‘Bethlehem,’ a film of spies and intrigue and Oscar possibilities


Foreign-language (meaning non English-language) films from 76 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Venezuela, are competing for Oscar honors this year, with Israel’s entry, “Bethlehem,” pitting Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, against diverse Palestinian factions eager to blow up the Jewish state.

In Hollywood’s hands, this plot would be a no-brainer, with the guys in the white hats mopping up the floor with the bad guys.

However, it is only fair to warn flag-waving partisans on either side, who see the conflict in terms of unblemished virtue against pure evil, that they’re not going to like the way the film handles its subject.

As the film’s producer, Talia Kleinhandler, writes, “What I think is important about this story is that it never attempts to give a clear answer about right and wrong. All the characters in ‘Bethlehem’ are flawed; all are vulnerable. There is no black and white in this film, only painful shades of gray – like the reality we all live in here.”

If this assessment makes it sound like a namby-pamby movie, full of on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand, agonizing, “Bethlehem,” named for the West Bank city where the action unfolds, is anything but.

Co-written by Yuval Adler, an Israeli Jew who served in an army intelligence unit, and Ali Waked, a Palestinian Muslim and journalist, “Bethlehem” is a nail-biting thriller with enough intrigue and bullets to keep the most demanding action fan satisfied.

The film’s time and setting is the Second Intifada, from roughly 2000 to 2005, and in the opening scene, Palestinian suicide bombers have struck in the heart of Jerusalem, with scores dead and wounded.

The central protagonists are Razi, a veteran Shin Bet (or Shabak) agent, and Sanfur, a 17-year-old Palestinian recruited by Razi as an informer two years earlier.

But Sanfur isn’t just any kid with a hankering for American jeans. He is the younger brother of Ibrahim, the local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whom Razi has been hunting for more than a year.

Like almost everything in the movie, and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict it depicts, the relationship between the seasoned Israeli agent and the teenage Palestinian boy is complex and often contradictory.

Adler, who is also the film’s director, quotes a veteran Israeli secret service agent who told him that “the key to recruiting and running informants is not violence, or intimidation, or money, but the key is to develop an intimate relationship with the informant, on a very human level. It’s not just the informant who is confused about his identity and loyalties. The agent, too – and especially the good ones – often experience a blurring of the lines.”

Following this dictum, Sanfur, whose own father clearly favors the militant Ibrahim over his younger son, finds in Razi a kind of surrogate father, and Razi cares personally for the boy – even if that clashes with his professional duties.

While the Palestinian militants hate Israel, they dislike their internal rivals with equal intensity. The secular al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, affiliated with Fatah, contemptuously refers to the fervently Islamic Hamas as the “beards,” who in turn loathe the corrupt bureaucrats of the Palestinian Authority.

Co-writer Waked, interviewed in a Hollywood hotel, draws an analogy between these feuds and the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, when Menachem Begin’s Etzel and David Ben-Gurion’s Haganah detested one another with as much fervor as they did the British soldiers.

Another remarkable aspect of “Bethlehem” is that almost everyone involved in making the movie is pretty much of a novice.

The strong acting lineup, foremost Shadi Mar’i as Sanfur and Tsahi Halevy as Razi, consists almost entirely of first-time actors. Furthermore, for both Adler and Waked, “Bethlehem” is their first feature film.

Adler, 44, said in an interview that his film debut is a major hit in its home country, and won a fistful of awards, including best picture, at the Israeli equivalent of the Academy Awards.

Israel’s media, which have a much higher tolerance for national self-criticism than their American counterparts, have generally come out with complimentary reviews, though the strongest raves have been in the foreign press and trade papers.

Curiously, while in most countries the political right would have condemned the film’s critical take on the national security service, in Israel it has been the left that has slammed the picture for its supposedly distorted view of the Palestinian struggle.

Thus in an article in the daily Haaretz, headlined “ ‘Bethlehem’ is yet another Israeli propaganda film,” critic Gideon Levy terms as “outrageous” what he sees as the movie’s portrayal of Israelis as the good guys and Palestinians as the bad guys.

Adler, who has steadfastly declined to discuss his own political orientation, considers such charges preposterous. His diverse cast of Israeli and Palestinian actors “made it possible to see the world through their eyes,” he said. “As director, I tried to bring their contradictory viewpoints into a single whole, without taking sides, and without judging them.”

For the Israeli Film Academy, picking “Bethlehem” as the country’s official Oscar contender marks an interesting shift in focus from the two preceding entries, “Footnote,” which dealt with academic rivalries at a university, and last year’s “Fill the Void,” which viewed life and love among the ultra-Orthodox.

It will be interesting to see how the famously unpredictable Academy selection committee reacts to the picture, but the film has been touted as a real Oscar contender in a number of Hollywood publications.

A quick glance at submissions from other countries shows that, contrary to frequent predictions, the world’s producers and directors have not lost their interest in movies about the Nazi era, the Holocaust and the conflict in the Middle East.

Argentina’s “The German Doctor” follows the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’ “Angel of Death,” as he flees to the South American country and befriends an unsuspecting family there.

In years past, the U.S. Academy wrestled with the proper terminology for the “Palestinian Authority” or “Palestinian Territories,” but apparently everybody has stopped worrying about the problem, so the film “Omar” is credited with coming from “Palestine.”

Omar, the baker, lives on one side of Israel’s security wall, while the beautiful Nadia lives on the other side. But the romantic scenario turns very grim as Omar becomes a “freedom fighter” battling the ruthless Israeli occupiers.

One of the more interesting entries is The Philippines’ “The Transit,” which deals with the lives of Filipinos working in mostly low-paid jobs in Israel.

For World War II buffs, there is Russia’s “Stalingrad,” which chronicles both the epic battle and love among its ruins.


“Bethlehem” will be released in local theaters Feb. 21, 2014. Oscar nominees will be announced Jan.16 and the winners will be crowned on March 2.

Zombies solved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict


Recently, I went to see “World War Z,” a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a fairly typical theme — zombies. Now, a quick note to all you non-film buffs out there: Zombie films are never about zombies; they are about the societal pressures of the day. The basic premise of the film was nothing new [Spoiler Alert]: A virus mutated and spread, people were turned into zombies, and entire cities across the globe were wiped out. There doesn’t seem to be any hope of survival except for Brad Pitt, a U.N. soldier of sorts, who must save the world.

None of this offers any brilliant insights about our society in 2013. There was, however, a notable choice in this film that surprised me. The screenwriters chose one country that was successfully keeping out the zombies: Israel.

Aerial shots of Jerusalem filled the big screen, along with a giant concrete wall built along the Green Line. Giant walls and checkpoints were seen as necessary security measures, which stimulated a positive feeling in the audience. Israel became a refuge for all of humanity — anyone who made it to the gates of the country without being infected. We saw strong women fighting for safety, we heard a brief history of Israel and the Jewish people, and we were given insights into the Israeli mentality. For me this choice alluded to the Isaiah 42:6 passage in which God says to the Jewish people that they should be “a light unto the nations.” While these moments made me smile, there was something more important coming through the big screen. It was the waving of the Israeli and Palestinian flags with all of the people, Jewish and Muslim, Orthodox and secular, dancing and singing the Hebrew peace song and prayer.

This scene, I joked, demonstrated to the audience what could solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a zombie virus outbreak that was infecting the entire planet. It sounds outrageous, but in thinking about it a little more, I came to realize these screenwriters were onto something. Could it be that they were trying to argue that only an external power of enormous magnitude could solve the conflict? So, I took a look at both the current state of the conflict and a theory that could explain why a zombie apocalypse could, in fact, create peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

The Israeli and Palestinian governments have been at a stalemate for more than a decade, yet among Middle East experts it is common knowledge that everyone knows what a peace agreement would look like. As Aaron David Miller, Middle East expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said on NPR recently, “Look, you could have an agreement. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were prepared to pay the price of what it would cost.” Right now, that price is too high. The societal pressures placed on both leaders make it politically unfavorable to resolve the conflict. The status quo is better than the unknown. The final-status agreement will take tremendous strength and political capital, as well as the will of the people, but that is not what is frightening — it is what comes next: How do the people shift their beliefs and mentalities as well as erase their fears and the hatred? How do they live in peace with their neighbors? How can their typical behaviors and way of thinking shift overnight when their leaders sign a piece of paper — a peace treaty. The “next” is harder than the agreement.

So what does this have to do with zombies? Well, zombies are a metaphor for a great external power that forces populations and governments to dramatically shift their behavior overnight. The only way to go from conflict to peace overnight is through a forced shift in the typical behavior of the elites as well as average citizens changing national interests, ingrained belief systems, identity, involuntary reactions to “the other,” negative stereotypes and many other small but significant social and cultural cues.

This can be explained by a theory in sociology called socialization — when a major force causes an external and internal crisis in a country or region, people shift their behavior because they must in order to survive. In other words, zombies.

