Disputed Film Draws Muted Response


For Rabbi Marvin Hier, suicide bombings are the modern-day plague. The founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center so condemns these acts of terror that he spoke to the late Pope John Paul II, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and the chancellor of Austria to enlist their support in passing a U.N. resolution condemning suicide bombings as a crime against humanity.

Given Hier’s passion, one might expect him to denounce loudly the film, “Paradise Now,” as a work of propaganda. The movie, which seeks to humanize two would-be Palestinian suicide bombers dispatched by operatives to murder innocent Israelis, recently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and received an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

Despite the subject matter of “Paradise Now,” Hier, himself a member of the academy, has yet to see the film, although he said he soon planned to and “didn’t feel good” about the movie’s premise.

Like the Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League has no plans to protest the nomination of the controversial film. In fact, no large mainstream Jewish organization has called for a boycott.

In a measure of the acclaimed movie’s respectability in some quarters of the local Jewish community, the University of Judaism recently sponsored a screening of and panel discussion on “Paradise Now” that featured the film’s director, Hany Abu-Assad. The sold-out audience of nearly 500 clapped at the movie’s conclusion, which ends with a rage-filled Palestinian bomber getting ready to blow himself up on an a bus crowded with Israeli soldiers and civilians.

Abu-Assad said at the University of Judaism event that he opposes all suicide bombing attacks, even against soldiers. However, the director added that he came to understand how bombers can commit such acts after Israeli authorities detained him, without cause, he said, for three hours in the hot sun at a checkpoint.

To be sure, some conservative Jewish organizations have condemned the movie as an attempt to sanitize and justify a hateful terrorist act. They complain that “Paradise Now” seeks to blame for the proliferation of suicide attacks solely on Israel’s occupation, ignoring the dangerous grip of Islamic fundamentalism and the steady diet of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in Palestinian schools and media.

“I’m surprised that major Jewish organizations have not studied this film more closely, if at all, and taken it more seriously as an effort to normalize suicide bombing as an acceptable response to poverty and depression,” said Roz Rothstein, executive director of Los Angeles-based StandWithUs, an international pro-Israel educational advocacy group, who has seen the film twice.

“What’s the point of this movie?” asked Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, headquartered in Washington, D.C. “We should be shining a light on the horrors of [suicide bombing] and the victims, rather than humanizing these heinous acts.”

Brooks has not seen “Paradise Now.”

A few Jewish groups have done more than simply verbally attack the film.

The American Jewish Congress (AJC), Pacific Southwest Region, hopes to take out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter to “make Academy members think twice before voting,” said local AJC Executive Director Gary Ratner. Israel Project, an international educational advocacy group, has helped an Israeli father of a 16-year-old suicide bombing victim place an article critical of “Paradise Now” in American newspapers, including the New York Daily News. The goal: to make sure “the voice of the victim is heard,” said Calev Ben-David, director of the project’s Jerusalem office.

In the opinion piece, Yossi Zur writes: “Nominating a movie such as ‘Paradise Now’ only implicates the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the evil chain of terror that attempts to justify these horrific acts.”

Liberal Jewish leaders, on the other hand, tend to share the critics’ consensus that the film is complex, nuanced and “an examination rather than a justification,” in the words of David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., an L.A.-based human relations organization. They argue that “Paradise Now” questions the morality and efficacy of terror attacks through a pivotal character named Suha, a female Palestinian human rights activist who condemns bombers for perpetuating the cycle of violence, behaving as immorally as the Israeli occupiers and for hardening the Jewish state’s resolve.

“I think it’s a credit to our community that institutions like the University of Judaism have held showings and that the community response has been thoughtful rather than reactionary,” said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a Jewish social justice organization with offices in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. “I think most Jews who see the movie realize that it’s not about Jews in America or Israelis but an interesting insight into the bubble of Palestinian society.”

Perhaps the muted reaction from the American Jewish community stems from the fact that so few Jews have actually seen the film. Confined largely to art houses, “Paradise Now” earned a paltry $1.1 million from its late October release until its Oscar nomination.

Jewish groups might now also temper their reactions because of the lessons learned from “The Passion of the Christ.” The controversial and, some argued, anti-Semitic film about the last hours of Jesus’ life saw its box-office surge after Jewish critics began attacking it.

Boycotting “Paradise Now,” said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, “will only bring more publicity to this type of movie.”

