ordinary people flocked to his third floor salon.  It was there that Vidal lopped off 4 feet of Nancy Kwan’s hair. And where Mia Farrow and Lee Radziwell – “she always said she’d bring her sister (Jackie Kennedy) but it never happened” – were among his huge clientele.

After opening a salon in New York, he eventually moved to Los Angeles and landed a television talk show. It was short-lived but established his immense popularity among those who only knew him through his slogan “if you don’t look good, we don’t look good”.

Vidal was a raconteur par excellence and never failed to amuse with a story or two. One of his favourites revolved around a meal in a Moscow restaurant when a bunch of menacing looking Russians walked in.

“These guys heard us speaking English and one of them leaned across the table and said ‘Bobby Charlton!’  I’m a soccer fan you know. So I said ‘Lev Yashin!’ who was the great Russian goalkeeper. ‘Aah, Lev Yashin!’  So then they ordered vodka. And it kept on coming. Well after Pele and Bobby Moore and goodness knows who else, I finally staggered out of there. But we’d made these great friends who hugged us as we left. They couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak a word of Russian. Just footballers’ names. And so much vodka it was ridiculous!”

Vidal had four children, the oldest of whom, Catya, died of a drug overdose. He never recovered from the pain of losing her.  But with his fourth wife, Ronnie, 23 years his junior – they met when he was 62 and she was 39 – he found a tranquility that had been previously missing. For 20 years, Ronnie was his anchor. And “my tower of strength throughout this illness.” 

His legacy will be the phenomenal contribution he made to the world of hair fashion. But it will also be his lifelong devotion to Israel and its causes. And his efforts to quell anti-semitism.

“You do what you can in this life,” he told me once. “And if what you do can make a difference then that’s all you could ask for.”

Vidal Sassoon made a difference.

Madonna appeals for world peace at Israel concert

Launching her world tour in Israel, Madonna appealed for Middle East and world peace.

“You can’t be a fan of mine and not want peace in the world,” she told 30,000 fans packed into Ramat Gan station.

She said she chose Israel to launch her tour in order to spread her message of peace.

“No matter how many laws we change, no matter how many percentages of land we give back, no matter how many talks, no matter how many wars, if we don’t treat every human being with dignity and respect we will never have peace,” she said, wearing a form-fitting leather dress, a black beret and a fur-like collar. “So start today, start now each and every one of you, OK? You are the future, we are the future, and if there is peace here in the Middle East then there can be peace in the whole world.”

Madonna donated 600 tickets to her concert in Israel to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and she recognized them in her remarks.

“There are several very brave and important NGOs that are representing both Palestine and Israel together,” she said. She had met with some of the activists on Wednesday.

Madonna, 54, twice has performed sold-out shows in Israel, including the last performance of her “Sticky and Sweet” tour in 2009. She also has visited Israel with her children as part of her devotion to the study of kabbalah; they are with her now.

She changed costume several times through the show. Her playlist included classics “Like a Virgin” and “Like a Prayer” as well as “Give Me All Your Luvin” from her latest album, MDNA.

Jerusalem mayor visits L.A. to promote his city and court film producers

Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, spent part of his recent visit to Los Angeles trying to sell entertainment industry moguls on the virtues of filming in Jerusalem.

A former tech entrepreneur who Newsweek once compared to Batman’s millionaire alter ego, Bruce Wayne, Barkat said that getting producers to shoot films in Jerusalem is a top priority.

The city, already millennia old, has recently developed services to cater to film producers, and Barkat is in the process of lobbying Israel’s national government to institute tax breaks to help Jerusalem compete against other cities.

Getting films made in and about Jerusalem, Barkat said in an interview on May 7, “is the best positioning for the city that deserves better positioning than what you see on the news.”

Attracting filmmakers to Jerusalem could also help Barkat make good on a campaign pledge to increase the number of tourists who visit the city each year from just over 2 million when he took office, to 10 million. For the last two years, Jerusalem has welcomed about 3.5 million tourists each year.

“The culture feeds tourism and is fed from it,” Barkat said, “and film production fits right in.”

Barkat, who plans to run for re-election when his first term ends in 2013, mentioned having met the outgoing Los Angeles City Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a few times. At one of their meetings, the mayors shared notes on crime. Barkat recalled Villaraigosa telling him that in 2010, Los Angeles, a city of 3.8 million, reported 297 murders.

In Jerusalem, a city of about 800,000, Barkat said, the number of murders that year was nine, a rate about one-seventh that of Los Angeles’. In 2011, Jerusalem saw only five murders. The statistics, Barkat was quick to point out, included both killings classified as crimes and deaths resulting from terror.

“So,” Barkat said, smiling, “how safe is Jerusalem relative to Los Angeles?”

Madonna to perform ‘Concert for Peace’ in Israel

International pop star Madonna, who will launch her upcoming world tour in Israel, has added a second concert date in Tel Aviv for a “Concert for Peace.”

Madonna will perform at Ramat Gan Stadium near Tel Aviv on May 29 and May 31. The second date has been announced as a Concert for Peace, to which the star plans to invite organizations in Israel who are working for peace.

“Music is so universal and if there’s any chance that through my performance I can bring further attention and enlightenment to honor the peace efforts in the Middle East and help people come together, it would be an honor for me.”  Madonna said in a statement issued Wednesday. “It is my way of thanking those who are making so much effort toward bringing peace to the Middle East.”

The names of the organizations have not yet been announced.

Madonna, 54, twice has performed sold-out shows in Israel, including the last performance of her “Sticky and Sweet” tour in 2009. She also has visited Israel with her children as part of her devotion to the study of Kabbalah.

SLIDESHOW: Shimon Peres meets Hollywood

Israeli President Shimon Peres visits DreamWorks Animation on March 9.

Click “i” to view photo captions

Letters to the Editor: Hollywood, Israel, Democracy, survivors

The Hollywood-Israel Relationship

I read with interest the cover story “Zionism and the Three-Picture Deal” (Feb. 3). After decades of efforts to engage prominent Hollywood Jewish celebrities and executives for Israel, it is satisfying to feel that the leaders in the industry are becoming more responsive and positive.

While giving kudos to those who were quoted in the article, I was struck by the chronology of how and why things have changed. I would not characterize any of the participants in the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s Master Class as the “B list.” In fact, those who were ready to take a chance on this creative initiative deserve to be acknowledged as willing to identify with Israel when it wasn’t popular.

This year will mark the 64th anniversary of the Jewish state. Some of your readers will remember a previous cover story on the 50th anniversary culminating in an extraordinary show at the Shrine Auditorium featuring an amazing group of performing artists from film, television and music celebrating five decades of our Jewish state. It was one of many successful efforts to engage Hollywood.

Not everything was a “bull’s-eye,” but the process culminating in today’s changing relationship of Hollywood Jews to Israel was the result of hard work of dozens of communal and entertainment leaders. Unlike the article suggests, the process of engagement never ceased. Those who are quoted in the article undoubtedly have contributed to today’s “new” successful relationship to Israel, as did their predecessors.

But let’s not forget that it did not magically occur in a few years nor was it due to a single individual but was part of a collective strategic effort, which needs to continue.

