Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Iconic Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, 77


The crusading Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci spent the last years of her life issuing fiery warnings against a Muslim world that she saw poised to overrun the West.
 
Critics accused Fallaci of sowing racial and religious hatred, but she became a heroine to many Jews and Israelis for her vocal defense of Israel and denunciations of new forms of anti-Semitism.
 
“She was the most loved and most hated woman in Italy,” said Clemente Mimun, the Jewish director of Italian television’s main news program.
 
Fallaci, who divided her later years between New York and her native Florence, died last Friday in Florence after a long battle with cancer. She was 77.A glamorous woman always seen with long hair and thick eye-liner and a cigarette poised in her fingers, Fallaci was a war correspondent in Vietnam and fought as a child in the anti-fascist resistance during World War II.

She never married but had a passionate affair with the Greek left-wing activist Alekos Panagulis in the mid-1970s. After his death in an automobile accident, she wrote a book based on his life, “A Man,” that sold 3.5 million copies.Fallaci became a celebrity icon in the 1960s and 1970s with incisive, baring interviews of global VIPs including Henry Kissinger, PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. She also wrote a series of novels and other books.
 
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, marked a watershed.
 
Fallaci’s “The Rage and the Pride,” a vehement defense of the United States published soon after the attacks, became a best seller and provoked a storm of controversy with its strong language and uncompromising positions.
 
She followed with further books and articles that lambasted the West for weakness in the face of Islam and minced no words in her criticism of Muslims in general.
 
Islam, she wrote in her last book, “The Force of Reason,” “sows hatred in place of love and slavery in place of freedom.”
 
One of her most famous essays was a blistering attack on anti-Semitism published in April 2002 that read like a manifesto.
 
Repeating over and over the assertion “I find it shameful,” Fallaci unleashed a brutal indictment of Italy, Italians, the Catholic church, the left wing, the media, politically correct pacifists and Europeans in general for abandoning Israel and fomenting a new wave of anti-Semitism linked to the Mideast crisis.In the essay, Fallaci, who long had held pro-Palestinian views, declared herself “disgusted with the anti-Semitism of many Italians, of many Europeans” and “ashamed of this shame that dishonors my country and Europe.”
 
“I find it shameful,” she wrote,” and I see in all this the resurgence of a new fascism, a new Nazism.”
 
She recalled that in the past “I fought often, and bitterly, with the Israelis, and I defended the Palestinians a lot — maybe more than they deserved.
 
“Nonetheless, I stand with Israel, I stand with the Jews,” she wrote. “I defend their right to exist, to defend themselves, and not to allow themselves to be exterminated a second time.”
 

Fleeing Nazis Breaks His Father’s Spirit


My father, rarely impetuous, married my much younger mother when he was 46, and he was 49 when I was born.

When I was a toddler and we went occasionally together to the Berlin zoo, people came up and congratulated my father on his cute grandson. So there was this age gap, to begin with. We went on vacations together to a Baltic Sea resort or Denmark, but we never kicked a soccer ball around (who knew about baseball?).

My father, Dr. Gustav Tugendreich, was a well-known pediatrician and a pioneer in infant health care who had served as a frontline medical officer for four years in the Kaiser’s army during World War I.

He was profoundly steeped in German culture, could probably recite most of Goethe’s and Schiller’s works by heart and was an enthusiastic classical music buff.

As in most upper-class German Jewish families, the upbringing of my older sister and I was left largely in the hands of a devoted governess.

Typical of the time and class, my parents were completely assimilated, much more so than American Jews of that era. My earliest recollection of any religious rite was standing around the Christmas tree with the servants and singing “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” (“Silent Night, Holy Night”).

Yet, my father’s assimilation had its limits. When he was offered the directorship of the Berlin municipal hospital, on condition that he convert to Christianity, he refused.

Everything, of course, changed in 1933, when Hitler came to power — but only gradually. First, my father could no longer treat his “Aryan” patients. Then our beloved governess had to leave under a new law that no Aryan woman under 45 could work in a Jewish household.

For me, living in cosmopolitan Berlin, the change was hardly noticeable. I had gone to a private Montessori school, so didn’t have to switch. Now I was sent to a suburban Jewish boarding school, where I had the time of my life, the best teachers I have ever known and lived in Albert Einstein’s summer home, which he had donated to the boarding school.

