For your consideration


While missiles are raining down on the Jews of southern Israel, do you know what’s raining down on the Jews of Southern California? Screeners.

That’s right: It’s pre-Academy Award season in Hollywood, a time when everyone involved in the movie business receives free DVD copies of all the Oscar contenders. That way, they can be informed voters in the democracy that is Hollywood.

For those of us not actually in the Industry, there is still a good chance we can borrow some of these screeners — after all, some of our best friends are Jewish.

So while the residents of Sderot have to decide whether a trip to the market for a carton of milk is worth risking their lives, the Jews of Hollywood have to wonder whether “Slumdog Millionaire” will play better on their flat-screen or at the Laemmle.

No one said life is fair.

Complete Gaza CoverageBut the crop of movies out this year actually do shed light on how we react to what’s happening 7,500 miles away in Israel and Gaza.

A remarkable number of this year’s movies traffic in Jewish victimhood. “The Reader,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Adam Resurrected” are adapted from books about the Holocaust. “Valkyrie,” in which Tom Cruise doesn’t save the world, features glimpses of Hitler’s Jewish victims, as does “Good,” starring Viggo Mortensen as an unwitting Nazi collaborator.

Two movies attempt to turn our stereotype of ourselves on its head by portraying Jews fighting back. “Defiance” shows how a relative few of Hitler’s victims mounted an armed resistance, and the upcoming Hannah Senesh documentary, “Blessed Is the Match,” eulogizes another martyr. But these are Jews-as-victims stories, as well — one man or woman’s courage notwithstanding, in the end, we mostly die.

What is going on here? Hollywood and the movies still cling to the image of the Jew-as-victim, while in the world beyond Blu-ray the reality is much more … complicated.

There is a yawning gap between how we portray ourselves for the world to see and the reality of the Jew in the world. That gap helps explain why we are so shocked when news reports stress the charnel-house effects of Israeli bombs. Yes, many of these reports are biased, but yes, that havoc is what Jews too can wreak.

It’s clear from my stack of screeners that we Jews prefer to see ourselves as victimized, rather than as all the other adjectives that might apply to Jews since the end of World War II: assimilated, accepted, beloved, cool, aggressive, conflicted, popular, cruel, humane, brilliant, powerful.

I’d add “funny,” but we were always funny.

Movies mirror our heroic selves — and clearly we Jews are most comfortable seeing ourselves as heroic sufferers. No people has been persecuted like us, our stories keep telling us, and that’s the story we keep telling others.

Meanwhile, the roles Jews inhabit have become far more varied and morally complex.

Consider Gaza.

The narrative we are hearing from our leaders thus far could fit comfortably on one of those DVDs: Israel is a victim of Hamas; Israel is just trying to survive.

But of course we live in a more complex world than that, a world that, to my mind, demands we at least wrestle with some murky questions, both practical and moral (and I tend to believe the moral path is, in almost all cases, the most practical).

Some practical questions are: How will Israel’s short-term military success advance its long-term interests? How does it help Israel’s cause to leave Gaza in ruins, Hamas’ fighting force intact, a new generation of Gazan youth terrified and angry at Israel? If Hamas is not destroyed — and it looks like it won’t be — how long before it cashes some more Iranian checks, regroups and rearms?

And if some of Israel’s politicians and supporters aren’t willing to make concessions to more moderate Palestinians like Mahmoud Abbas, why risk Israeli soldiers’ lives trying to dethrone Hamas and put people like Abbas back in power?

Some moral questions are: If it is OK for Israel, in the name of survival, to kill 40 innocent children, is it acceptable for it to kill 400 children? What about 40,000? Where exactly is that line?

For that matter, if it is OK to kill innocent Palestinians because Hamas hides among them, would it be all right to kill innocent Catholics, or Evangelicals, or Jews, if Hamas hid among them?

Make no mistake: Hamas is intransigent, fanatic and violent. As long as it retains power in Gaza, those who want peace for Israel and justice for the Palestinians will be frustrated.

But where Jews have power, they also have the ability to react wisely — and it is wise to be asking these sorts of questions; there is no shame or weakness in it. Just don’t try to make a movie out of it.

But what about Azerbaijan?


A few weeks ago, in that Hollywood purgatory just before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, I found myself at a party in honor of Borat.

I fully expected Borat to appear, dingy brown suit and post-modern Groucho mustache and all. Instead, as I walked through the door of the restaurant Jar, I came face to face with Sascha Baron Cohen. The actor who created Borat came out of his self-imposed in-xile to meet his potential Academy voters (and me) and impress upon them the fact that he was, indeed, acting.