John Fishel
former president The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Defining Democracy

You have to love David Suissa’s insistence that we should accept Israel as a democracy by emphasizing the good and accepting the flaws (“The Liberal Case for Israel,” Feb. 17). Actually, “allowing enormous freedom for people to challenge the system” is only a part of a “democracy.” As a liberal, the part of Webster’s definition of “democracy” that I prefer is ”a principle of equality of rights, opportunity and treatment.” This should apply to all citizens, including non-Orthodox Jews.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

The Media’s Flip, Flop Politics

Marty Kaplan is the first pundit to point out at length the nonsense of today’s mainstream (or rather “mainscream”) media, which covers every flip, flap and flop of presidential contenders (“Political March Madness,” Feb. 17).

It is disturbing how media influences polls, how polls then influence voters, yet voters still do not settle for one candidate. Do we really want our government being decided by the opinions logged on Facebook or fired off on Twitter?

These sound bites are certainly biting away at our political discourse. Indeed, human beings love narratives, and with the expansive amount of technology making up-to-the-minute storytelling even more minute (and ultimately secondary), it is no wonder that the attention spans of many voters hinge and switch so capriciously.

I do see a silver lining to the stormy clouds of political discourse crowding our future election years. Republican strategist Matthew Dowd has pointed out that Super-PAC advertising has whittled down the effect of campaign ads. As the narrative shifts ever so quickly and arbitrarily, individual political hucksters and pundits will forgo the up-to-date follow-up from the mainstream outlets. We will have no choice but to analyze issues for ourselves, for the multiplicity of information will be too daunting for us to accept passively.

Arthur Christopher Schaper

Praise for Survivors Column

I want to personally thank and commend The Journal for bringing Jane Ulman to your staff (“Liselotte Hanock,” Feb. 17). She is a fine journalist. After spending over four hours with my wife, Lotte, gathering personal background about her survival experiences, she put a marvelous article together. Considering the space allocation within which she had to work, Jane captured the very essence of my very wonderful, courageous and loving wife, whose strength and perseverance has made our family strong enough to overcome many of life’s adversities. Jane’s finished product truly reflects her outstanding journalistic talent. The Survivors series is a wonderful addition.

Franklin N. Hanock
Valley Village


An obituary for Norma Katz was published in error in the Feb. 10 issue.

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How Tel Aviv became big business in Hollywood

In December 2009, Avi Nir, the chief executive of one of Israel’s largest broadcasting and production companies, invited the Hollywood agent Rick Rosen to spend a day at Keshet’s Tel Aviv office. Nir, who has a reputation among his Hollywood counterparts for being an aggressive visionary, sensed an epic change afoot in the Israeli entertainment industry. Soon, it would be producing more content than the country could commercially support. So Nir turned his hungry eyes toward the American marketplace. Hollywood, he figured, could offer opportunities. Not only as an entrée into a lush foreign market, but also as a model for how to export entertainment around the world. And Rosen, he thought, could teach the Israelis a few tricks. With the right sell, Rosen, a partner at the renowned William Morris Endeavor agency, could even become an advocate.

After a handful of morning meetings, Nir took Rosen to lunch at an Italian restaurant, where he described a new Israeli series titled “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War.”

“Do you know who Gilad Shalit is?” Rosen recalled Nir asking, in a recent interview. “Well, imagine if there are three Gilad Shalits, and two come back as heroes, and then you find out that maybe things aren’t exactly as they appear to be, maybe one of them was working for the Mossad. Do you think that could work in the States?”

Rosen thought for a second. “Absolutely,” he said. “If the returning soldiers are Americans from Iraq or Afghanistan.” Before 9/11, Americans may not have had an appetite — or an understanding — of living in a nation perpetually at war, but suddenly, Israel and the United States had something psychically important in common. “I know the perfect person to do this,” Rosen told Nir. “Howard Gordon.”

Rosen remembers Nir’s excitement at the prospect of Gordon, the award-winning producer of “24,” working on an Israeli show. A few days later, when Rosen touched down in Los Angeles, he called Gordon from the airport. “I have your next show,” he said. And thus, “Homeland” was born.

“Homeland” is now the eminent example of how an Israeli idea can transform into an American sensation. The Showtime series, which completed its first season in December, is a psychological thriller about a mentally unhinged CIA agent, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, who suspects returning Iraq veteran Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) of having been “turned” by terrorists. Inspired by the Israeli version “Hatufim,” about three soldiers returning from 17 years of captivity in Lebanon, “Homeland” just won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic television series and has been responsible for a surge in the pay-cable channel’s subscribers, helping edge it closer to its rival, HBO. “Homeland’s” critical acclaim has been equally prodigious: The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley devoted an entire column to last season’s series finale, calling it “a clever, maddening and irresistible invitation to keep watching” — just the type of criticism every show craves. Mark Kaner, president of 20th Century Fox Television Distribution, said “Homeland” has been sold into 31 major territories around the world, and he expects the show to produce profits comparable to Gordon’s previous hit, “24,” which Kaner described as an “enormous” financial success.

“It’s sort of embarrassing at this point,” Gordon said of the effusive praise. “I only look at it as having further to fall.”

But here in Hollywood, and 9,000 miles away in Israel, everyone else is looking at “Homeland” as a paragon. As the Israeli entertainment industry becomes a font of innovation and creativity, Hollywood is serving as both mentor and marketplace, helping the tiny Middle Eastern country turn local ingenuity into an international commodity.

Claire Danes as Carrie Mathison in the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series, based on Israel’s “Hatufim.” Photo by Ronen Akerman/Showtime

Indeed, Israel’s popularity as a content creator has prompted a feeding frenzy in Hollywood; at least six Israeli formats (Hollywood jargon for story lines, on which adaptations are based) are currently in various stages of development, including the police procedural “The Naked Truth” at HBO, the time-travel musical “Danny Hollywood” at the CW, the divorce sitcom “Life Isn’t Everything” at CBS and the small-town murder mystery drama “Pillars of Smoke” (aka “Midnight Sun”) at NBC. Considering how hard it is to get any show on the air, some American writers have joked that they’d have better luck getting Hollywood’s attention if they hit in Israel first. Director Jon Turteltaub, for example, recently announced that he is attached to direct the remake of the popular Israeli film “A Matter of Size,” a smash on the festival circuit, which Paramount Pictures will produce. The activity back and forth has become so substantial of late that many of Israel’s writers, producers and even the major networks are now being represented by U.S. talent agencies. As content increases, so does competition.

“Every Israeli who ever put pen to paper — talented or not — now thinks they’re going to become millionaires in the United States, and it’s getting a little bit ridiculous,” Rosen said.

Inclined to play the part of the superior parent, Hollywood has responded to this escalating business relationship by downplaying it. At a recent event at UCLA sponsored by the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at which Gordon appeared as keynote speaker, he cautioned against unwarranted excitement. “Is there a story?” he asked. “Is there a pipeline between Israeli content creators and American producers? Because, sometimes stories tend to inflate themselves and become bigger than they are.”

What’s clear is this: Many in Hollywood believe it is too early to tell whether the current frenzy will last. Some say they have already begun to see the effects of commercialization on Israeli content. And so far, only two shows — “In Treatment” and “Homeland” — have succeeded in crossing over to an American audience. Others were utter failures: CBS’ “The Ex List,” which premiered in October 2008, lasted less than a month, with only half the produced episodes airing, and Fox’s “Traffic Light,” which premiered in February 2011, lasted only through May.