In the beginning of the Nazi era, my father, thanks to his international reputation, was offered various positions abroad, including, oddly enough, at the main hospital in Tehran, but he couldn’t conceive of leaving Germany. Like many old-time German Jews, he looked on Hitler as a temporary aberration, which the good sense of the German people would soon reverse.

We still spent our family vacations abroad, the only prolonged stretches of time I recall with my father.

It’s odd what sticks in your mind. In 1935 or 1936, we vacationed on the idyllic Danish island of Bornholm, staying at a boarding house. One morning, a German man and his family arrived, and when the Danish host tried to introduce him to my father at the breakfast table, the German bowed briefly and stiffly but did not shake hands. My father responded in kind.

What puzzled me at the time was why the German wouldn’t shake hands, and later, how he knew immediately that we were Jews.

Finally, in 1937, two years after the Nuremberg laws consigned all Jews to third-class status, my father reluctantly agreed that it was time to leave. As in most families faced with life-changing decisions, it was my mother who was the more flexible, resolute and pragmatic.

But by now, all potential countries of refuge had pretty well closed their borders, and there was a line stretching ahead for years to get an American visa.

We were saved, in retrospect, by one of those odd happenstances that determine our lives.

Back in 1919, British and American Quakers sent missions to defeated Germany to help feed its hungry children, and my father was appointed liaison to the Quakers by the German government. Now my father recalled the brief relationship and tracked down the Quakers.

By a quirk of the U.S. immigration laws, academicians who had taught at a foreign university before emigration, and were guaranteed a one-year position at an American college, were granted a “nonquota” visa and skipped the immigration line.

Though my father had never been a professor, the British and American Quakers went to work and arranged a lectureship in public health, first at the University of London, and then at Bryn Mawr College, near Philadelphia.

So it was decided that my father would go ahead, spend 1937-38 in London and 1938-39 at Bryn Mawr, at which time the rest of the family would join him.

My mother was then head of the German WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and reluctant to leave her post, and, anyhow, what was the hurry? Everybody in Germany knew that Hitler was so shrewd that he would get what he wanted without a war, and of course, anything like a Holocaust was beyond imagination.

My father was always a bit of a worrywart, and I clearly remember how we chuckled over his increasingly urgent letters, especially after the 1938 Munich pact, begging us to forget about bringing the furniture and money and come to America right away.

So we took our time and left flag-bedecked Berlin in style on April 20, 1939 — Hitler’s 50th birthday — flying from Tempelhof Airport to London, and then traveling on a German passenger ship from Southampton to New York, arriving in the middle of May.

We were met at the harbor by my father and some old Berlin friends (I believe we skipped Ellis Island), but I have no emotional recollection of the reunion.

I do remember that a few weeks later, the reunited family left for a couple of weeks for New Hampshire’s scenic White Mountains. There the Quakers had set up a camp with young American counselors to introduce the new refugees, mainly Jewish, to the native customs of their new country.

One lesson was that after each meal, the assorted ex-professors, doctors and lawyers and their wives and children had to bus and clean their own dishes. You have to know the ingrained European class distinctions to realize what an absolute shock this request represented.

My father, who had a great sense of humor, laughed the whole thing off and complied readily. But as I was carrying my dishes, an elderly refugee came up to me to express his shame and horror that the son of Herr Doctor would be asked to perform so menial a task.

Of course, the “yekkes” — German Jews — who arrived in Palestine in the 1930s had to undergo similar adjustments but perhaps with less sympathy from the old-time inhabitants.

Three months after that experience, and to my immense astonishment, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II was under way.

My father tried hard but unsuccessfully to overcome his heavy Teutonic accent, but, in truth, the forced emigration had broken his heart and spirit. After his Bryn Mawr lectureship expired, he was too old, too ill and too weary to start from the beginning and try to study for an American medical license.

I was then a pimply teenager, completely self-centered, trying to cope with a new culture and language. I was of little help and solace to my father and happily enlisted in the U.S. Army as my first chance to get away.

My father died in 1948 at the age of 71. I recently received a very polite letter from the German Association of Pediatricians, mentioning my father’s name and expressing remorse for the treatment of Jewish physicians by their Aryan colleagues during the Nazi era.

It was a little too late.

 

‘Apostle of the Ugly’ Outlasts Nazis, Gets His Due


For 40 years, painter Max Liebermann was the premier artist of Berlin, a cultural icon and pioneer in his native land, and the pride of the Jewish community in Germany.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Liebermann became officially a nonperson — and when he died two years later at the age of 87, the controlled Nazi press ignored his death and accomplishments.