Does this mean that unless a zombie virus breaks out and Israel becomes a safe haven, we won’t have peace between Israelis and Arabs? I’m not such a skeptic. This is where public diplomacy remains a key factor in shifting behavior over time — laying the foundation for a slow and steady migration toward a true peace instead of needing an external crisis to force the behavior shift overnight. Peace activists, public diplomats, and ordinary citizens of both Israel and the future Palestinian state must continue to listen and learn from each other, find the commonalities and overcome fears … or pray for Ebola, the bubonic plague, flesh-eating bacteria or, clearly, a zombie apocalypse.

An extended version of this piece was originally posted on the CPD Blog of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School.


Naomi Leight is a partner in Rimona Consulting, assistant director for research and publications at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School and co-founder of Jewcer.com.

Jewish films coming soon to a screening near you


The New York Jewish Film Festival closed this week after showcasing 37 films from around the world. Here are a few films to look out for as they travel to other American cities in the coming months.

“Aliyah”
Directed by Elie Wajeman (France)

Set in the grungy streets of Paris, “Aliyah” offers a glimpse into the raw and dark life of Alex, a 27-year-old Jewish drug dealer from a broken home who must constantly pay off the debts of his abusive older brother, Isaac.

Presented with the opportunity to move to Israel with his cousin and open a restaurant in Tel Aviv, a withdrawn and endearingly wounded Alex faces the challenge of breaking free from his destructive brother and sorting out his complicated love life.

Dreaming of a better life in a land he’s never known, Alex looks to the streets for some fast cash but finds that love and betrayal are just the beginning of what obtruct his path to the Holy Land.

Alex’s attempts to escape the disorder of his Paris life are portrayed convincingly by French director Elie Wajeman. The film’s enticing storyline, spoken in French with English subtitles, was a favorite at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and the Philadelphia International Film Festival.

“Aliyah” is scheduled to screen at film festivals in Atlanta, Miami, Toronto, Cleveland and Chicago.

“The Fifth Heaven”
Directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis (Israel)

In a film Illustrating prestate Israel’s growing pains during World War II, Dina Zvi-Riklis beautifully portrays the tragic world of 13-year-old Maya, an orphan abandoned by her parents and left to fend for herself in a Tel Aviv orphanage.

As Maya faces frequent bullying in her attempts to adapt and fit in, she befriends the orphanage head, Dr. Markowski, an old friend who knows her parents and tries to get them to take Maya home.

The production team did extensive research to accurately portray Israel of the 1940s, and the film boasts beautiful cinematography that enhances its subplots such as the pressures of life under the British Mandate and the smuggling of weapons in the fight for independence. The film is based on a book by Rachel Eytan that Zvi-Riklis read as a teenager and decided the storyline was important to preserve.

“The adults and the kids are kind of orphans waiting for the end of the Second World War, which will deliver salvation, waiting that someone would save them from their loneliness but ironically comes a new war,” Zvi-Riklis wrote in an email. “What interested me is to tell the story from the perspective of women. Usually we see this period through the male heroic perspective. I wanted to confront the emotional side and femininity.”

“The Fifth Heaven” is scheduled to screen at festivals in Baltimore, Boca Raton, Fla., and Middletown, Conn.

“The Cutoff Man”
Directed by Idan Hubel (Israel)

Few films put a human face on society’s worst jobs quite like Idan Hubel’s “The Cutoff Man.” The film revolves around Gaby, a father of two living in northern Israel who faces unemployment. He is forced to make a living off the hardship of others, cutting off the water supply of those who don’t pay their bills.

Driven to put food on the table and fulfill his son's dream of becoming a professional soccer player, Gaby is subjected to sleepless nights, physical and verbal assault, humiliation and gut-wrenching sorrow. He struggles to maintain his dignity while following corporate instructions to punish the impoverished.

The film is dry and slow, unapologetically forcing the audience to stomach Gaby’s harrowing assignments, which earn him nothing but a few shekels for each water pipe he closes.

Hubel, whose father worked as a cutoff man for 14 years, has no problem leaving minute-long moments of silence to emphasize the agony of the situation. And Gaby, played by the celebrated Israeli actor Moshe Igvy, barely speaks in the film as he drags himself miles and miles to close a few more water pipes to pay his bills.

“The Ballad of Weeping Springtime”
Directed by Beni Torati (Israel)

Produced like an old American Western but spoken in Hebrew, “The Ballad of Weeping Springtime” is an adorable tale of a musician who fulfills the wish of his dying best friend to perform a song they wrote together many years earlier.

The protagonist, Yosef, once played lute with a legendary Mizrahi band, The Turquoise Ensemble, but retreated to northern Israel and opened a bar after being sent to prison for a fatal car accident. When Amram, the son of his former bandmate, comes with news that his father’s dying wish is to hear his arrangement of “The Weeping Springtime Symphony” performed, Yosef embarks on a peculiar journey to organize the perfect band.

Director Beni Torati adds absurd adventures as the plot thickens, with each eccentrically dressed musician added to the band enhancing the movie's comical mise-en-scene.

“The Ballad of Weeping Springtime” is scheduled to screen domestically at festivals in Atlanta, Michigan, Miami, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Austin, Texas, as well as internationally in Montreal, Toronto and Paris.

“All In”
Directed by Daniel Burman (Argentina)

An amusing romantic comedy from Argentinian director Daniel Burman, “All In” is the story of Uriel, a hotshot professional gambler who has lots of luck with cards and ladies but keeps a poker face with everyone else in his life, including his two children.

Newly divorced and eager to explore his reclaimed bachelorhood, Uriel decides on a whim to have a vasectomy. He then accidentally rekindles a relationship with an old flame. Facing middle age, Uriel, played by the Oscar-winning actor Jorge Drexler, must face down his web of lies and cut himself free of gambling.

The film has some quirks — Uriel confiding in his urologist like he’s a shrink; the reenactment of a vasectomy with a cookie; and the concert performance with a Chasidic rock band called the Rabbi-ing Stones. Still, Burman manages to extract from this mess the uplifting notion that true love is available to anyone, no matter how puerile.

“All In” is scheduled to screen at festivals in Pleasantville, N.Y., Hartford, Conn., Toronto and Houston.

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 JNS.org. “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 JNS.org. “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 JNS.org. “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.”

 

‘Footnote’ falls, continuing Israel’s Oscar drought


“Footnote” failed to win Israel’s first Academy Award, coming up short in the best foreign-language film category.

The film, directed and written by Joseph Cedar, was beaten out by the Iranian entry, “A Separation” by Asghar Farhadi, at the annual Oscars ceremony on Sunday night at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

“Footnote,” the story of the rivalry between two Talmudic scholars who are also father and son, was the second Academy Awards entry for Cedar, 43, a New York native who now lives in Tel Aviv. “Beaufort,” his film about the first Lebanon War, lost its bid in 2007.

Others vying in the best foreign-language film category included “In Darkness,” by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland, which follows the fate of a dozen Jewish men, women and children who hid for 14 months in the underground sewers of Lvov during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Also, “Bullhead” by Belgium’s Michael Roskam, and “Monsieur Lazhar” by Canada’s Philippe Falardeau.

At the Cannes Film Festival, “Footnote” 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.

Cedar’s first two films, “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” also were chosen as Israel’s entries to the Academy Awards but did not make the finals. They explored the gulf between observant and secular Israelis.

Jewish life in the City of Lights


Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies—wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras—but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press. 

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal. 

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker—telling an Israeli story—had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag. 

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

Letters


GOP ‘Munich’ Event

In his review of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s “Munich” event (“‘Munich’ Still Topic of Debate,” Briefs, Feb. 24), Robert Jaffee feigns surprise when he states, “Even with Republican sponsors and a largely Republican audience, the panelists at a recent discussion on Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’ covered most of the spectrum from left to right.”

As moderator, I opened the event by stating the two conditions under which we agreed to co-host the event with Pepperdine. First was that it should be held as a nonpartisan event, since I do not believe there is an established Republican or Democrat position on the movie — nor should there be. As evidence, I cited critics of the movie on the left, such Alan Dershowitz, as well as defenders of it on the right.

My second condition was that I would not allow the discussion to devolve into ad hominem attacks on either Steven Spielberg, for whom I hold admiration (and as a guardian of the memory of the Holocaust, gratitude), or Tony Kushner, whom I do not particularly admire.

To the audience’s credit, they abided by these admonitions. And when two (out of almost 200) participants engaged the panelists with debate from their seats — as Jaffee noted with condescension — I reminded them of our agreement to submit questions on cards, and they also responded respectfully.

It is curious that Jaffee would leave out all mention of these comments by me.

Readers of The Jewish Journal should be reassured that if they choose to sample one of RJC’s thoughtful events, they will be greeted with respect, not with cream pie in the face, a fate that has befallen conservative speakers at some venues.