But anyone who knows Israelis knows that they are indefatigable. And they’re not likely to surrender to a little bad luck as long as the Hollywood connection presents a dual opportunity to triumph on the world stage. At the very least, these opportunities could inject serious cash into Israel’s economy, but the more monumental prospect lies in the ability of entertainment imagery to influence public discourse and opinion.

For people who have either a fixed or unformed image of Israel, the way Israeli life and Israeli values are transmitted through film and television could expand their impressions of the Jewish state. Because as any lover of film or literature knows, the pleasures of culture can be so powerful as to make a consumer feel connected to its creator. So imagine what it would mean for a viewer in Spain or France or China to discover that his favorite show originates in Israel, and to feel connected to the humanity of the stories Israel tells about itself. It could, as many dearly hope, illuminate Israel in a completely new way.

“God knows how many people have heard about ‘In Treatment’ and ‘Homeland’ being Israeli shows and are kind of thinking to themselves, ‘Maybe they’re not savages,’ ” the Israeli actress and “In Treatment” producer Noa Tishby said. “Maybe it’s not Afghanistan over there.”

Zionism and the three-picture deal

At the Golden Globe Awards in January, producer Howard Gordon stepped up to the stage to accept the award for Best Television Series — Drama for co-creating the breakout Showtime hit “Homeland.” In a single season, the show has become a sensation, edging the pay-cable channel closer to its rival HBO in number of subscribers and garnering profuse media attention and acclaim.

Gordon has much to be grateful for. At the Globes, he thanked his cast, his agent and a handful of television executives — but absent from his speech was any mention of the show’s secret shining star, the incubator of its concept, and its original homeland: Israel.

“When I walked offstage,” Gordon said in an interview after the event, “I said to Gidi Raff,” — the Israeli creator of “Hatufim,” upon which “Homeland” is based — “‘Did I remember to say thank you to …? In my head, it was: ‘Thank you to [my agent] Rick Rosen for bringing us this show from Israel.’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Two weeks later, Gordon, a consistent Israel supporter, was remorseful. “Honestly, it was one of those moments where you go up there and you see Morgan Freeman yawning and the red light is flashing saying, ‘Wrap up,’ and you’re in shock.”

“Homeland’s” lead actress, Claire Danes, who also won a Golden Globe that night for playing Carrie Mathison, the show’s intensely driven, bipolar CIA agent, also left Israel off her list, though she did mention that after winning the same award 17 years ago for “My So-Called Life,” she had walked offstage crying because she forgot to thank her parents.

The omission, however, was a missed opportunity for the Globes’ nearly 17 million viewers to hear that the “Homeland” win was also a big moment for Israel: Three years after another Israeli-inspired show, HBO’s “In Treatment,” was up for the same honor, “Homeland” became the first Israeli format to win the Globes’ top TV award. But perhaps it will inspire a growing cadre of pro-Israel Hollywood movers and shakers to spread the word. Because with the success of such shows as “Homeland” and “In Treatment,” and the potential of many others currently in development, the industry has begun to see Israel as a great new resource, a fact of which very few Americans are aware. As director Jon Turteltaub put it, “You, me and 11 other people know.” 

This new trend reflects more than a triumph of good ratings, good writing and good luck — it is the love child of a deepening relationship between Hollywood and Israel that has been steadily building over the past several years. That’s right: The image of Hollywood as home to so-called self-hating Jews who have perennially distanced themselves from the Jewish state, whether out of apathy, ambivalence, fear, alternate priorities, shame, political disillusionment or, perhaps, just plain career absorption, has given way to the reality of an industry drawing closer to Israel than ever before.

All this is the result of a few strategic initiatives over the past five or six years that have been aimed at getting prominent entertainment leaders to connect with Israel’s burgeoning industry. Among them is an annual Master Class program organized by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which each year brings Hollywood “masters” like Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, to Israel to teach aspiring young film and television artists.

Just as pivotal has a been a series of trips by a select group of A-list Hollywood tastemakers that William Morris agent-turned-independent-manager David Lonner has been sponsoring since 2006 — largely on his own dime. Lonner’s guest list has included filmmakers Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”), Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting for Superman”) and Turteltaub (“National Treasure”), as well as producer Darren Star (“Sex and the City,” “Beverly Hills, 90210”) and Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chair Amy Pascal, whom Forbes magazine once called “arguably the most high-powered woman in Hollywood.”   

The timing for all these trips has been both intentional and providential, because they came just as Israel’s creative industry was undergoing an explosion in productivity and quality that many are comparing to the trajectory of Israel’s high-tech industry. Hollywood was able to get in on the ground floor. The start-up nation, as it turns out, is not only adept at technological and medical innovation, as well as energy efficiency, it is also darn good at making movies and television. Since 1964, Israel has garnered 10 Oscar nominations for best foreign language films — four of them in just the past five years.

Even bigger right now is the Israeli television industry, which, since 2007, has seen at least 10 Israeli television “formats” (industry slang for media concepts that can be translated or adapted into different markets internationally) sold into the Hollywood marketplace. Israeli-inspired “The Ex-List” (CBS) and “Traffic Light” (Fox) were short-lived, but many more, including CBS’ “Life Isn’t Everything,” HBO’s “The Naked Truth,” NBC’s “Midnight Sun” and the CW’s “Danny Hollywood” all are in various stages of development. The exchange between the two countries is now so substantial that people often speak of a “pipeline” going back and forth. And the mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and Nikki Finke’s all have taken note.

“Not since Golda Meir wanted everyone to make and write ‘Exodus’ has there been so much activity,” Ben Silverman, founder and CEO of Electus and the former co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, said in a recent interview.

“I do think there’s a renaissance happening,” said Sherry Lansing, the former studio chief of Paramount Pictures, who is responsible for organizing the first high-profile Hollywood mission to Israel, in 1984.

Will this finally be the year for an Israeli Oscar?

Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” Israel’s entry in the Oscar sweepstakes for best foreign-language film, has jumped the first major hurdle by making the shortlist of nine semi-finalists.

“Footnote” is Cedar’s fourth feature film in an 11-year career, and each one has been selected by the Israeli film industry to represent the country at the Academy Awards.

In 2007, his war picture “Beaufort” was one of the five Oscar finalists, but neither this nor any other Israeli entry has ever walked off with the golden statuette. Cedar and his countrymen fervently hope that the fourth time will be the charm. More about this film later.

This year 63 countries, from Albania to Vietnam, vied in the foreign-language film competition, considered one of the most unpredictable of the Oscar categories.

Last year was the first in memory that no domestic or foreign film dealing with the Holocaust or the Nazi era was entered in any Academy Award category. On that basis, this reporter predicted that the “Schindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds” era had passed and that from now on this historical genre would deal with more recent conflicts and genocides.

It took only one year to prove the prophecy wrong with Poland’s entry “In Darkness,” which has also qualified for the shortlist. The movie’s settings and emotions are as lightless as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women and children actually hid for 14 months during the German occupation of Poland.

Their unlikely protector was a rough-hewn Polish sewage worker and part-time thief, who knew all the hiding places in the underground system because that’s where he worked and stashed his loot.