Marc Ballon was moderator for the discussion following the University of Judaism’s screening of “Paradise Now.”

 

What Now?


When the militant group Hamas swept to victory in last week’s Palestinian elections, it forced all key players to reassess their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creating widespread uncertainty about the future. A number of fundamental questions have emerged:

Will Hamas in its power role moderate its radical positions or put Palestinian society on a collision course with Israel and the Western world?

This is the central question. There will be enormous pressure on Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic line. The European Union, which provides up to 90 percent of international aid to the Palestinians, is threatening to suspend its economic support unless Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces violence, and the United States appears poised to do the same.

In the short term, cutting off these funds could leave a Hamas government unable to pay the salaries of 155,000 Palestinian civil servants, including the 30,000-strong Palestinian Authority security forces. In the longer term, ambitious plans to jump-start the stalled Palestinian economy may have to be shelved, perpetuating poverty and unemployment.

A militant Hamas also will face international isolation, giving Israel the moral and diplomatic high ground for tough responses to Palestinian terror.

Israel will be able to exert tremendous diplomatic, economic and military pressure. On the diplomatic front, it won’t talk to Hamas in its present form; as to the economy, the Palestinians are dependent on Israel for electricity, the transfer of tax revenue, goods, services, work places and border crossings. In addition, if terrorism escalates, Hamas leaders could become targets.

Therefore, while it won an outright majority of 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas wants the defeated Fatah movement to stay on in government to give it a semblance of respectability vis-a-vis Israel and the international community.

Still, Hamas for now probably will refuse to moderate its ideology, which calls for Israel’s destruction. Indeed, there are strong opposing pressures on Hamas to maintain its radical line.

Iran, for example, could make up for some funds the European Union withholds — on condition that Hamas remain militant. Fidelity to its ideology and goading by other militant groups also could shunt Hamas away from moderation.

Does the Hamas victory mean the end of the dynamic toward independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side?

Not necessarily. By its very participation in the election, Hamas has been sucked into the two-state paradigm: The Palestinian Parliament holds sway in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but not over all the territory — including Israel — that Hamas claims as “Palestine.”

More imminently, the Hamas victory likely will accelerate unilateral Israeli moves to establish a clear border between Israelis and Israeli settlements on one side and Palestinians on the other.

Is Hamas uniformly radical or are there more moderate voices?

The organization’s formal position is that there can be no talks with Israel until it withdraws to its pre-1967 boundaries, divides Jerusalem and takes in vast numbers of Palestinian refugees, positions that are unacceptable to Israel. Until then, Hamas says, all contacts will be through third parties.

Behind the scenes, however, some Hamas leaders are intimating that there could be direct negotiations before then. On this score, and in general, Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ foremost candidate for prime minister, is thought to be more pragmatic than the Gaza-based party leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar.

How is the secular Fatah movement likely to respond to its loss of power?

Fatah, the movement founded by Yasser Arafat, has dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement since its inception 40 years ago. Its loss of power to the Islamic fundamentalists came as a profound shock. Fatah leaders’ initial reaction was to dismiss out-of-hand Hamas calls to participate in a national unity government on the grounds that Fatah plans to rebuild in opposition and return to power once Hamas’ approach proves unrealistic.

Fatah says it intends to hand over power peacefully, but already there has been some fighting between the two groups and some talk of using force to reverse the election result, the way the army did when Islamists were poised to win power in Algeria in 1992. A key development to watch will be whether P.A. security personnel loyal to Fatah agree to place themselves under Hamas command.

What are the likely regional consequences?

For Israel, one of the most dangerous results would be a growth of Iranian influence in the Palestinian arena. Hawks like the Likud Party’s Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, see a tightening of an Iranian-controlled terrorist belt around Israel, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah to the north and Hamas and other Palestinian militants in the center and south.

A lot will depend on the choice Hamas makes between Iran and the rest of the international community.

Will Hamas continue the cease-fire, or tahdia, that most Palestinian terrorist groups declared in early 2005 or will there soon be a fresh outbreak of terrorism?

The Israeli intelligence assessment is that Hamas will observe the cease-fire, at least in the short term. What happens next will depend on the long-term strategy that Hamas, with all the constraints of power, decides to adopt.

As for terrorist acts by other militants, such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, with its radical ideology, will be in no position to condemn them.