Dr. Joel Geiderman
California Chair
Republican Jewish Coalition

Jack Abramoff

Two recent articles in the Los Angeles Times have undermined David Klinghoffer’s impassioned statement on Jack Abramoff (“In Defense of Jack Abramoff,” Jan. 27). One demonstrated that Abramoff used charities as a place to park money, which he subsequently used as if it was his own, and from another, we learned that this self-described Orthodox Jew advanced the interests and facilitated a meeting for the president of Malaysia with the president of the United States. His client had made such well-publicized anti-Semitic statements that they were broadcast throughout the world.

I wonder if Klinghoffer’s op-ed should not be withdrawn by the author or at least by the papers which published it. We now know it was contrafactual and verifiably untrue when it was written.

I do not claim that Klinghoffer knew that his defense — or his attack on the so-called attackers — was untrue, but his failure to withdraw the story leaves such an impression on this — and I presume other readers. If he does not withdraw it, The Jewish Journal should.

Michael Berenbaum
Director
Sigi Ziering Institute
University of Judaism

David Klinghoffer responds:

This correspondent missed the point of my article. That Jack Abramoff broke the law, abused the system and the trust of others was the premise of and occasion for the article I wrote. Once again: What I asked was, given that Abramoff has admitted serious criminal activity, that he’s publicly abased himself, that he’s now going to receive a hefty and deserved prison sentence, how appropriate is it for the Jewish community to continue to pour scorn and, indeed, hate upon him?

The lack of pity and compassion from so many of his co-religionists, the venom I’ve seen in numerous e-mails sent to me directly, is the real desecration of God’s name in this case. The fact that the writer of this letter can’t understand such an elementary point illustrates, rather than contradicts, what I tried to say.

Shameful Cover

On our trips to Israel we have seen Ethiopian Jews in modern dress, integrated into modern Israeli society. It was heartening. Your Feb. 24 cover showing a primitive Ethiopian and questioning whether such a person can be a Jew is a shameful dig or racist bigotry. It would be more appropriate for a Ku Klux Klan publication than for The Jewish Journal.

Marshall Giller
Winnetka

Not Made Clear

The Bush administration and the Israelis should have made it clear before the Palestinian elections that democracy does not mean that a people has the right to vote for “Nazis” (“U.S. Must Refocus Democracy Building,” Feb. 24). No fair-minded person would deny that Germany is a democracy, but certainly the Allies would never have let the people of (West) Germany govern themselves if they had elected Nazis, and if this happened, the Allies would not be called “hypocritical.

Another point of common sense. Now that everyone is aware how sensitive Muslims are about certain things, should the world not demand not only that Hamas recognize Israel and denounce terrorism, but that it end all hate speech against Jews.

Obviously, Jews certainly have the right to feel more sensitive about Holocaust denial, the blood libel and being called “pigs” and “dogs” than Muslims do about cartoons that truthfully depict their behavior.

Ronnie Lampert
Los Angeles

Questions

I hope someone asked Elias Khoury at his book reading why the people who started the war against Israel with the intent of wiping it and it’s inhabitants off the face of the earth have the chutzpah to call themselves victims, after they lost their attempted genocide of Israel (“‘Gates’ Hold Key to Palestinians’ Pain,” Feb. 24). I hope someone also asked Khoury why the Arab perpetrators of the “nakhba” didn’t take care of there own refugees.

Robert Miller
Sherman Oaks

Shlomo’s World

Howard Blume’s piece is precisely the kind of self-righteous equivocating that keeps the Jewish people off course and susceptible to attack (“Shlomo’s World,” Feb. 24). How dare he go on and on about one, count ’em: one person named Goldstein who killed Arabs while over the past five, 50, 100 and more years how many Arabs have killed how many innocent Jews?

Blume demonstrates that he has very little accurate knowledge of the history or purpose of his own people. A child of the civil rights movement, he does not see a religious Jew’s world as [Blume’s] own world — and therein lies the problem.

Blume was raised with the American civil rights movement as his religion. Has he or others like him really taken the time to see what the roots of that movement were and how it relates to Israel? It was and is the heroic story of the people of Israel that fuels and informs the struggle of black Americans for their freedom.

But Blume apparently refuses to see the cold, hard realities of the Middle East. He doesn’t believe it that when someone says they’re coming to kill you, they actually mean it. If Blume knew the history of his own people and understood what is truly his own world, he would have a very different view.

But, alas, he and others wish to remain in their give peace a chance/we are the world cloud, while denigrating the very religious Jews, who by the courage and devotion, continue to live and maintain the land of Israel. Give a thoughtful reading to from time immemorial will ya?

Read about some of your heroic brothers and sisters on israelnationalnews.com. And you are welcome to contact me for a thorough discussion of the real story of Israel in the Middle East.

Joshua Spiegelman
Sylmar

Kudos to Howard Blume for his article, which clearly states that the fundamentalists of any religion can be quite evil. They believe that anyone who does not believe exactly as they do are fair game.

In 1977, my wife and I gave ourselves a 25th wedding anniversary gift by touring Israel. My first purchase was a blue-and-white Israeli hat that I wore throughout the tour.

Our guide took us through West Bank communities without any fear. There were soldiers around, but we comfortably fraternized with Arabs in their shops and on their streets. I was delighted to witness Arabs and Jews praying simultaneously in different rooms at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

I constantly wonder what the situation would be today if subsequent Israeli governments had chosen to separate synagogue and state and not encourage religious Zionists, like the murderer Baruch Goldstein, to settle in the West Bank and Gaza.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Betty Friedan

Blu Greenberg’s eloquent tribute to the late Betty Friedan reminds us how much courage it took for Friedan to stand up against American society’s treatment of women in the early 1960s (“Friedan: Universal Woman, Particular Jew,” Feb 10). Less well known is that more than 20 years earlier, Friedan spoke out for another unpopular cause — bringing German Jewish refugees to the United States.

Friedan was a freshman at Smith College in Massachusetts in the autumn of 1938, when Hitler unleashed the Kristallnacht pogrom. A debate soon erupted on campus over whether the United States should aid Jewish refugees.

On one side stood Smith President William Allen Neilson, a deeply principled humanitarian who believed America should be true to its tradition of welcoming the downtrodden. He urged the students to sign a petition asking President Roosevelt to let German Jewish girls enter the United States outside the immigration quotas, in order to enroll at Smith.

On the other side in the debate were most of the students, whose opposition to the refugees mirrored the bigotry and isolationism that was all too common in American society then. To Friedan’s surprise and dismay, some assimilated Jewish students joined the anti-refugee side.

Each student house held its own discussion on whether or not to sign the petition. “A number of girls spoke against it, about not wanting any more Jews at Smith,” Friedan later wrote.

There were four older, well-to-do Jewish girls in her house — “the type that spoke in whispery voices and became utterly anemic because they did not want to be known as Jews,” as she put it. “I expected them to speak up [in favor of the petition], but they didn’t. Finally, despite being only a freshman from Peoria, I spoke, urging that we open our doors to those girls fleeing persecution.”

Sadly, her plea fell on deaf ears — the petition was rejected by a large margin. But it is to Friedan’s credit that she stood up for what was right, even when it was unpopular to do so.

Dr. Rafael Medoff
Director
David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Melrose Park, Pa.

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‘Munich’ Portrays Real World Issues


In recent days, several pundits have criticized “Munich,” the new film by director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, for drawing a “moral equivalency between the Israeli assassins and their targets — both explicitly … and implicitly.” Furthermore, they argue that it has inaccurately portrayed the Israeli avengers as morally conflicted about their mission to eliminate the perpetrators of the Munich massacre.

As long-time community advocates who have dealt with Hollywood’s often-ambivalent images of Jews and Israel, we are sensitive to the overt and sometimes covert themes that can send a message that delegitimizes the world’s only Jewish state. We are also aware of the risks of taking creative license with recent history that is still playing itself out in current events.

“Munich” does not present these problems.

“Munich” probes the motivations of the Black September terrorists who commit the heinous crime of the Munich Olympic slaughter (portrayed in haunting and unambiguous scenes) and even affords one of the terrorists an opportunity to state his attachment to the land. The terrorists, however, stand in stark contrast to the Israeli avengers who were forced into action by a shocked, but ultimately indifferent world, yet sought to avoid harm to innocents at every turn.

Despite the fact that the Israeli mission was a violent one, it was clearly not animated by the callous evil that permeated the Palestinian onslaught. The debates, ambivalence and anguish that the Israeli avengers reflected on the screen as their mission wore on are no different than today’s vigorous dialogues in Israel that grapple with similar life-and-death issues.

Even before the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, Palestinian Jews practiced a doctrine of tohar haneshek, the purity of arms. They recognized, as the movie’s protagonist, Avner, does, that while arms may be necessary, violence not only inflicts damage on the enemy but also wounds the actor.