At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. In this as in her other works, victims, heroes, villains and bystanders each have their strengths and weaknesses, varying with time and circumstance.

“I have always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes in human nature,” she said in a phone interview. “I wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some conditions, and how brave and compassionate at other times.”

The Netherlands’ entry, “Sonny Boy,” which did not make the cut, tells the actual story of two unlikely rescuers, a middle-aged Dutch housewife, who runs off with and marries a black Surinamese student more than 20 years her junior.

Under the German occupation, they hide several Jews in their home. Similar to Anne Frank’s fate, the couple was betrayed, arrested, and died in captivity.

One trend among foreign film producers, first noted last year, is the growing emphasis on such themes as internal conflicts, problems of immigrants, and life under the former Soviet occupation of East European countries.

Examples are films from Bosnia and Ireland (ethnic cleansing), Colombia (guerrillas vs. military), Czech Republic (expulsion of ethnic Germans after World War II), Estonia (Soviet army deserter returns), Kazakhstan (Soviets invade Afghanistan), Italy and Romania (illegal immigrants) and Lebanon (Christian-Muslim conflict).

New York-born Joseph Cedar, 43, is that rarity among Tel Aviv filmmakers, an Orthodox Jew, and he explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis in his first two films, “In Time of Favor” and “Campfire.”

His next picture was “Beaufort,” a war, or better said, anti-war, film. In sharp contrast, his current movie, “Footnote,” centers on the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars, who are also father and son.

“OMG, what could be more boring,” I can hear the second and third generations of my family moan, but in Cedar’s hands the movie has more tension per frame than a gun-toting action picture or apocalyptic sci-fi epic.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik, father and son, are both shining lights in the Department of Talmudic Studies of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where rivalries are fierce.

As former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger allegedly observed, academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

Maybe so, but to the two Shkolnik philologists, the stakes in their lifelong studies of the authenticity and meaning of each word in different Talmudic versions and editions are far higher than the struggles of warring countries or the rise and fall of national economies.

The director, himself the son of renowned Hebrew University biochemist Howard Cedar, firmly rejects the assumption that the protagonists in the film resemble in any way the persons or relationships in his own family.

“The film’s Talmudists in no way represent my father and myself,” the younger Cedar said. “Actually, their relationship is my nightmare, not my reality.”

Yet “Footnote” explores the balance between uncompromising honesty and family relationships. Says Cedar, “what if my son becomes a more successful director than I am, but makes movies that I hate? Will I tell him how I really feel or preserve family harmony?”

On a national scale, the insistence on one’s absolute truth contributes to civic violence in Israel, Cedar believes. “We now have a generation that considers ‘compromise’ a bad word and social harmony has been taken hostage by people who claim to know the absolute truth.”

Although “Footnote” will not be released in American theaters until March, it has received favorable reviews. At the Cannes Film Festival, Cedar was awarded the top prize for best screenplay, and in the United States, the National Board of Reviews of Motion Pictures placed the film among the five top foreign-language features.

But the competition for the ultimate winner will be rough. In both the United States and Europe, the critical favorite at this point is the Iranian entry “A Separation,” which has won a string of awards at international film festivals.

The film by Asghar Farhadi masterfully combines an easily recognizable situation – an impending divorce in an upper middle class family – with the strange atmosphere, pieties and judicial proceedings of an unfamiliar society.

Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 24 and the Oscars presented on Feb. 26.

“Who’s still standing?” Israel puts mark on us TV

NBC’s new quiz show “Who’s Still Standing?” has contestants dropping through the floor, and the burgeoning Israeli TV industry whooping with delight.

The fast-paced trivia game, which sends losers falling through trap doors, makes its U.S. debut in a week-long series of shows this coming Monday, December 19, as the first Israeli reality program to find its way to the United States.

Judging by the in-roads being made by Israeli producers and creators on television around the world, it won’t be last.

Twenty years after Israeli television broke away from its one channel model of mostly news, and British or U.S. drama imports, young producers are making their mark internationally with original programming often made on shoestring budgets.

“It has been a quick learning process,” Tel Aviv-based producer Lisa Shiloach-Uzrad told Reuters. “We started with simple game shows and buying international formats and adapting them. But in the last few years we have seen more and more original programming, scripted shows, reality shows or game shows.”

“Who’s Still Standing?” (or “Still Standing” as it is called in Israel), has been sold to 13 countries including Spain, Hungary and France since Shiloach-Uzrad created the show in 2010 with business partner Amit Stretiner.

The duo are also the creative team behind “The Frame”, a reality show hybrid of “Big Brother” and “The Amazing Race” that has sold in 30 countries and is due to make its way to the CW network in the United States in 2012.

Elsewhere, cable channel Showtime’s critically-acclaimed psychological thriller “Homeland” has its creative roots in Israel, and HBO is making a U.S. version of Israeli crime drama “The Naked Truth”.


“Who’s Still Standing?” will be hosted on NBC by Ben Bailey and features one main competitor and 10 challengers in a battle of wits for a $1 million jackpot. As soon as a contestant answers a question incorrectly, they disappear through trap door and are out of the competition.

Shiloach-Uzrad said she believed the show owed its success to a format that combines “a trivia show where the viewer is playing along and the comic effect of physical humor.”

“The Frame” was developed specifically for international audiences. It features eight couples who live in small rooms around the clock for all to see, and gives them challenges. The audience votes off the least popular couple.

“You see lots of reality shows where you take people out of their natural environment and put them into a fantasy land. In this case we said, what can be more intense than being closed in with your partner for 6-8 weeks in a very small space?,” Shiloach-Uzrad said.

The claustrophobic effect is both a product and a bonus from working with limited resources. HBO’s therapy drama “In Treatment”, adapted from another Israeli original, also found success by using a small number of actors sitting in one room.

“We have to work with low budgets. This means you really have to find smart and creative solutions to make things work,” said Shiloach-Uzrad.

“With scripted shows, you have to lean on high quality writing and good acting and great characters because there is no money for Hollywood special effects or car chases to cover up for weak plots,” she said. (Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

Lights, camera, Israel

Like a good movie, Israel evokes a variety of emotions within us. In fact, the poster for the 1994 Israel Film Festival (IFF) reads:

“Passion, Triumph, Danger, Tragedy, Suspense, Miracles, Conflict, Ecstasy, Israel.”

When I asked Meir Fenigstein, founder and director of the IFF, why he chose these particular words, he said, “These are the ingredients that produce a good film, and these also happen to be the emotions that best capture the story of Israel.”

Fenigstein was referring to the modern State of Israel, but I would argue that these words have portrayed the story of Israel from its very inception. From the very first time the word “Israel” was pronounced, the scene was one of danger, suspense and conflict; its outcome could be tragic or miraculous; and the passion that ensued produced a feeling of ecstasy and, ultimately, triumph.

It was a dark, lonely night when “Jacob remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Jewish commentators are divided as to what exactly took place that night. Who was this mysterious “man” that suddenly appeared and wrestled with Jacob all night? Was he an angel or a real person? If he was an angel, who and what did he represent? Was this a real, physical event, or did it take place in the realm of the supernatural? Was it a prophecy, a dream or a combination thereof?