Some Israelis are saying the advent of Hamas will make it easier for Israel to cope. There will be no more masks or double talk, analysts say, such as when the Palestinian Authority condemned terror to the outside world but did nothing to stop it. With Hamas in power, they add, Israelis are likely to be more united in fighting terrorism and to get more international support for counterterrorist activities.

What are Israel’s options?

Government policy is shaping up as the following: No talks with Hamas, insistence on the “road map” peace plan’s demands for a renunciation of terrorism and disarming of militias, consideration of further unilateral withdrawals, rapid completion of the West Bank security fence, targeting of the Islamic Jihad militia and carrot-and-stick use of Israel’s economic leverage.

The government’s initial dilemma was whether to leave open lines of communication to Hamas and transfer some $43 million in value-added tax collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority or to set clear conditions for dialogue and transfers of funds.

After a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that the government would not hold peace talks with Hamas until it recognized Israel, renounced terrorism and accepted previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel also would refuse to hand tax money to the Palestinians until it was clear where the money was going, he said.

“We have no intention of transferring funds that will be used for terrorism,” Olmert declared.

Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke to an array of world leaders on the phone, urging them to withhold funds and refuse to meet Hamas officials unless the organization met Israel’s minimum conditions.

Visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the first major world leaders to give the Israeli position her unqualified support. After meeting Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday, she endorsed the three Israeli conditions: “If Hamas does not change, it would be unthinkable for the EU or for Germany bilaterally to support the P.A. government with money, as we do today,” she told waiting reporters.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels echoed her position. There would be no dealing with Hamas unless the organization recognized Israel and renounced terrorism, they said. In the United States, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States also will boycott Hamas as long as it remains committed to Israel’s destruction.

What impact is the rise of Hamas likely to have on Israeli elections?

All the main parties are trying to make political capital of the Hamas victory in the run-up to Israel’s own elections in March. Likud argues that last summer’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank showed the Palestinians that terrorism pays, and the fact that Hamas could claim that its militiamen forced Israel to leave paved the way for its election success.

On the left, Labor and Meretz claim that the Sharon government weakened Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah by ignoring them as potential peace partners, which they say contributed to Hamas’ rise.

The main argument now, though, is likely to be between the unilateralism advocated by Kadima and Labor and the Likud’s tougher approach. In elections of the recent past, Likud’s use of scare tactics and projection of strength in the face of perceived threats has been very effective.

Despite the rise of Hamas, however, Likud may find it difficult this time to dent Kadima’s lead in the polls. The governing party’s message regarding the advantages of unilateral action — the idea that Israel has the power to shape a new reality that’s best for it, regardless of who holds power on the Palestinian side — seems at least as valid now as when Fatah was in charge.

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Unforgiven


The best line in the 1992 movie, “Unforgiven,” is when Gene Hackman is looking up into Clint Eastwood’s shotgun and moans, “I don’t deserve this … to die like this,” and Eastwood snarls back, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

That exchange is the only way to make sense of what passes for international jurisprudence when it comes to Israel these days.

Last month, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled against the separation barrier that Israel is building between it and the West Bank. The World Court ruled that the barrier, which is mostly composed of a series of fences and sensors, abrogates the sovereign rights of the Palestinian people. Because the barrier as currently conceived will incorporate, according to United Nations estimates, 14 percent of the disputed West Bank territory, the justices ruled the fence violates the Palestinian right to self-determination and is “tantamount to de facto annexation.”

The court did acknowledge that Israel had a right to defend itself against terror — a few lines in a long, scathing decision — then went on to demand Israel tear down its fence.

Israel said it would ignore that ruling and a subsequent U.N. General Assembly resolution calling on it to carry out the court’s decision.

Other commentators have pointed out the laughable hypocrisy of the World Court itself. There is the Chinese judge, representing a country which, to put it mildly, didn’t bother to erect a fence between itself and Tibet. China just went in and took it over. And there is a Russian judge, who might want to rule next on his own government’s scorched-earth methods of dealing with terror in Chechnya.

But, no. Israel’s response to a campaign of relentless terror has been relentlessly subjected to a kind of snap international legal judgment. And deserve’s got nothing to do with it.

A Georgetown University professor decreed in the Washington Post that Israel’s policy of targeted assassinations against terror leaders was “illegal and extra-judicial.” The American news media quickly echoed his conclusion. One ABC anchor explained to an Israeli leader that killing a Hamas leader was “taking the law into your own hands.”