The film quotes Jewish tradition, which itself wrestles with the question of the death of one’s enemy. At the Passover seder, Jews diminish the cup of wine they drink to remember that even those who enslaved them in Egypt were human and God’s creation.

In fact, Jewish commentaries on the Bible have God rebuking the angels who were celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians: “The fruits of my hands are drowning in the sea, how dare you sing songs.” This is not a mandate for nonviolence, it is an acknowledgment of a reality that must be weighed and measured whenever violent action is contemplated.

What “Munich” presents is not moral equivalency or mechanical symmetries, it is the real world. Had this been a two-dimensional thriller with clear cut and uncomplicated good guys and bad guys, controversy could have been avoided. It still would have been a compelling and exciting film.

“Munich” deals with the ambiguities, ambivalences and compromise that inevitably crop up in real life, even when responding to undistilled evil visited upon innocents.

As the film ends, Avner walks along New York’s East River, absorbing all he has been through. Some critics claim that it is unclear if he returns to Israel or remains in America. That uncertainty is not a commentary on Zionism or its vitality; Avner needs a time out, a long time out. (Israelis routinely go to Nepal or India, far away from the Middle East and far away from the news of the Middle East after their military service. They, too, need a time out.)

In the background of this climactic scene are the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, a reminder that by 2005, with the towers gone, we all inhabit a world in which terror is a reality and the response to it poses uncomfortable and vexing challenges, especially for democracies. No one is insulated, no more time outs.

Critics can quibble with this colloquy or that juxtaposition in “Munich,” but the impact of this moving film is profound. It forces the viewer to ponder how best to deal with terror and evil in a world in which every action, no matter how justified, has consequences.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. He served as the Anti-Defamation League’s director in Los Angeles for 16 years, dealing with Hollywood-related issues. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

 

‘Munich’: The Missing Conversation


For me, the most telling moment in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” was the final scene, when the young, distraught Mossad team leader,

Avner, takes a walk along the East River with his Israeli case officer, Ephraim, the man who supervised his mission. With the World Trade Center as a background, Avner tells Ephraim that he has had enough of the killing.

While it is true that he may have avenged the Munich massacre of the Israeli Olympic Team by Palestinian terrorists, what has really been achieved? The violence has not abated — other terrorists continue new attacks, and he no longer wants to be a part of that vicious cycle. He tells Ephraim that he will not return to Israel.

But your parents are sabras who helped build the country, and you belong there, Ephraim reminds him. No, I am staying in New York, Avner insists, and then proceeds to invite him over to his house to break bread. Ephraim stares him down long and hard and replies that he cannot come, and that he is immediately returning to Israel.

The film’s sympathy clearly lies with Avner. Ephraim is depicted as sort of a dogmatic Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye Galitzianer. But what bothers me is I wish Ephraim would have accepted Avner’s invitation to dinner — there was much he could have told him.

He could have started by reminding him what he said when he first sent him on his mission: “You are not terrorists throwing hand grenades at buses or machine-gunning people in the theater lobby…. There will be 11 [terrorist] names on your list. If you get only three, we will be disappointed, but you did nothing wrong. If you get no one, your mission would be a failure, but still you’ve done nothing wrong. If you get them all, but you also hurt one innocent person, you will have done wrong. Remember this.” (This is not in the film but appears in the book, “Vengeance,” on which “Munich” was based.)

I would have wanted to pursue the conversation further in light of what has happened since Munich, asking Avner, how should we confront terrorists? Should we wait for the U.N. General Assembly? You know how many times they have condemned Israel, but not a single time have they condemned a Palestinian terrorist organization?

If we didn’t go after the terrorists and their leaders, tens of thousands of civilians could be slaughtered. The late Golda Meir used to say that if that happened to Israel, she was sure that the eulogies would be profound, but she would prefer that the State of Israel live.

And let me say something else. If these terror attacks occurred every day in the United States, France or England — do you think they would have a second thought about going after the terrorists?

You are right when you say that violence begets violence. When British commandos assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis ordered that the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, with its women and children, to be burned to the ground and sent 1,300 people to the concentration camps.

That was a horrible reprisal. But what should the British have done? Not taken out Heydrich, the man who chaired the Wannssee Conference and drafted the proposals for the elimination of the Jewish people? It’s true that Ernst Kaltenbrunner took over, but he was no Heydrich — it was never the same, and in the end, tens of thousands of lives may have been spared.

And what about Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s invasion of the Normandy beaches, when twice as many French civilians died as Nazis in the first week? Should we have canceled the invasion because it was imperfect? Should we not engage in any more peace efforts just because the Munich Pact between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 turned out to be a disaster?

One more thing: What if I could look into a crystal ball and tell you that one day, a prime minister of Israel would offer the Palestinians 96 percent of everything they ever dreamed of, and they would flatly reject it without a response. And that another day would come when a Likud prime minister, a founder of the settlements, would unilaterally withdraw from Gaza and leave his party to join forces with a Nobel Peace Prize Winner from Labor. And yet still the terrorist attacks would not stop.

My point is, Avner, I want peace as much as you. I, too, am sick of the vicious cycle of violence, and I believe firmly that the Palestinians should have their own state alongside of Israel. But I don’t have the luxury to wait for long-term solutions. In our imperfect world, I must look for short-term solutions.

After the Holocaust, there are not that many Jews left in the world to sacrifice. I can’t wait for Islamic fundamentalist jihadists to begin treating Jews as human beings.

By the way, from what I know of the Bible, one never loses his righteousness by confronting evil. We learn that from Moses himself: “And Moses turned this way and that way [in our time, its meaning could be to the United Nations and to the European community], but he saw that there was no man, [no one was willing to confront the evil taskmaster] so he struck down the Egyptian….” (Exodus 2:12).

You are a great man, Avner. I am proud of you — you’ve done your part. But now I must go home to continue to do mine.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

 

Italian Entry Locked Out of Oscar Race


Even the annual Oscar competition can’t stay clear of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This year, the brouhaha is about “Private,” a film centering on a Palestinian West Bank family whose home is temporarily taken over by a squad of Israeli soldiers.

“Private,” the work of Italian director Saverio Costanzo, was shot by an Italian crew and was selected as Italy’s official entry in the foreign language film Oscar category.

It was promptly rejected by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which accepted entries from 57 other countries, including Israel and the not-yet nation of Palestine.

The rejection, a news release from the Italian producers hints darkly, was due to the favorable treatment of the film’s Palestinian family.

Not so, Academy spokeswoman Teni Melidonian said. The problem lies in the fact that the languages spoken in “Private” are Arabic, Hebrew and English, but there isn’t a word of Italian.

“Our rules state clearly that an entry must be predominantly in the language of the country submitting the film” Melidonian said.

Italy quickly substituted another film, titled “La Bestia Nel Cuore” (“Don’t Tell” in English), but the controversy shouldn’t overshadow this intriguing movie, which includes some persuasive acting by a mixed Arab and Israeli cast.

Mohammad, his wife, Samia, and their five children live in an isolated two-story house, halfway between a Palestinian village and an Israeli settlement.

Suddenly one night (the film was shot in late 2003 with the intifada in full force), a squad of Israeli soldiers burst into the house to secure it as a lookout post facing Palestinian snipers.

At first, the family is ordered to evacuate the house, but Mohammad stands fast and refuses to leave.

The Israelis agree to a compromise, unthinkable in any other war, of allowing the family to stay in the downstairs living room and kitchen, while the soldiers take over the upstairs bedrooms.

Ofer, the leader of the squad, lays down one condition. On pain of severe punishment, none of the family members can go upstairs, and at night the door to the living room is locked from the outside.

Under the jampacked living conditions, the family’s nerves and tempers quickly fray. The wife wants to leave for the children’s safety. The older teenagers, fed steady TV images of heroic Palestinian martyrs, urge direct resistance.

But Mohammad, a teacher and Shakespeare fan, remains adamant that the most effective path is nonviolent resistance, expressed in the family insistence on staying put.

Mariam, the older daughter, plays a daring game by sneaking upstairs and observing the soldiers secretly through a crack in a closet door.

To her surprise, the young, clean-cut soldiers are quite human. One plays the flute, another does artwork; they miss home, and they complain about their officers.

The exception is Ofer, a disciplinarian and bit of a bully, who keeps the men in line and at one point threatens to shoot Mohammad, but even he eventually complains about constantly moving from one Arab house to another.

Despite the extreme stress, the Arab family is almost too good to be true, regardless of ethnicity. Mohammad is a deeply caring father and tender husband, the wife is scared but loyal, and the youngest kids are Hollywood cute.

The father is portrayed by Mohammad Bakri, a veteran Israeli Arab character actor, whose mixture of fortitude and sensitivity gives the film much of its strength. The wife’s role is skillfully acted by Areen Omari.