No matter what answers the commentators have suggested, the outcome of this wrestling match is even more compelling than the above questions. Just before the break of dawn, when the “man” saw that he was unable to defeat Jacob, “He wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him.” He then implored Jacob, “Let me leave, for dawn is breaking.” Despite his injured thigh, Jacob still overwhelmed the “man,” and refused to let him go until the “man” would bless him.

“What is your name?” the man asked.

“Jacob,” he replied.

The “man’s” answer to Jacob is the turning point in Jacob’s life and marks the dawning of a new nation destined to spend its eternity much like Jacob spent this night — alone, often in the dark, struggling with God, wrestling with enemies, injured … and triumphant. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).

The medieval Bible commentator and grammarian Rabbi David Kimchi (Radak) teaches that the Hebrew word for “striven” — sari-ta — has as its root the word sarah (not to be confused with the name Sarah), which means “to contend,” or to “struggle toward victory.” This explains, according to Radak, the choice of Jacob’s new name — Israel. Built into the word “Israel” is the root sarah, which means that built into the word Israel is the character of struggling — with “beings divine and human.” Much like the patriarch Israel spent that night — and much of his life — struggling with the complexities of God, family, sibling rivalry, morals and ethics, parenthood and relations with neighbors, so, too, his descendants — the nation of Israel — were destined to spend their existence struggling with God, with each other and with those who surround them.

The Talmud teaches: “The deeds of our forefathers are a sign for their children.” Never was this more applicable, especially to contemporary Israel, than the moment when Jacob — now named Israel — walked away from his wrestling match triumphant yet limping, permanently scarred from his battle wounds. This image conjures up the many instances in Israel’s modern history when Israel triumphed, but the wounds of battle rendered the triumph bittersweet. From its rebirth in 1948 on the rebounds of the Holocaust, to the many valiant battles fought by the Israel Defense Forces, to the miraculous victory at Entebbe marred by the loss of one soldier, to the elated feeling of seeing Gilad Shalit home again with the sobering reality of the price for his release, Israel — like its namesake — continues to walk off its many battlefields with her fists raised in triumph, despite her injured legs limping away.

The words on the Israel Film Festival poster continue to ring true: Passion, Triumph, Danger, Tragedy, Suspense, Miracles, Conflict, Ecstasy, Israel. Like Israel the patriarch, Israel’s wrestling matches are passionate, filled with internal conflict, wrought with suspense and danger from enemies, and when we experience the ecstasies of Israel’s triumphs, we are compelled — as David Ben-Gurion said — to believe in miracles.

Hollywood delegation explores Israeli politics, culture

A group of high-profile Hollywood professionals was in Israel last week to learn more about the complicated challenges Israel faces.

The delegation met with Israeli and Palestinian policymakers and counterparts in the arts, business and cultural spheres.

A delegation from The Creative Coalition — a Los-Angeles-based organization that seeks to inform and engage members of the entertainment industry — included well-known actors, producers, directors and television, studio and publishing executives.

The visit was coordinated in conjunction with the American Israel Education Foundation, an independent, nonprofit charitable foundation affiliated with AIPAC.  

Patricia Arquette, Matthew Modine, Alfre Woodard, Griffin Dunne, Joe Pantoliano, Rob Morrow and Stephen Baldwin were among the professionals who met with President Shimon Peres and representatives from the prime minister’s office (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not meet with the group because he was sitting shiva for his father-in-law).  

Robin Bronk, CEO of the Coalition, told The Journal that its mission “is to educate, motivate and activate” the entertainment industry “on issues of social importance,” and that Israel was chosen “because it is a country that supports the arts and the efficacy of the arts in spectacular ways.”

Bronk said the art program at Kirshorit, a kibbutz in the Galilee that is home to dozens of Israeli adults with special needs, is a case in point.

“Kishorit uses art as a tool for teaching and socializing. Here was a specific example of how the arts can teach,” Bronk said.

The trip also included a visit to Hadassah Medical Center, where they were briefed on the latest advances in stem cell research; Sderot where, just a couple of weeks ago, rockets were falling; and to an immigrant absorption center just outside Jerusalem.

Bronk, who is Jewish and has visited Israel “many times,” said that “many of our members had never visited Israel.” Roughly a quarter of the mission participants were Jewish.

One of them was Richard Schiff (“The West Wing,” “Ray,” “Solitary Man”). During a Tel Aviv press conference — the mission’s only interaction with the media — Schiff  called this, his first visit to Israel, “quite moving.”

“Everywhere we go here, I see there’s a mission that’s clearly related to the absolute necessity for security and survival that we forget about in the rest of the world. I’m grateful to witness it firsthand and bring those stories back to America,” Schiff said. Kaycee Stroh (“High School Musical”), said Israel was a lot calmer than anticipated, despite its security concerns.

“To the outside world, the ‘two-state issue’ makes you think that in the streets of Israel there would be conflict. I assumed people would spit on each other, and yet on the ground level I’m amazed at how respectful everyone is. I didn’t expect that.”

“This has been a remarkable learning experience,” said Andrea Bowen (“Desperate Housewives,” “Boston Public”). “I talked with friends and peers, and there’s a lack of knowledge about what it is really like over here.”

Bowen said she now feels a “responsibility” to go back and inform young Americans what Israel is like.

“I’m trying to be a sponge for information. I don’t want to leave,” she said.

Giancarlo Esposito (“Breaking Bad,” “Homicide: Life on the Streets”) said many in the group were “very intensely overwhelmed by this beautiful country and the tenacious, focused spirit of its people. I have never before seen people able to live in that kind of strange and difficult situation and call it normal, to move forward and teach their children how to love and not hate, and to remain hopeful there will be peace in this land.”

At ZOA dinner, Glenn Beck dishes out the pro-Israel meat

The Zionist Organization of America’s annual dinner is a place where conventional thinking about the liberal proclivities of American Jews goes to die. But never quite like Sunday night—when Tea Party darling and Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachman served as the opening act and Glenn Beck was swarmed like a rock star.

Beck, who was on hand to receive the ZOA’s Defender of Israel Award, made his way into the VIP reception at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan shortly after 5 p.m. and almost instantly was beset by a crush of admirers. He found himself wedged into a corner as a crowd of well-wishers surged forward to have their photographs taken with him. Bachmann and her fellow Republican congresswoman, Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, were there, too—but it was clear who the star was.

“Love, love, love, love, love,” Ros-Lehtinen said, extending her hand to Beck, who responded by clasping hers in both of his. All around her, an expanding mass of people pressed in closer, seemingly eager to express the same sentiment.

“I need everyone to back up please,” a photographer practically yelled as he tried to create a cordon around the VIPs to set up his shot. But despite help from Beck’s two bodyguards, an assistant, and assorted publicists and ZOA personnel, the crowd kept pushing ahead.

Crowd control proved to be a recurring problem at the dinner. After the appetizer was served, seemingly half the room converged on Beck and his wife, Tania, tying up the traffic flow in the center of the ballroom and rendering the area impassable. A succession of ZOA officials implored the crowd to sit down so servers could get dinner on the table, but with little effect.

Grabbing the microphone, ZOA President Morton Klein, raised his voice—the first of several times he would do that over the course of the evening—and commanded those standing around to “sit down—NOW!”