I shook Cohen’s hand maybe a beat too long — the man is preternaturally handsome and poised, and I was a bit tongue-tied at first. Then I told him I thought his movie was brilliant satire. And the fact that as Borat, the anti-Semitic Kazakhstani journalist, Cohen spoke Hebrew, was an even higher level of brilliance.

“Ata m’dber Ivrit?” the actor asked me. Did I speak Hebrew?

“Ken,” I said. Yes.

And so, amid the high-powered producers and directors, I found myself chatting in Hebrew with Cohen. He told me he learned it on a kibbutz, that he preferred to daven in traditional synagogues and that he was well-aware of the irony that Borat, who once urged the audience of a country and western bar to “throw the Jews down the well,” speaks not Kazakh, but Ivrit.

A friend interrupted us: “What are you saying?”

“We were just talking about you,” Cohen deadpanned.

As it turned out, the Academy didn’t nominate Cohen for Best Actor, or “Borat” for Best Picture. It should have. I can’t think of another movie of the past year that was as subversively clever or had as deep a cultural impact. Then again, by the time the Academy honored Charlie Chaplin, the man was near death.

Oscar doesn’t do comedy.

Meanwhile, not long after I met Cohen, I met one of Borat’s landsmen, so to speak. Consul General Elin Suleymanov of the Republic of Azerbaijan had sent me a column he had written taking issue with some of the stereotypes in “Borat,” and he followed up the submission with a meeting. Yes, I know Azerbaijan is across the Caspian Sea and two countries away from Kazakhstan (well, I know that now, thanks to Wikipedia). But at the time, the coincidence seemed too perfect.

Suleymanov is a thoughtful and cultured man, and he would be the first to express his disgust that I’m even mentioning his name in the same paragraph as Borat’s. But the deeper message of “Borat” was one that the consul general shared — American ignorance might be blissful and funny, but it stops us from seeing the complexity of real life, and real human beings.

All of which — Jar, Borat, Cohen, Suleymanov — leads me to Iran.Iran has seven neighbors. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I could only name three of them: Turkey, Afghanistan and, of course, Iraq.

Iraq is a mess, a cauldron of intra-Islamic conflict. Afghanistan is heading down the same tragic path, as the Taliban assert greater fundamentalist control. All those Muslims are nuts, right?

Then there’s Azerbaijan.

It is a majority Shi’ite country — 70 percent Sh’ite, the rest mostly Sunni. It is a democratic secular state whose religious and ethnic minorities are embraced. Azerbaijan gave women the right to vote in 1919 — one year before the United States did.

“My teachers were Jews. My doctors were Jews,” Suleymanov said. “They have lived with us through good and bad times.” (Azerbaijan’s most famous Jew? Chess grand master Garry Kasparov.)

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held his Holocaust denial conference earlier this winter, the Azerbaijani television station aired a debate on it featuring Arthur Lenk, Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan (yes, the same man who was Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles in the mid-’90s).

“He got one full hour,” Suleymanov said. “There was a feeling he won the debate.”

It’s not just about tolerance. One-sixth of Israel’s oil supply comes from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is an economically thriving, moderate and tolerant majority-Islamic nation with great oil wealth — like the real Kazakhstan, in a way.

Of course, Azerbaijan is small — 8 million people to Iran’s 75 million. But Azeris, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Azerbaijanis, account for some 20 million Iranians. Mullahs who have tried to gain traction for fundamentalist teachings in Baku have met with little success, and Azeris in Iran have had a liberalizing influence.

“Every revolution in Iran began in an Azeri region, except the Khomeini revolution,” Suleymanov said.

So is it possible for Shi’ite Iran to choose to be more like its neighbor Azerbaijan and less like its neighbor the Taliban? The consul general believes one key is to give Iran carrots and sticks to pull it toward the Western orbit, where many of its citizens prefer to be.

Of course, the threat of a nuclear Iran raises the stakes and shortens the amount of time the West can allow Iran to evolve. In the meantime, it’s incumbent upon us, as Natan Sharansky has pointed out, to hold Iranian leaders morally and politically responsible for their pronouncements.

But when the Borats of our American pundocracy assert that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with modernity, Israel and human rights, you might ask them — what about Azerbaijan?

The video of Rob Eshman’s interview with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is now available at http://www.jewishjournal.com/video/ehudbarak.rm. Length 1:18. Format: Real Video (streaming).

Too Much or Not Enough?


Did you hate Fran Drescher in “The Nanny” because she was, well, such a stereotype? And what side were you on in the bitter 1972 cultural war that emerged after “Bridget Loves Bernie” became the fifth most-watched television series, only to be canceled because Jewish religious groups alleged it was soft on intermarriage?