In shooting the film, director Costanzo favored hand-held cameras and barely visible interior settings, not always to the film’s or viewer’s advantage.

It is obvious that he intends to steer the audience’s sympathy toward the family. Nevertheless, as in earlier films by both Palestinian and Israeli directors (“Divine Intervention,” “Rana’s Wedding” and “The Syrian Bride”), with foreign audiences in mind, the Israelis are portrayed not as ruthless conquerors but as recognizable human characters.

“Private,” with English subtitles, opens Dec. 2 at the Laemmle Fairfax 3 in Los Angeles, One Colorado in Pasadena and University Town Center in Irvine. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com or www.typecastfilms.com for details.

 

What Makes Bombers Tick in ‘Paradise’?


In his riveting new film, “Paradise Now,” Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad paints an ugly picture of Israeli occupation and the harsh consequences he believes flow from it, namely suicide bombers. The movie, which won the Blue Angel Award for best European film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, explores the friendship between Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), and their transformation from unremarkable auto mechanics into would-be bombers.

Underlying Abu-Assad’s movie is a chilling but powerful message: Decades of illegal and brutal Israeli rule, he argues, have wiped out hope among young Palestinians and created a growing pool of dispossessed souls willing to sacrifice their lives to snuff out those of innocent Israeli men, women and children in the name of Palestinian liberation. Simply put, many suicide bombers believe that only by undertaking such an inhumane act can they reclaim their humanity.

“From their logic, and you have to put yourself in their minds, they’ve lost their dignity,” Abu-Assad said in a recent phone interview. “The attitude is: If we can’t be equal in life, then we can be equal in death. If we can’t live equally, then we can die equally.”

Abu-Assad, also the director of critically acclaimed “Rana’s Wedding” (2002), personally decries suicide bombing because, in his view, it turns the victim into the oppressor. Still, “Paradise Now,” which was partly filmed in Nablus in the West Bank, sets out to humanize would-be bombers and explain their motives.

As part of his research, the director said he interviewed family members and friends of suicide bombers, talked to a lawyer who represents failed bombers now in Israeli jails and read in-depth reports on the subject.

Yet, even in the hands of a sympathetic filmmaker, each would-be bomber becomes a kind of monster from the moment he straps on his belt of explosives and sets out in search of people to kill. Ironically, Abu-Assad’s understanding and nuanced portrayals of sensitive Said and hotheaded but lovable Khaled underscore that point.

Moviegoers first encounter Said and Khaled as they are working in an auto repair shop. When a particularly annoying customer complains, Khaled loses his cool — and his job — by taking a sledgehammer to the car’s bumper. As for Said, a romantic at heart, he can’t disguise his boyish attraction to a gorgeous Palestinian human rights worker named Suha (played by Lubna Azabal) who brings her car in for repairs. She shamelessly flirts with the uneducated, rough-at-the-edges Said, a boy from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

Close friends Said and Khaled soon repair to a hillside to sip tea, smoke a hookah and decompress. Said later pays a visit to his beloved mother, whom he has watched over since his father’s execution by Palestinian militants years earlier for allegedly collaborating with Israelis.

The film’s mood quickly darkens when Jamal (performed by Amer Hlehel), a middle-aged representative of an unnamed Palestinian faction, approaches Said. He tells him that now is the time for him and Khaled to carry out in Israel a suicide attack they had volunteered for years earlier.

It is here that Said’s and Khaled’s humanity begins to drain away and the friends begin acting and sounding like shrill propagandists for such terrorist groups as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In conversation and in their “martyr video,” Said and Khaled become the embodiment of deaf, dumb and blind rage.

Khaled: “Under the occupation, we’re already dead.”

Said: “We must continue our struggle until the end of occupation. Our bodies are all we have left.”

Khaled: “I have decided to carry out a martyr’s operation. We have no other way to fight.”

Already dead?

Nonsense. Khaled’s joie de vivre and Said’s intense love for his mother and budding romance with the sophisticated Suha make them very much alive, until now.

No other way to fight?

How about civil disobedience? How about electing Palestinian leaders more interested in making a stable peace with Israel? How about accepting Israel as a legitimate state and partner for peace?

Said and Khaled, in turning into would-be bombers, voluntarily make themselves one-dimensional, shedding the complexity and color that initially made them so engagingly human. As bomb makers outfit them with explosives, their journey to the other side is nearly complete. All that remains is a boom and the blood — which the film implies comes soon enough.

But not before “Paradise Now” takes some interesting, unexpected and telling detours.

Suha, the Palestinian woman, appears most closely to represent the views of director Abu-Assad. Before the film concludes, she persuades a would-be suicide bomber to choose life. She asserts that attacks will do nothing to weaken Israeli resolve or to improve Palestinian fortunes. Better to live, she says, than to die in vain.

At the same time, “Paradise Now” squarely contends that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories is the original sin that gives birth to the evil of the suicide bombings. Through his probing lens, Abu-Assad captures the gritty details and myriad humiliations of life under Israeli rule, including the abject poverty in Nablus’ ramshackle storefronts and the miasma of rotting garbage on its streets. When Khaled sees an Israeli military checkpoint, he seethes, as, presumably, do many Palestinians: “Mother——s!” he shouts.

“The full responsibility [for the suicide bombers] is on the hand of the oppressor, the hand that controls the border,” Abu-Assad said in an interview. “Yes, Palestinians make mistakes. They have an unhealthy society, but they’ve been living under occupation for 60 years.”

It perhaps underscores the complexity and difficulty of the Middle East conflict when a gifted and nuanced filmmaker nonetheless oversimplifies this subject. To be sure, the occupation fuels rage that helps to create a combustible climate for would-be bombers like Said and Khaled. But corrupt Arab governments, violent Islamic fundamentalism and a steady stream of anti-Semitic propaganda in mosques and Palestinian media surely play a seminal role as well. Is it too much to suggest that Palestinians — like Israelis, like all people — have free will and must take personal responsibility for their choices?

Still, Abu-Assad argues persuasively that as long as Palestinians believe or are conditioned to believe that the bleakness and hardship in their lives stems from the occupation, then suicide bombers will continue to multiply like cancerous cells. But Abu-Assad offers a path of hope, even in a place where many find little that is hopeful.

“When there is an acceptance of basic Palestinian rights — not even the implementation of them — the climate will change,” Abu-Assad said. “The Palestinians are willing to accept Israelis as equals.”

Spectator – Spielberg Keeps ‘Munich’ a Secret


In an honor-laden career, Steven Spielberg has never played for higher emotional and political stakes than in his upcoming film on the aftermath of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinian Black September terrorists.

The customary secrecy surrounding Spielberg’s projects in progress has been tightened to the point that even the film’s title is listed only as “Untitled Historical Thriller.”

Although some footage of the massacre itself will introduce the film, the focus will be on the subsequent charge to the Mossad by then Prime Minister Golda Meir to hunt down and kill the responsible terrorists.

In the only statement released by his spokesman Marvin Levy, Spielberg said, that “The attack at Munich by Black September and the Israeli response to it was a defining moment in the modern history of the Middle East.”

“It is easy to look back at historic events with the benefit of hindsight,” he continued. “What’s not so easy is to try to see things as they must have looked to people at the time. Viewing Israel’s response to Munich through the eyes of the men who were sent to avenge that tragedy adds a human dimension to a horrific episode that we usually think about only in political or military terms.”

“By experiencing how the implacable resolve of these men to succeed in their mission slowly gave way to troubling doubts about what they were doing, I think we can learn something important about the tragic stand-off we find ourselves in today,” Spielberg said.

A few basic facts are available about the film now shooting in Malta, with other locations in Budapest and New York. The screenplay is by renowned playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) in his feature film debut.

The international cast is headed by Eric Bana as the lead Mossad agent, and includes David Craig, Geoffrey Rush, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ciaran Hinds and Israeli actress Gila Almagor. Universal Pictures will release the film this Dec. 23.

A major concern is that in “Spielberg’s Biggest Gamble,” as one headline had it, too much emphasis will be given to the doubts of the Mossad agents in their mission.

As historian Michael Oren told the New York Times, “It’s become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. I don’t see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. Somehow, it’s only the Jews.”

2004 Takes Some Unexpected Turns


 

There’s nothing as risky as end-of-year predictions, as 2004 so painfully demonstrated.

Twelve months ago, otherwise sober analysts were predicting a political upheaval among Jewish voters and that Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, was a cinch to win the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. President Bush, the pundits predicted, would turn to the political center in his fight for re-election. And in Israel, suicide bombers seemed poised to continue their deadly work, apparently still given the go-ahead by Yasser Arafat, the Nobel-winning Palestinian leader who just couldn’t forsake his roots as terrorist-in-chief.

At the dawn of 2005, Arafat is in his Ramallah grave, there are flickers of hope across the Middle East and Dean engineered the most spectacular nosedive in recent political history.