Even for a crowd that’s been known to get weak in the knees for foreign policy hawks—including Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.,), one-time Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer and leading Bush administration neocon John Bolton—the euphoria surrounding Beck’s appearance stood out. And even for a ZOA dinner, the night was unusually partisan: Of the five members of Congress in attendance, all were Republicans.  Anthony Weiner had been a regular attendee in past years, as were fellow New York Democrats Nita Lowey and Eliot Engel. And though Klein announced that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would attend, New York’s senior senator was nowhere in evidence.

Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Democratic officeholders didn’t seem to be missed. The polls could be right that nearly 80 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama and more than half believe Israel should dismantle at least some settlements as part of a final agreement with the Palestinians. But not in this room.

Bachmann’s cry of “not one inch” brought guests to their feet and prompted screams of “Bachmann for president.” In his remarks, Klein assailed the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee – “Yes, I name names”—for their opposition to a bill on foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations. The measure has been decried by liberals, centrists and even some conservatives, in Israel and abroad, as a grave threat to Israeli democracy.

And Ros-Lehtinen, in a freewheeling and often sarcastic speech, singled out two women in the audience from the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, sardonically identifying them as the obstacles to peace.

“They look harmless,” Ros-Lehtinen said, “but you never know.”

Bachmann began her talk, which sounded much like a campaign stump speech tailored to Jewish ears—well, certain Jewish ears—by invoking the line in Genesis promising that those who bless Israel will be blessed. It’s precisely that sort of religiously inflected politicking that gives many American Jews the willies. But the ZOA crowd is not one to get much exercised about the confluence of God and politics. A clear majority of men in the room wore yarmulkes and speakers repeatedly invoked God’s promise of Israel to the Jews.

After a taped message from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went off with only a minor technical glitch, the emcee quipped, “I think that proves that God is on our side because the video actually worked.”

As for Beck, he is arguably the most polarizing media figure in Jewish life. Hundreds of liberal rabbis signed a letter in January asking that he be sanctioned for “completely unacceptable” use of the Holocaust and Nazi imagery. He has urged his listeners to quit their church or synagogue if “social justice” is part of its mission. And in a two-part series that accused left-wing financier and Jewish Holocaust survivor George Soros of collaborating with the Nazis, Beck flirted with what some critics saw as anti-Semitic conspiracies of Jewish control of media and finance.

Occasionally Beck has apologized—as he did after he compared Reform rabbis to Islamists—and then gone on to offend again.

It was in the wake of the Soros spat, when several Jewish groups lined up to express their outrage, that the ZOA bucked the trend. In a news release, Klein said that Beck’s comments were “essentially accurate” and that Soros “merits no defense or sympathy from Jewish leaders.”

“Glenn Beck got in touch with me, thanked me for writing this because no one else in the organized Jewish world was defending him, and he asked if we could get together,” Klein told JTA. “We got together, I asked him if he’d be our honoree, he began to almost cry. Tears welled up in his eyes.”

Asked about the discomfort some feel with Beck’s repeated use of Holocaust analogies, Klein, a child of survivors who was born in a German displaced persons camp, claimed ignorance, saying he didn’t watch Beck’s show often enough to have an opinion.

“I just don’t know,” he said.

That Beck, an unabashed crier, became misty at Klein’s offer is eminently believable. Beck appeared to choke back tears at least four times during his hourlong speech—and that was during his less emotional moments.

When he wasn’t battling the urge to cry, he was issuing a battle cry. With arms flailing wildly and face turning the color of the red caviar served in the VIP room, Beck portrayed the challenges facing Israel and the Jewish people in apocalyptic terms—as the ultimate showdown between good and evil. Beck was the only speaker at the dinner whose voice reached a pitch more feverish than Klein’s.

Beck said he came to the ZOA as a brother. “It’s personal,” he said repeatedly.

And clearly he has not been chastened by the urgings of some Jewish groups to tread lightly with the Holocaust analogies. Again and again he invoked them, saying the world stood on a precipice like the one it faced in 1939—only this time it’s worse, as not only is the world ignoring rising evil, he said, it is actively helping it along.

“America is not a collective,” Beck thundered. “America is built on the individual. I am a man and I demand to be counted so others are not numbered again.”

The crowd went wild.

Jason Alexander meets with Knesset caucus

Former “Seinfeld” star Jason Alexander met with a Knesset caucus to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alexander is in Israel as part of a high-profile delegation of international business leaders and philanthropists under the auspices of OneVoice, an international grass-roots movement working to promote the two-state solution.

The American television star and the rest of the delegation met Monday with the Knesset’s Two-State Solution Caucus. The delegation also is scheduled to meet during its weeklong visit with the OneVoice movement’s Israeli and Palestinian youth activists and to attend a town hall meeting in the West Bank Palestinian city of Kalkilya, according to the organization.

Alexander asked caucus members why pro-settlement Israelis want to be in the West Bank. Labor Party lawmaker Daniel Ben-Simon responded that it is because the land is “biblical.”

Alexander told The Jerusalem Post that humor has no place in the peace process “because someone is always going to be offended.”

L.A. Times apologizes for calling Ben Hur a Palestinian

The Los Angeles Times corrected an item about an anniversary release of a “Ben Hur” DVD that called the title character a Palestinian.

The correction came following complaints from readers and the staff of CAMERA: Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America of a Calendar item published Monday.

“A Sept. 26 Calendar section article about a new DVD and Blu-ray release of the 1959 film ‘Ben-Hur’ described the title character, played by Charlton Heston, as a Palestinian nobleman,” the correction said. “The character Ben-Hur was a Jew from Judea who lived long before the place now known as Palestine was given that name.”

The original item had said, “Based on the novel by Lew Wallace, the period drama revolves around Judah Ben-Hur (Heston), a Palestinian nobleman who is enslaved by the Romans, engages in one of the most thrilling chariot races ever captured on screen, and even encounters Jesus Christ.”

Idan Raichel: From the Personal to the Universal

Israeli megastar Idan Raichel launched his music career as a keyboardist for various other Israeli artists, with the hope of one day producing his own albums. In his first attempt to do so, Raichel created a studio in his parents’ basement in Kfar Saba and began recording anonymous singers from very different cultural backgrounds, including Ethiopians, Arabs, South Africans and Yemenites. His multilingual music was unique, emotional, inspirational and, most important, relatable.

In November 2002, The Idan Raichel Project released its first single, “Bo’ee” (Come With Me), which quickly became a huge radio hit. A month later, the collaborative’s first album was released, captivating Israeli listeners and changing the face of the Israeli music industry.

Raichel, who writes, sings, plays the keyboard and produces on his albums, began performing in the United States and reaching out to American fans in 2005, with his first tour outside of Israel. After recording three top-selling albums, and performing throughout the United States, Mexico, Ethiopia, Europe and at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway, Raichel sat down with The Jewish Journal to talk about life as a musician, his relationship to his songs, his new project and — in his opinion — the two most significant minutes of the year.

Jewish Journal: How much of the year do you spend performing outside of Israel?

Idan Raichel: We don’t have fixed tour dates. Sometimes we rest at home, travel, and record all in two weeks. We travel a lot, though, which only makes me appreciate the place I came from even more. Whenever we’re on tour, we know that our last destination will be home, which is actually the reason we decided to name our new album “Traveling Home.”