And it is nearly impossible to find a news report that doesn’t refer to the West Bank and Gaza settlements and the Israeli occupation itself as illegal, though international experts at the very least differ on this fact.

One can argue whether the actions Israel’s government has taken in the face of terror and recalcitrance are moral or effective. One can argue that Israel’s settlement policy — as its architect, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has come around to doing — is deleterious to the nation’s security.

But it eludes me how trying Israel in an international kangaroo court serves either the Palestinian cause or that of justice itself.

What it serves is a politically bankrupt Palestinian leader’s aim of undermining Israel in world opinion.

P.A. Chairman Yasser Arafat has used the strategy in the past to wonderful effect. Having presided over a disastrous second intifada, he has pulled an old tool from his belt — use the international legal process to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Arafat’s two biggest successes in this score were the 1975 U.N. resolution labeling Zionism as racism — overturned in December 1991 — and the U.N. World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, in August-September 2001, at which paragons of human rights like Syria passed a resolution that condemned, “Israel as a racist apartheid state in which Israel’s brand of apartheid is a crime against humanity.”

Also last month, Israel’s own judicial system yet again foiled the nation’s enemies’ best efforts at defaming it. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that in places where the security barrier “injures the local inhabitants in a severe and acute way, while violating their rights under humanitarian international law” the government would have to change its course. Sharon promptly declared that he would abide by the decision of his Supreme Court, which judiciously sought to balance Israel’s security needs with Palestinian rights, and ignore the World Court, whose imbalance was patently clear.

It would be easy to write off the Palestinian strategy to attack Israel on the legal front as mere propaganda. The World Court ruling was, after all, nonbinding, and lately, editorials decrying Arafat’s uselessness have overtaken those denouncing the fence. But the cumulative effect of these efforts is to delegitimize not Israel’s policies, but the very idea of the state itself. After all, an outlaw state has no more right to exist than an outlaw, like the kid says in “Unforgiven”: “I guess they had it comin’.”

Leaders Stay Silent as Israel Collapses


The Zionist revolution has always rested on two pillars: a just path and an ethical leadership. Neither of these is operative any longer.

The Israeli nation today rests on a scaffolding of corruption and on foundations of oppression and injustice. As such, the end of the Zionist enterprise is already on our doorstep.

There is a real chance that ours will be the last Zionist generation. There may yet be a Jewish State here, but it will be a different sort, strange and ugly.

There is time to change course, but not much. What is needed is a new vision of a just society and the political will to implement it.

Nor is this merely an internal Israeli affair. Diaspora Jews, for whom Israel is a central pillar of their identity, must pay heed and speak out. If the pillar collapses, the upper floors will come crashing down.

The opposition does not exist, and the coalition, with Ariel Sharon at its head, claims the right to remain silent. In a nation of chatterboxes, everyone has suddenly fallen dumb, because there’s nothing left to say.

We live in a thunderously failed reality. Yes, we have revived the Hebrew language, created a marvelous theater and a strong national currency. Our Jewish minds are as sharp as ever. We are traded on the Nasdaq.

But is this why we created a state? The Jewish people did not survive for two millennia in order to pioneer new weaponry, computer security programs or antimissile missiles. We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. In this we have failed.

It turns out that the 2,000-year struggle for Jewish survival comes down to a state of settlements run by an amoral clique of corrupt lawbreakers who are deaf both to their citizens and to their enemies. A state lacking justice cannot survive.

More and more Israelis are coming to understand this as they ask their children where they expect to live in 25 years. Children who are honest admit to their parents’ shock that they do not know. The countdown to the end of Israeli society has begun.

It is very comfortable to be a Zionist in West Bank settlements such as Beit El and Ofra. The biblical landscape is charming. From the window you can gaze through the geraniums and bougainvilleas and not see the occupation.

Traveling on the fast highway that takes you from Ramot on Jerusalem’s northern edge to Gilo on the southern edge, a 12-minute trip that skirts barely a half-mile west of the Palestinian roadblocks, it’s hard to comprehend the humiliating experience of the despised Arab, who must creep for hours along the pocked, blockaded roads assigned to him — one road for the occupier, one road for the occupied.

This cannot work. Even if the Arabs lower their heads and swallow their shame and anger forever, it won’t work. A structure built on human callousness will inevitably collapse in on itself.