Here are some of the top Jewish stories of 2004 — and some pointers on what could be in store in 2005:

The Jewish Vote

For months, the hype was unrelenting; Jewish voters were on the verge of a great shift to the right, and Bush, thanks to his strong support for the Likud government in Israel, would reap windfall benefits on Nov. 2.

It didn’t turn out that way. When the results were in, Bush had received a mere 23 or 24 percent of the Jewish vote, far below the 40 percent or more some analysts predicted. In the end, Jewish voters ran true to form — driven mostly by domestic politics and particularly by fears about the growing influence of the religious right on the Republican administration and Congress, not by Israel concerns.

That doesn’t mean 2004 was a complete disaster for the Republicans. The GOP continued making inroads in Jewish political fund-raising and building a grass-roots infrastructure that could result in incremental change in coming elections.

In addition, the Republicans continue to benefit from a dramatic shift among the Orthodox minority. According to some estimates, more than 60 percent of Orthodox voters voted Republican this year, giving the GOP a small but important foothold among Jewish voters.

But for now, Jews are mostly where they’ve always been: Democratic, liberal and deeply suspicious of those who claim to be interpreting the word of God in politics.

Arafat’s Death

On Nov. 11, the Palestinians lost the man who symbolized their quest for statehood but also thwarted it. The death of Arafat reshuffled the Mideast deck in ways that won’t be fully known for years.

But several things are already clear. His departure means the Palestinians will have to get serious about whether they want statehood sometime this century, or just continue the political melodrama on the world stage that brings them much sympathy but little real forward progress.

Arafat’s death means that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, focused now on his Gaza withdrawal plan, can no longer sit back and say only that there’s no viable partner for new peace negotiations.

Washington, by most accounts, still has little interest in getting back into direct Mideast mediation, especially not while the administration is preoccupied by the mess in Iraq and a complex, ambitious domestic agenda. Arafat’s death will make it harder to stay on the sideline and much riskier. In the eyes of the world, it’s getting close to put-up-or-shut-up time for a U.S. administration that had demanded new Palestinian leadership as the precondition for new U.S. involvement.

“The Passion of the Christ”

Early in 2004, Jewish leaders were in high dudgeon over the upcoming Mel Gibson movie depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. The movie, with its harsh portrayal of Jews and their role in biblical events, would rekindle an old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism, groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) warned. The movie came and went and had a second coming in DVD form, and the pogroms have yet to erupt.

That doesn’t mean the ADL and other groups were wrong, though. The phenomenal number of Christians around the world who saw “The Passion” — and the even larger number who will see it over and over again on video and DVD — means the film’s perspective is seeping into the religious perspective of millions worldwide.

Exactly how that will play out in terms of their views of Jews and the idea of perpetual guilt for Jesus’ death is unclear. But it’s too early to say “The Passion” was a fizzle. It will be years before Jewish leaders can accurately assess its real impact.

Divestment

In July, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin the divestment process against Israel, applying the political action model that was so effective against the apartheid government of South Africa. Since then, Jewish groups have convinced other mainstream Protestant denominations to pull back from the divestment precipice or at least to move more cautiously, although the Presbyterians appear to be sticking to their guns.

Divestment represents a looming disaster for Israel and a community relations crisis for American Jewish groups. Unchecked, the effort would directly challenge and undermine the very legitimacy of the Jewish state by pressing the comparison with the odious former government of South Africa.

Beating back the divestment push will become easier if Israel moves forward with its Gaza disengagement plan and shows signs of a willingness to remove major settlements from the West Bank. But if the Gaza plan turns out to be a ploy to tighten Israel’s hold on West Bank areas, as some officials of the Sharon government have hinted, it will be harder to confine the divestment effort to the Presbyterians, who have traditionally displayed an overwhelming bias against Israel.

Stay tuned.

 

Your Letters


Fuel for the Fire

Nothing is more frustrating than seeing another United Against Terror bumper sticker, bedecked with the American and Israeli flags, stuck on the back of a mammoth SUV (“Fuel for the Fire,” Nov. 22.) Stand by the gates of many a shul in Los Angeles on a Saturday morning and the column of SUVs filing out looks like a military operation. The publication of this critically important story in The Jewish Journal was long overdue.

Of course, a car is a necessity in Los Angeles, but aside from the enormous environmental consequences of automobile use, Jews, in particular, must be mindful of the fact that every time we fill up at the pump, we are sending money to governments that fund terrorist groups bent on the destruction of Israel.

Steffen Turoff, Los Angeles

When I read Rob Eshman’s article,”Fuel for the Fire,” Ilooked closely for the use of federal subsidies given to fossil-fuel producers,to be directed toward renewable energy production. I found nothing.

There is no question that upping automobile miles per gallon is the fastest way to reduce gas consumption. But getting the fossil-fuel producers into windmills or solar cells could be the basis to provide a long-term solution to producing energy when the oil and gas resources run out — and they will.

Using windmills, which are economically competitive now, is a way to make money, reduce our reliance on Middle East oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Amory Lovins probably doesn’t care to take on the fossil-fuel lobbyists to get the Congress to force the fossil-fuel companies to use part of their subsidies for funding renewable energy production.

If we were able to get those producers to fund renewables, it would be a win-win deal.

Masse Bloomfield, Canoga Park

Eight Crazy Nights

I took my family to see Adam Sandler’s “Eight Crazy Nights.” This is not a Chanukah movie. I left the theater embarrassed, disgusted and disappointed. Those feelings were exacerbated when I received my Journal. I’m not sure that The Journal, and especially Naomi Pfefferman, saw the same movie I did (“‘Crazy’ for Chanukah,” Nov. 29).

There was no valuable Chanukah lesson in the entire movie, and there was no telling of the Chanukah story in any form as the title implies.

To write “some people were offended by the juxtaposition of Yiddishkayt and toilet humor” is an understatement, as well as an incredible diluted sense of what Yiddishkayt is. I did enjoy the third rendition of the “Chanukah Song,” but it was performed during the credits, as if Sandler knew that the movie had nothing to do with Chanukah.

I am embarrassed that the non-Jewish community thinks that this movie is anything remotely associated with Chanukah. I am embarrassed that The Journal put Sandler on the front cover and dedicated a full page to his movie. I intend to encourage my congregation not to see the movie. I am sorry I took my family.

Won’t someone produce a Chanukah cartoon or movie with the uplifting and powerful messages of Chanukah. Everyone, every day, at any age, has Maccabean moments.

Rabbi Jim Kaufman, Temple Beth Hillel North Hollywood

Potential Suicide Bomber

I take serious offense to many of Uri Avnery’s statements (“The Making of a Potential Suicide Bomber,” Nov. 29). As a paratrooper in the 101st from November 1994 through February 1997, who spent a total of nine months in Hebron, I can say that there are few soldiers — and none in my experience — that “do repulsive things” with the approval of their commanding officers or without (and contrary to Avnery’s opinion, those few do receive punishment).

Every soldier that I came in contact with, from many different units, showed the utmost professionalism and compassion. Some of my chevre (comrades) are still serving, and I hear it has not changed.

Why doesn’t Avnery take note of what happens to the nice Palestinian boys and girls who become “order-fulfilling robots” and “do repulsive things?”

Nate White, Los Angeles

While condemning suicide bombings, Uri Avnery thenexplains that the “rage” experienced by the Palestinians, because of thebrutality of the Israelis, is understandable, and understanding that can help us”cope.”

In other words, their heinous acts of murdering children in cold blood are “understandable.” And he has a solution — cease the “occupation.”

Never mind that the PLO was formed in 1964, three years before the “occupation” in 1967. Avnery continues to display selective memory loss by ignoring the Clinton/Barak offer, which would have removed the remaining “occupation.” So is it really the “occupation?” Or is it something more fundamental?

Jack Salem, Los Angeles

Listening to Needs

I appreciated Wendy Madnick’s article (“Listening to Needs,” Nov. 29), on the Jewish deaf. However, the article stated that Our Way NCSY is aimed at observant Jews. Our Way, like its sister organization, NCSY, is designed to provide outreach to the nonreligious, in this case, the Jewish deaf.

Through its programs, Our Way helps deaf Jews learn about their heritage, as well as providing services like the deaf Jewish singles registry that helps to combat the high rate of intermarriage in the deaf community.

Anyone desiring additional information can reach us at OurWayLA@juno.com.

Lori Moore. Director Our Way Los Angeles

One Community, Many Voices

To all my friends who hold a stake in the Jewish community: I assure you, I do hold dear to my heart all the same values you so eloquently shared with us on the back cover of The Jewish Journal (full-page ad, Nov. 22).

Only two small items defied my comprehension.

1. We, as a Jewish community, have had an open debate on the ongoing conflict since before I was born. The only side that is closed to debate and stands as a united front in its efforts to destroy Israel is the Arab world and its supporters in the West.