JJ: How does all this traveling affect establishing a life in Israel?

IR: It’s hard. All my relationships have to be long-distance ones, close to impossible.

JJ: What do you enjoy about singing abroad and, specifically, in the United States?

IR: When we perform in Israel, we usually play radio hits. In Israel, many look at our music as pop culture. It’s exciting to come here and meet a new crowd, a crowd of people not necessarily familiar with our music or with Israeli culture. Sometimes they are just random people who follow us through Facebook or who found our Web site. The fact that I can bring a taste of Israel to other countries is a great honor.

JJ: What is the most personal song you have ever written?

IR: All my songs are personal songs about a loss or absence. I tend not to explain the meaning of my songs because I fear that they will lose their meaning to the listeners. A woman once talked to me on the street and told me that the song “Im Telech” [If You’ll Leave] was played at her wedding as she walked down the aisle. During the same week, another woman told me that the same song was played at her father’s funeral. The same song could have different meanings to different people. Once I write a song on paper, it’s no longer mine. I believe in each person taking a song to his own place.

JJ: At a recent Q-and-A session at the West Hills Israeli Cultural Center, you spoke of a soldier’s family who put the lyrics of one of your songs on their son’s grave. How did that gesture make you feel?

IR: The song “Mikol Ha’ahavot” [Of All the Loves] speaks of someone who is gone but is still everywhere. There is a line in the song that says, “Will you remember them, will you know, you’re in all of them,” which is the line that the soldier’s family put on his grave. It was touching and only proved to me that once I put the song out there, it’s no longer mine. I’m just the tool that passes the message on for people to absorb and utilize.

JJ: You have said in interviews that, of all the holidays, you find the Israeli Memorial Day the most important. What is it about the IDF and its soldiers that you find so moving?

IR: I think that the 365 days in a year accumulate a certain meaning. At the end of the day, it’s the basic things in life that make it possible. It’s like a chef who cooks at a restaurant and has all the fancy ingredients in the world, but if he doesn’t have sugar, salt or pepper, he can’t cook anything at all. I feel that our army is a basic ingredient. On our memorial day, the 365 days of the Israeli existence in a year are reduced to only two minutes of a siren’s sound. I think that those two minutes truly reflect the Israeli way of life, the Israeli pride, our longing and sadness, our concern for and about the future, our patriotism and our mutual destiny. Those two minutes truly show what all Israelis have in common, if it’s our lives in the present, or the respect we have for our past. To me, those two minutes sharpen our minds and are the epitome of Israeli society.

JJ: Do you run your songs by anyone after you write them?

IR: One person who I sometimes ask for advice is my partner, Gilad Shmueli, who I produce all my albums with, but even though he sometimes gives me great pointers, we often disagree, and I end up doing what I believe in. Either way, he’s my best professional mirror. I sometimes also like to play the new songs to my sister. She shows sensitivity to my work.

JJ: You have collaborated with dozens of artists throughout your career. With whom haven’t you worked and would like to in the future?

IR: I would be very happy to work with the Israel Philharmonic. They are one big and talented artist.

JJ: Do you have any aspirations to produce other artists in the future?

IR: I am actually currently working with a soul singer named India.Arie on a new album called “Open Doors.” I wrote the songs, and she’ll be singing them. It’s exciting stuff.

Idan Raichel is currently touring the United States with Grammy Award-winning American soul artist India.Arie and will perform at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles on Oct. 13. For tickets, visit

Can a Palestinian story prompt dialogue for Middle East peace?

Julian Schnabel must have known that screening a film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the United Nations General Assembly would be scene-stealing. To set the town talking, the event would unite all the trappings — provocative subject matter, prestigious venue, Hollywood glamour.

In fact, the March 14 screening of “Miral” in New York drew a crowd of movie stars, diplomats, artists and intellectuals — Robert De Niro, Sean Penn, Vanessa Redgrave,  Ambassadors Jean Kennedy Smith and Qazi Shaukut Fareed, and Dan Rather, among them – raising the profile of an event that openly merged artistic prominence and political power. But when mixed, art and politics — while not exactly strange bedfellows — can stir into a complicated brew. And, sure enough, Schnabel’s screening spawned a flurry of protest from some of the most powerful and prominent voices in the Jewish establishment, who accused the film of being “one-sided” and “anti-Israel.”

The next day, a Los Angeles Times headline declared:  “Screening of ‘Miral’ at the United Nations draws protests from Jewish groups.”

The wave of controversy that ensued called into question whether a high-profile film written by a Palestinian and sympathetic to “the other side” was simply too much for some Jews to handle. That the filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish and presenting a perspective counter to the dominant Jewish paradigm was considered a tribal and national betrayal. That the film’s distributor, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is a New York Jew, and a vocal supporter of Israel, was even more unsettling. Haven’t the Jews and their State of Israel had it hard enough?

First to object was David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who, the night before the screening, sent out an open letter to United Nations General Assembly President Joseph Deiss. “The film has a clear political message which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” Harris wrote. “Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself — and the prestige of his office — with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

Next, Simon Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier sounded off: “Last night, when the General Assembly Hall was used for the first time to screen a pro-Palestinian film, marked another sad day in the 63-year-old history of the U.N.’s bias against the State of Israel,” he said in a widely released statement. “It’s bad enough that the 55 Moslem countries in the General Assembly have a virtual lock on the political resolutions there. Now the U.N. wants to extend that anti-Israel bias to the cultural and arts world as well.”

That the screening became cause for Jewish opprobrium seems to reflect deeper issues. Was this a protest of the film itself? Neither Harris nor Hier had yet seen it. Was it, rather, a legitimate complaint about bias against Israel at the world’s preeminent political assembly? Or was it, perhaps, a knee-jerk reaction from the old Jewish guard to anything sympathetic to the Palestinian perspective? Whatever the answers, the conversation surrounding “Miral” is raising serious and important questions about the Jewish response to Palestinian narratives — and, perhaps ironically, perhaps not — that’s exactly what the filmmakers want.

Rabbi Irwin Kula, one member of the post-screening panel discussion at the U.N., suggested that “Miral” offers an important opportunity to approach the conflict with new eyes.

“Everybody should go see it,” Kula, president of Clal, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said in a phone interview a few days later, from his New York office. “If you’re a Jew and anything about Israel and Palestinians touches you in any way, you should see this film.”

For Kula and the filmmakers, the hope is that the film will provide rare insight into the Palestinian point of view and inspire dialogue.

“After 63 years of conventional diplomacy, we are now further from a two-state solution than ever before,” Kula said. “We need new forms of peacemaking. Let’s recover personal, intimate human stories, which have been completely clouded out by the political and power narratives.”

Films like “Miral,” he said, offer alternatives to Jewish understanding of the conflict, humanizing individuals on the other side and offering openings for empathy. “Either we live in a moment of pikuach nefesh [“saving a life”], which makes marginalizing and vilifying those with whom one disagrees permissible, or [the reactions are a] projection of repressed, disassociated, split-off guilt about what is happening in Israel that is simply too painful to bear.”