Note this moment well: Zionism’s superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall. Only madmen continue dancing on the top floor while the pillars below are collapsing.

We have grown accustomed to ignoring the suffering of the women at the roadblocks. No wonder we don’t hear the cries of the abused woman living next door or the single mother struggling to support her children in dignity. We don’t even bother to count the women murdered by their husbands.

Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centers of Israeli escapism. They consign themselves to Allah in our places of recreation, because their own lives are torture. They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated.

We could kill a thousand ringleaders and engineers a day and nothing will be solved, because the leaders come up from below — from the wells of hatred and anger, from the infrastructures of injustice and moral corruption.

If all this were inevitable, divinely ordained and immutable, I would be silent. But things could be different, and so crying out is a moral imperative.

Here is what the prime minister should say to the people:

The time for illusions is over. The time for decisions has arrived. We love the entire land of our forefathers, and in some other time, we would have wanted to live here alone. But that will not happen. The Arabs, too, have dreams and needs.

Between the Jordan and the Mediterranean there is no longer a clear Jewish majority. And so, fellow citizens, it is not possible to keep the whole thing without paying a price.

We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time, think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. There cannot be democracy without equal rights for all who live here, Arab as well as Jew. We cannot keep the territories and preserve a Jewish majority in the world’s only Jewish State — not by means that are humane and moral and Jewish.

Do you want the Greater Land of Israel? No problem. Abandon democracy. Let’s institute an efficient system of racial separation here, with prison camps and detention villages — Qalqilya Ghetto and Gulag Jenin.

Do you want a Jewish majority? No problem. Either put the Arabs on railway cars, buses, camels and donkeys and expel them en masse, or separate ourselves from them absolutely, without tricks and gimmicks.

There is no middle path. We must remove all the settlements — all of them — and draw an internationally recognized border between the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home. The Jewish Law of Return will apply only within our national home, and their right of return will apply only within the borders of the Palestinian state.

Do you want democracy? No problem. Either abandon the Greater Land of Israel, to the last settlement and outpost, or give full citizenship and voting rights to everyone, including Arabs. The result, of course, will be that those who did not want a Palestinian state alongside us will have one in our midst, via the ballot box.

That’s what the prime minister should say to the people. He should present the choices forthrightly: Jewish racialism or democracy. Settlements or hope for both peoples. False visions of barbed wire, roadblocks and suicide bombers or a recognized international border between two states and a shared capital in Jerusalem.

But there is no prime minister in Jerusalem. The disease eating away at the body of Zionism has already attacked the head. David Ben-Gurion sometimes erred, but he remained straight as an arrow. When Menachem Begin was wrong, nobody impugned his motives.

No longer. Polls published recently showed that a majority of Israelis do not believe in the personal integrity of the prime minister — yet they trust his political leadership. In other words, Israel’s current prime minister personally embodies both halves of the curse: suspect personal morals and open disregard for the law — combined with the brutality of occupation and the trampling of any chance for peace. This is our nation; these its leaders. The inescapable conclusion is that the Zionist revolution is dead.

Why, then, is the opposition so quiet? Perhaps because it’s summer, or because they are tired, or because some would like to join the government at any price, even the price of participating in the sickness. But while they dither, the forces of good lose hope.

This is the time for clear alternatives. Anyone who declines to present a clear-cut position — black or white — is in effect collaborating in the decline. It is not a matter of Labor vs. Likud or right vs. left, but of right vs. wrong, acceptable vs. unacceptable, the law-abiding vs. the lawbreakers.

What’s needed is not a political replacement for the Sharon government but a vision of hope, an alternative to the destruction of Zionism and its values by the deaf, dumb and callous.

Israel’s friends abroad — Jewish and non-Jewish alike, presidents and prime ministers, rabbis and lay people — should choose as well. They must reach out and help Israel to navigate the road map toward our national destiny as a light unto the nations and a society of peace, justice and equality.

This essay originally appeared in Sept. 12 Jewish Journal, but a production error rendered it difficult to read.


Avraham Burg was speaker of Israel’s Knesset from 1999 to 2003 and is a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is currently a Labor Party Knesset member. This essay, adapted by the author from an article that appeared in Yediot Aharonot, originally appeared in The Forward (www.forward.com). Translated by J.J. Goldberg.