2. Your assumption that the State of Israel is strong enough to withstand all the onslaught of terror and world pressure is optimistic. We are only people, we hurt when we are beaten, we bleed when injured and we fight when our back is against the wall.

That is why we are called to support them in these hard times, even if we do not believe in every decision made by the government they elect. Please ask all that oppose us to have the same open mind that we share.

E. Teitler , Sherman Oaks

I object to much in “One Community, Many Voices.” Forexample, “Our blood is no redder than theirs….” This statement suggests thatpeople support Israel for racist reasons. I know no one in Los Angeles likethat. Could this be an attempt to deflect criticism of the signatories’position?

Apparently, to their mind, “occupation” is the problem. They ignore that Israel offered the Palestinians a state with 97 percent of the “occupied” lands returned to them. The offer was rejected, and the Palestinians left the negotiating table. To the Palestinians, “occupation” means all of Israel.

The statement also suggests that the two sides of the conflict are equal. Our blood may be equal, but there is no equality in action between blowing up a mother with her children and fighting hand to hand combat with terrorists.

The final irony lies in the Palestinians’ refusal to accept blood plasma from Israelis because it was Jewish.

I don’t accuse the signatories of being anti-Semitic. I accuse them of being wrong. Israel and world Jewry are being attacked on many fronts. It’s time for our many voices to work together.

Robert Bonem, Los Angeles

A Stamp of Approval

Michael Aushenker (“A Stamp of Approval,” Nov. 22) missed an important piece of local history connected to the Chanukah stamp. The stamp was issued at Kadima Hebrew Academy in 1996 in response to an extensive letter-writing campaign regarding this matter. The letter-writing campaign was set in the Chanukah context of teaching students about the democratic process.

Dr. Barbara Gereboff, Head of School Kadima Hebrew Academy Woodland Hills

Jewish Book Festival

On behalf of the Jewish Federation serving the San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, I would like to thank The Jewish Journal for its extensive coverage of our community’s fourth annual Jewish Book Festival (“Turning a New Page,” Nov. 8).

A success since its inception, our celebration of Jewish Book Month has grown each year, featuring increasingly more author events and garnering more sponsors, as well as more Book Festival committee members.

From the beginning, we have worked in partnership with the Jewish Book Council. In its early stages, our staff consulted with and sought out resources from the JCCA (Jewish Book Month coordinator Seville Porsch) and the Jewish Community Library (Abigail Yasgur, librarian).

As always, we welcome all members of the Los Angeles Jewish community to attend our Book Festival events.

Alan Whitman, President Jewish Federation of Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys

Corrections

In “Take It to the Church” (Nov. 29), the quote, “I know that it’s going to be the most unusual eighth night of Chanukah I’ve ever seen,” should have been attributed to Rabbi David Baron of Temple Shalom for the Arts.

Coming Attractions


If the mark of a fully matured film industry is that directors have logged enough time behind the camera that one can spot personal styles emerging over several films, then this year’s Israel Film Festival proves that the Israelis have definitely reached that plateau. With Eran Riklis (“Cup Final”) represented by two features and a new film by Aner Preminger (“Blind Man’s Bluff”), not to mention the latest work from Israel’s one truly world-class director, Amos Gitai, one can speak comfortably of Israeli auteurs.

Truth be told, the Israelis had reached that particular plateau many years ago, but who wanted to brag about the generally meretricious work of Menachem Golan or the trivialities of Amos Kollek? No, it was Gitai and Eli Cohen (“The Quarrel”) who first drew some positive attention.

With “Cup Final,” Riklis announced himself as the next Israeli filmmaker to watch, and this status is probably confirmed by the fact that his latest film, “Vulcan Junction,” is the opening night offering at this year’s festival, the 16th annual version of the event. Unfortunately, “Vulcan Junction” is of a piece with the previous Riklis film shown in the festival, “Zohar: Mediterranean Blues”; that biopic (of the Mizrachi singer Zohar Argov) looked and felt like an American TV movie, sloppy, mannered and hurried. “Vulcan Junction” is a multi-character melodrama, following the gradual breakup of a ’70s rock band and the circle of friends surrounding it, shot in the same disjunctive TV-and-rock-video style as “Zohar,” but without that film’s compelling central personality. Thematically, Riklis has some interesting pre-occupations — the way in which people use pop culture (soccer, rock music) to hide from their personal problems, the damaging nature of overweening machismo — but he hasn’t yet found forms to express them.

National film industries develop different genre strengths. In the past decade, the Israelis have emerged as purveyors of intriguingly quirky comedies with the tart edgy quality of the classic American screwball works of the ’30s, and bleak family melodramas with more than a suggestion of maverick filmmakers like John Cassavetes and his successors. The best of the theatrical features on view in the festival fall into these two categories.

The festival’s closing night film, “Yana’s Friends,” directed by Arik Kaplun, is a warm and engaging comedy about a young Russian émigré, the very fetching Evelyne Kaplun, who finds herself abandoned by her ne’er-do-well husband in a dazzling and confusing Tel Aviv on the eve of the Gulf War. Kaplun is himself a transplanted Russian (with a background in medicine, of all things), and this sweetly sentimental film has all the earmarks of first-hand experience. Like so many other Israeli films, it is structured around a large ensemble cast, a veritable community constellation from which its protagonists emerge. A first feature of real promise.

Gideon Kolirin produced one of the most execrable Israeli films of the ’90s, an embarrassing adaptation of Amos Oz’s “Black Box,” so nothing could have prepared me for his second feature as a director, “Zur Hadasim.” This is a quirky, punky ensemble comedy about two couples, all of them born losers, living on the edge of booming Tel Aviv society, desperately trying to grab a share of its largesse. Etti is pregnant. Her idiot boyfriend, Shaul, is a minor functionary in the underworld, a self-satisfied schlemiel with the IQ of a fire hydrant. The pair become entangled with Adi and Ilana, a similar, older couple, who have engineered a kidnapping that, through no particular expertise of theirs, should net them a tidy sum. Eventually, all the film’s players end up on the site of a never-to-be-built luxury housing development whose name gives the film its title, where things are worked out amusingly, if a trifle too neatly. An edgy, funny little film about the lure of foolish dreams of prosperity.

Casting His Vote


Sixty one and still full of surprises, that’sWarren Beatty. This weekend, Beatty goes head to head at the boxoffice with “The Horse Whisperer,” starring that other senior iconRobert Redford. Redford, like his contemporary Beatty, not only starsbut also directs and produces his movie. May the best man win.

However, Beatty, never one to leave things tochance when he can micromanage every inch of his collected opus, isout there, looking for an edge — and selling his savage politicalfarce with the kind of intensity that would be exhausting if itweren’t so charming. In an era when movies poke bitter fun atpoliticos (most recently “Primary Colors” and “Wag the Dog,” bothcritically praised but not exactly box office dynamite), Beatty hasput his head on the line in the genre.

He playsincumbent U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth of California, just days away froman election and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the racerazor’s-edge close, he’s become a blubbering mess, a disenchanted,burnt-out case, with a philandering wife (Christine Baranski) andlittle to hang on to. So he comes up with a unique solution to hisproblems: He hires a hit man to kill him for a fat life insurancepolicy that benefits his daughter.

But along the way to being 6 feet under, Bulworthmeets the gorgeous Nina (Halle Berry), a bright woman, 30-plus yearshis junior, raised by 1960s activists living in South Central LosAngeles. Bulworth, understandably, decides to cancel the hit. It’stoo late.

What follows is a “Warren in the Hood” politicaltragicomedy-cum-farce, which gives the savvy Beatty a chance tosavage not only the hometown Hollywood industry, but to fire deadlyarrows at assorted sacred cows, from politics to racism. Beatty asthe demented candidate turns into a hip-hopping, rap-spoutingpolitico who decides the only way to salvation is to tell it like itis: about Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the entire U.S. politicalhierarchy.

Why should politicians follow through on theircampaign promises to blacks, he asks his audience at a South Centralchurch, when blacks don’t make financial contributions? Whateverhappened to federal funding? asks a congregant. “They told you whatyou wanted to hear,” he snaps back. “Half your kids are out of workand half in jail, so what are you gonna do, vote Republican?”

Then whisked to a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hillsmansion, he scans his speech. Gazing out at the fat-cat donors, hemuses, “Oh, mostly Jews here — I’m sure they put something in aboutFarrakahn.”

As for Israel, he tells the astounded group thatpoliticians say they will support it just to take your money.

The $32 million movie is Beatty’s baby. Heproduced, wrote, directed and, of course, is the on-screen linchpinof this outrageous caper — made, ironically, for theultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox.

Political movies, especially since they’re upagainst some fairly stiff competition from the real thing these days,are not an easy sell. So Beatty is hitting the campaign trail asnever before to peddle “Bulworth” to the widest possibleaudience.