If the early ire of mainstream Jewish groups is any indication, American Jews may not be ready to empathize with Palestinians. For older generations, the historic and seemingly endless suffering of Jews has given rise to the indelible notion that the world is against us. “We all construct narratives to help us get through life, so for a post-Holocaust generation to construct a narrative in which everyone is seen as a Nazi out to destroy us is not crazy,” Kula said. “What trauma does is close down the capacity to trust the other, and we have a traumatized group of senior leadership in American Jewish life.”

For some, that trauma is especially real at a place like the U.N., where an Arab bloc of 55 Muslim countries is outspokenly anti-Israel. The U.N. Human Rights Council, for example, has passed numerous resolutions condemning Israel, while countries with far worse human-rights track records, such as Sudan, get by relatively unscathed. So while the filmmakers saw the U.N. as a powerful forum for dialogue, Harris and Hier saw the potential for an echo chamber of diatribes. And while making movies is an art, and not meant to be objective or balanced, using the U.N. backdrop implies a certain seal of approval for a narrative that is discomfiting for many Jews.

“The moment I hear the words ‘U.N. General Assembly Hall’ — it stinks, because it’s never been open for Jews,” Hier said during a phone interview. “Where’s the film telling Israel’s story? Did they ever show ‘Exodus’ there?”

‘Miral’ filmmaker Schnabel is feeling the love — and the criticism

In an early scene in “Miral,” the new film by artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel opening March 25, a Palestinian activist named Hind Husseini (Hiam Abbass) comes across a ragtag group of about 50 children in Jerusalem’s Old City, many of them crying, trembling, dirty, barefoot, their hair matted and faces traumatized. The oldest is a girl of around 12, who explains that, the night before, the children had barely escaped a fiery rampage that destroyed their homes.  They are alone, hungry and terrified.

It’s April 1948, before the establishment of the State of Israel, and the stunned Husseini, an educated woman from a prominent Jerusalem family, soon learns that the children are survivors of an attack on Deir Yassin by Jewish paramilitary groups. Her response is to found a school and orphanage for children displaced by the fighting, a place that, over the course of the film, grows to accommodate thousands of girls.

The movie goes on to tell the story of several generations of Palestinian women, notably Miral (Freida Pinto of “Slumdog Millionaire”), who, in the late 1970s, arrives at the school after her mother, an alcoholic and victim of childhood sexual abuse, commits suicide. A decade later, the teenage Miral becomes radicalized while teaching in a refugee camp during the First Intifada; in one scene, she is arrested in the middle of the night for associating with activists, then brutally beaten while being interrogated in an Israeli prison.

In another sequence, a female terrorist attempts to place a bomb in an Israeli movie theater, while the rape scene from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” plays on the screen. The sequence serves as a metaphor not only for the rape of Miral’s mother — which propels the woman’s suicide — but also for the protagonist’s perception of the plight of the Palestinian people, Schnabel, the film’s director, said.

“Miral” is essentially an art film based on an autobiographical novel by Schnabel’s girlfriend, the Palestinian-born, Italian TV journalist Rula Jebreal.  Schnabel, 59, is among the most successful painters in the contemporary art world, and the most prominent artist ever to successfully segue into filmmaking. His “Before Night Falls” (2000) earned actor Javier Bardem an Academy Award nomination, while “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007), received four Oscar nods, including one for Schnabel in the directing category.

In 2007, Schnabel’s art was celebrated in an exhibition at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome. “There were 40 paintings that I actually installed without building temporary walls, so you could just see modern paintings among the frescoes in these giant rooms,” he said.

He met Jebreal at the show’s opening, and initially assumed she was Indian — she in fact bears a striking resemblance to the Indian beauty Freida Pinto, who plays the lead in “Miral” — but was surprised to learn she was, in fact, Palestinian and an Israeli citizen.

Jebreal, in a separate interview, recalled their first encounter: “I don’t know if I would say he had a knee-jerk reaction, but his expression changed from smiling to almost a tension, like he had never seen a Palestinian before,” she said. “So I asked, ‘Are you scared or something?’ And he replied, ‘Should I be scared?’ —  that is how we started talking.”

But the artist and writer clicked; and when she subsequently sent him her novel, “Miral,” he was moved and heartbroken by her story. 

Sometime during the transformation of the memoir into the film, Schnabel left his second wife, the Spanish Basque actress and model Olatz López Garmendia, who appears as a physical therapist in “Diving Bell”; he and Jebreal now live together, and it seems that his passion for his film and its underlying issues is tied, at least in part, into his passion for Jebreal.

It is the star power of the backers of “Miral” that make its release an event worth noting. The other major player behind this historical drama is Harvey Weinstein, the brash chairman of the Weinstein Co., an inventor of modern independent cinema who last month triumphed at the Oscars with “The King’s Speech,” which swept the awards and won for best picture. Weinstein, who, like Schnabel, is Jewish, has acknowledged that “Miral” is “pro-Palestinian,” but has vociferously defended the picture from some prominent Jewish leaders who see it as anti-Israel.

In the weeks leading up to “Miral’s” release, some mainstream Jewish groups, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, condemned the drama as agitprop and, in particular, denounced its U.S. premiere at the United Nations earlier this month. “The film has a clear political message which portrays Israel in a highly negative light,” AJC executive director David Harris wrote in a letter to the U.N. “Permit me to ask why the President of the General Assembly would wish to associate himself … with such a blatantly one-sided event.”

In a telephone interview from New York last week, Schnabel said he understands why some Jews have condemned his movie — some without even having seen the film: “It comes out of fear,” he said. “The fear that the Holocaust occurred, that ‘we have been [decimated], and we don’t want it to happen again’; that ‘these people, the Palestinians, are against us having a State of Israel, and we must fight for that, no matter what happens.’ But I don’t believe that’s true. I believe a Jewish homeland in Israel is superimportant, and a great thing, but we must have empathy; we have to be sensitive. I don’t think it’s a very encouraging way to look at people, as ‘us and them.’ It isn’t us and them. We are all human beings. And what is good for the Palestinians is also good for the Israelis.”

Among complaints leveled against “Miral” is that it presents Israeli soldiers as one-dimensional villains – but Schnabel doesn’t perceive the filmmaker’s job as a political balancing act. “Just as if I were painting a portrait, I’m dealing with what is in the frame that is related to Rula, and to Miral’s point of view,” he said. “It’s not from my omniscient point of view of a 59-year-old Jewish guy who’s got all these different facts where I have to explain who attacked whom in the Six-Day War. It’s Miral’s family history as it was told to her, and as it was lived by her. And that’s the power of the story. I can’t do this inexhaustible summation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are just too many stories.” 

Not all the filmmaker’s critics are Jewish. “Others have attacked me because the film isn’t pro-Palestinian enough,” Schnabel said. “I really can’t believe I’m even talking about this because ‘Miral’ is a movie about a girl and her family,” he added. “If the movie had been set in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t even be on the telephone today.”

Not that Schnabel is without his own opinion. “When I shot the movie and lived and worked in Israel and in Palestine, I was pretty ashamed of certain situations that I witnessed,” he said. “I felt it was like apartheid over there, and that’s very disappointing. There’s democracy for Jewish people in Israel, but I don’t think there’s democracy for Palestinian people. … When I see a kid with peyos and a yarmulke throwing a rock into a Palestinian home and screaming at them, that doesn’t seem to be the Jewish way to me.”