“Is it good for the Jews?” has been the habitual — and, for some viewers, inescapable — question that doggedly haunts discussions of representations of Jews and Judaism on TV. But as two new books on Jews and television illustrate, this may not always be the best question.

David Zurawik’s “The Jews of Prime Time” (Brandeis University Press, $29.95) and Vincent Brook’s “Something Ain’t Kosher Here: The Rise of the ‘Jewish’ Sitcom” (Rutgers University Press, $60) provide a wonderful overview of how Jewish themes and characters have been portrayed on television from the late 1940s to the present.

The significant difference between Zurawik’s and Brook’s analyses is that the former is far more concerned over the questions of “positive” and “negative” images of Jewish characters. In chapter after chapter, Zurawik charts how Jewish women and men have been saddled with blatant stereotypes — from the constant “feminization” of Uncle David on “The Goldbergs” to Grace, of “Will & Grace,” an “incredibly neurotic [woman] constantly on the verge of hysteria.”

Brook, meanwhile, emphasizes how “Jewish-themed” shows fit into the broader scope of American popular culture. He writes quite insightfully, for instance, on the relationships of Jewish performers and material — from Al Jolson’s use of blackface in the 1920s to the connection of the characters on “Brooklyn Bridge” to black music — to African American culture. His chapter “Gayface (and Jewface) on Will & Grace” is a fine example of the merits and pitfalls of what he calls the “multiculturalist project.”

As surveys of the place of Jewish images in contemporary popular culture, however, both books are indispensable. While Zurawik’s “Is it good for the Jews?” approach is an important place to begin this discussion, Brook’s more multicultural take is an important, vital continuation of these ideas.


Michael Bronski’s latest book is “Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps” (St. Martin’s, 2003).

Thin Blue Media Line


Felice and Michael Friedson call their news production company The Media Line, Ltd. (TML), but a limited media line is exactly what they are trying to get around. Dedicated to an accurate portrayal of Israel in the news, the Friedsons work to provide both sides of the story.

In early February, TML opened its own broadcast studio in Jerusalem after years of broadcasting from makeshift quarters in a hotel lobby. Now the nonprofit company has a home for its multiple projects, a list of journalistic endeavors that keeps expanding.

Since the late 1980s, the Friedsons have produced a radio talk show concerning Israel and the Middle East, first broadcasting in South Florida and later in Israel. TML also serves as liaison to foreign journalists, giving reporters background and access to informed sources who can present a clear picture of Israeli political reality.

Their Web site provides updated news and other resources for journalists and others who need accurate information. In addition, they produce news stories and interviews for television, which they distribute directly to local stations, bypassing networks and aiming directly for “America’s Heartland.”

“We’re not saying, ‘It’s not fair.’ What we’re doing is filling in the gaps,” says Michael Friedson, who serves as director of media services (Felice Friedson is president-CEO). “The media problem is not one of commission of evil against Israel. It’s a matter of omission. We have to get information to people who aren’t necessarily looking for it,” he says. That often includes the journalists assigned to cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those journalists are often hesitant to trust or even contact official Israeli sources, according to Michael Friedson, but TML can often put them in touch with accurate, informed sources. “We’re Americans,” he says, and by remaining unbiased in their news presentation, TML gains the trust of journalists looking for stories.

“I can’t say it enough — we don’t play games with the news. We are a professional media organization. We meet and exceed all journalistic standards,” he says.

TML staff includes David Zev Harris, a Jerusalem Post correspondant and former BBC reporter, and Michael Widlanski, senior analyst of Arab language media and a former reporter for The New York Times.

Some of the people who are not necessarily looking for Israeli news are the Evangelical Christians who are some of TML’s most regular audience. In 2001, when the Friedsons attended the National Religious Broadcasting Convention, they became the first Jewish media group to do so, and are now broadcasting to Christian media outlets across the U.S. They have worked with Pat Robertson and produced news segments for “The 700 Club.”

“We wish the Jewish community would be as unconditionally supportive as the Christians have been,” says Felice Friedson.

Some of the stories TML covers hit members of its staff too close to home. “When attacks occur in Israel, people don’t hear about the wounded. They hear numbers. They hear deaths, and so-and-so was ‘lightly wounded.’ Lightly wounded can mean someone lost an eye or a limb,” says Felice Friedson.

When a suicide bomber attacked a cafe one block away from their new studio, TML filmed the devastation, not just the bloodstains and debris. Those images were beamed to thousands of homes through local U.S. news programs.

The message of unbiased news from Israel is simple, according to TML. “Israel can stand on its own, even with its flaws,” says Felice Friedson. “Report the events, and report the context, too.”

For more information about The Media Line, Ltd., visit
www.themedialine.org  or call (858) 523-0927.