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills,Beatty, who turned 61 in March, looks in pretty good shape: There area few silver flecks in his full head of hair, a few wrinkles, but thewhole thing is pretty well preserved and immaculately attiredcompletely in dark-green cords, suede jacket and matching tie.

Throughout his long career, he has had a love-haterelationship with the media, but this time out, he’s making nice.Like a politician on the stump, he walks into the suite anddeliberately shakes everyone’s hand, paying particular attention toblack journalists. He knows there’s an audience out there thatnormally wouldn’t be seen dead at a Warren Beatty film, and he’sanxious to grab them. (When he’s finished, he even sits patiently,signing photos and posing for pictures with some of the morestar-struck journalists.) This is uncharacteristic behavior, to saythe least, from a man who has shunned the media all his life.

“This,” he declares, as if to convince himself,”is the best film I’ve ever made. It has a certain energy and makesme laugh when I look at it.”

And it’s pretty lifelike stuff, its creatorinsists. “In order for the film to work,” he says, “it has to beviolent, sexy and funny — or else it turns into C-Span.”

This desire to get attention has sent Beatty intosome strange territory. There’s enough rap music in his movie to keepthe most ardent fan happy. And Beatty compares the rappers of the1990s to Russian protest poets of Moscow, circa the 1960s.

It is also the first time that moviegoers get achance to see Beatty unvarnished, unairbrushed, filmed without thelayers of gauze he has lately employed when he takes to the bigscreen. In most of his movies, including the most recent, “LoveAffair,” “Bugsy” and “Dick Tracy,” Beatty has been filmed with thekind of devotion that only a Barbra Streisand can top. In “Bulworth,”he is unkempt, unshaven and crazed — upon orders from Beattyhimself.

“I told [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, ‘Iwant to be ugly in this movie,'” says Beatty. “I wanted to do thething that was the most opposite to me.”

And, so, the man who says with some justification,although not as much as he thinks, “I’ve been famous longer thananybody alive,” is preparing to sabotage his legend.”

And how does it feel to go out there symbolicallynaked in front of the multitudes? Don’t expect a straight answer fromthe man who perfected the responseoblique.

“This is the kind of language you hear processedthrough the press,” he says sharply. “It’s so ephemeral and goofy. Ifyou were to get caught up in this whole image thing, you’d go down aroad of unrewarding narcissism. And that is something I have neverwanted to get involved with.”

He then goes on to give the lie to himself inspades. “To tell you the truth, I’ve dealt with this legend thinglonger than most people…longer than Robert Redford and JackNicholson. My first film [“Splendor in the Grass,” l961] was a hugehit. Those people had to wait decades longer before hittingit.”

Failing to quit while he’s ahead, he gilds thelily further: “If I put my career into perspective, this is what Isee: I’ve done some good work and got awards, got critical acclaimand made enough money to live happily. I have built up a body ofmovies to make it impossible to forget me.”

Wonder what Bulworth would say about that one?

Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weeklycolumn for The New York Times Syndicate.

 

The Horse Whisperer


Sixty one and still full of surprises, that’sWarren Beatty. This weekend, Beatty goes head to head at the boxoffice with “The Horse Whisperer,” starring that other senior iconRobert Redford. Redford, like his contemporary Beatty, not only starsbut also directs and produces his movie. May the best man win.

However, Beatty, never one to leave things tochance when he can micromanage every inch of his collected opus, isout there, looking for an edge — and selling his savage politicalfarce with the kind of intensity that would be exhausting if itweren’t so charming. In an era when movies poke bitter fun atpoliticos (most recently “Primary Colors” and “Wag the Dog,” bothcritically praised but not exactly box office dynamite), Beatty hasput his head on the line in the genre.

He playsincumbent U.S. Sen. Jay Bulworth of California, just days away froman election and in the throes of a nervous breakdown. With the racerazor’s-edge close, he’s become a blubbering mess, a disenchanted,burnt-out case, with a philandering wife (Christine Baranski) andlittle to hang on to. So he comes up with a unique solution to hisproblems: He hires a hit man to kill him for a fat life insurancepolicy that benefits his daughter.

But along the way to being 6 feet under, Bulworthmeets the gorgeous Nina (Halle Berry), a bright woman, 30-plus yearshis junior, raised by 1960s activists living in South Central LosAngeles. Bulworth, understandably, decides to cancel the hit. It’stoo late.

What follows is a “Warren in the Hood” politicaltragicomedy-cum-farce, which gives the savvy Beatty a chance tosavage not only the hometown Hollywood industry, but to fire deadlyarrows at assorted sacred cows, from politics to racism. Beatty asthe demented candidate turns into a hip-hopping, rap-spoutingpolitico who decides the only way to salvation is to tell it like itis: about Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the entire U.S. politicalhierarchy.

Why should politicians follow through on theircampaign promises to blacks, he asks his audience at a South Centralchurch, when blacks don’t make financial contributions? Whateverhappened to federal funding? asks a congregant. “They told you whatyou wanted to hear,” he snaps back. “Half your kids are out of workand half in jail, so what are you gonna do, vote Republican?”

Then whisked to a fund-raiser at a Beverly Hillsmansion, he scans his speech. Gazing out at the fat-cat donors, hemuses, “Oh, mostly Jews here — I’m sure they put something in aboutFarrakahn.”

As for Israel, he tells the astounded group thatpoliticians say they will support it just to take your money.

The $32 million movie is Beatty’s baby. Heproduced, wrote, directed and, of course, is the on-screen linchpinof this outrageous caper — made, ironically, for theultra-conservative Rupert Murdoch, who owns 20th Century Fox.

Political movies, especially since they’re upagainst some fairly stiff competition from the real thing these days,are not an easy sell. So Beatty is hitting the campaign trail asnever before to peddle “Bulworth” to the widest possibleaudience.

At the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills,Beatty, who turned 61 in March, looks in pretty good shape: There area few silver flecks in his full head of hair, a few wrinkles, but thewhole thing is pretty well preserved and immaculately attiredcompletely in dark-green cords, suede jacket and matching tie.

Throughout his long career, he has had a love-haterelationship with the media, but this time out, he’s making nice.Like a politician on the stump, he walks into the suite anddeliberately shakes everyone’s hand, paying particular attention toblack journalists. He knows there’s an audience out there thatnormally wouldn’t be seen dead at a Warren Beatty film, and he’sanxious to grab them. (When he’s finished, he even sits patiently,signing photos and posing for pictures with some of the morestar-struck journalists.) This is uncharacteristic behavior, to saythe least, from a man who has shunned the media all his life.

“This,” he declares, as if to convince himself,”is the best film I’ve ever made. It has a certain energy and makesme laugh when I look at it.”

And it’s pretty lifelike stuff, its creatorinsists. “In order for the film to work,” he says, “it has to beviolent, sexy and funny — or else it turns into C-Span.”

This desire to get attention has sent Beatty intosome strange territory. There’s enough rap music in his movie to keepthe most ardent fan happy. And Beatty compares the rappers of the1990s to Russian protest poets of Moscow, circa the 1960s.

It is also the first time that moviegoers get achance to see Beatty unvarnished, unairbrushed, filmed without thelayers of gauze he has lately employed when he takes to the bigscreen. In most of his movies, including the most recent, “LoveAffair,” “Bugsy” and “Dick Tracy,” Beatty has been filmed with thekind of devotion that only a Barbra Streisand can top. In “Bulworth,”he is unkempt, unshaven and crazed — upon orders from Beattyhimself.

“I told [cinematographer] Vittorio Storaro, ‘Iwant to be ugly in this movie,'” says Beatty. “I wanted to do thething that was the most opposite to me.”

And, so, the man who says with some justification,although not as much as he thinks, “I’ve been famous longer thananybody alive,” is preparing to sabotage his legend.”

And how does it feel to go out there symbolicallynaked in front of the multitudes? Don’t expect a straight answer fromthe man who perfected the responseoblique.

“This is the kind of language you hear processedthrough the press,” he says sharply. “It’s so ephemeral and goofy. Ifyou were to get caught up in this whole image thing, you’d go down aroad of unrewarding narcissism. And that is something I have neverwanted to get involved with.”

He then goes on to give the lie to himself inspades. “To tell you the truth, I’ve dealt with this legend thinglonger than most people…longer than Robert Redford and JackNicholson. My first film [“Splendor in the Grass,” l961] was a hugehit. Those people had to wait decades longer before hittingit.”

Failing to quit while he’s ahead, he gilds thelily further: “If I put my career into perspective, this is what Isee: I’ve done some good work and got awards, got critical acclaimand made enough money to live happily. I have built up a body ofmovies to make it impossible to forget me.”

Wonder what Bulworth would say about that one?

Ventura writer Ivor Davis writes a weeklycolumn for The New York Times Syndicate.