The Skirball Cultural Center, in the most ambitious artistic project in its nine-year history, will present the first American survey of the painter’s life and works in “Max Liebermann: From Realism to Impressionism.”

The exhibit opens Sept. 15 and continues through Jan. 29, 2006, after which it will travel to the Jewish Museum in New York.

Born into a wealthy German Jewish family in 1847, Liebermann spent a lengthy apprenticeship in German art academies and travels to Holland, and scored his initial success with his realist paintings of Dutch peasants and workers, particularly his “Women Plucking Geese” in 1872.

His depictions of life among the poor won praise for their skillful technique, but were denounced by hidebound critics who dubbed him “the apostle of the ugly.”

He followed the next year with “Self-portrait With Kitchen Still Life,” the only one of his many self-portraits in which Liebermann, posing as a kitchen chef, ventured a half-smile.

Keen viewers will spot a kosher seal attached to the chicken on the kitchen table.

In the 1880s, Liebermann started his large collection of French impressionist paintings by Manet, Degas, Renoir and Pissarro. He himself began to experiment with a looser, spontaneous impressionist style, a move denounced as “anti-German” by some critics.

He perfected this style over the next decades, especially in lovely paintings of beach scenes with tennis players, bathers and a pensive portrait of his wife Martha (who committed suicide in Berlin in 1943, after receiving her deportation orders for Theresienstadt).

Liebermann rarely used Jewish themes in his paintings, perhaps discouraged by the reception of his 1879 drawing, “The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple,” debating a group of rabbis. The young Jesus was originally portrayed as a scruffy, unkempt boy with gesticulating hands and a distinctively Semitic nose. The painting elicited howls of outrage that a painter, and a Jew at that, would depict Jesus in such an unflattering manner. As a result of the attacks, Liebermann cleaned up his act by changing the painting to show the young Jesus in a clean white robe and with an “Aryanized” nose.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Liebermann emerged as the leader of the German avant garde as president of the Berlin Secession, which promoted modernist German art rejected by most official museums and galleries, and works by French impressionist and post-impressionist artists. Around this time, he painted “Parrotman at the Amsterdam Zoo,” considered by many as his greatest impressionist work.

With the outbreak of World War I, Liebermann joined in his countrymen’s patriotic fervor, even suggesting in a letter that “war seems to be necessary to curb the excessive materialism of peacetime.”

He contributed for two years to the “Wartime Art Pages,” which featured heroic portraits of the kaiser and advancing German soldiers, but he also sketched the Kishinev pogrom, inscribed, “To my dear Jews.”

With the end of the war, Liebermann again explored new avenues. He became a highly regarded and well-paid portrait artist, whose sitters included Albert Einstein, Richard Strauss and German President Paul von Hindenburg.

At the same time, as the Weimar Republic brought a brief interlude of liberalism to Germany, Liebermann reached the apogee of his influence.

Wrote one historian, “During the Weimar Republic, Liebermann embodied the artistic and intellectual establishment like no other person in Germany.”

However, with advancing age, Liebermann retreated increasingly to his spacious villa in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, growing and painting flower and vegetable beds, and, toward the end of his life, concentrating on intimate family scenes. A 1932 photo shows Liebermann, aged and leaning on a cane, leaving a polling station, with a Hitler poster in the background.

Liebermann hardly fit the image of the bohemian, hard-drinking and loving artist. He was a devoted family man, and, even when painting at a beach, always wore a well-cut suit, tie and hat.

“In my daily habits,” he said, “I am completely bourgeois. I eat, drink, sleep and go for walks with the regularity of a church clock.”

His sober habits yielded some 1,500 paintings, studies and drawings during his long life, of which about one-third disappeared during the Nazi regime and World War II.

In addition, he was a prolific and conscientious correspondent, writing thousands of letters. In one, he characterized himself as “an inveterate Jew, who otherwise feels like a German,” and most of his life he was able to combine and balance the two loyalties.

As late as 1931, he wrote to Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, “Art knows neither political nor religious boundaries … although I have felt as a German throughout my whole life, my kinship to the Jewish people is no less alive in me.”

But three years later, responding to an appeal for support of a Zionist youth group, Liebermann observed:

“We have only awakened now from the beautiful dream of assimilation…. I am too old to emigrate, but for the Jewish youth there is no salvation but to leave for Palestine, where they can live as a free people.”

Liebermann was “squarely in the tradition of Jews shaped by German culture and language,” who have made enormous contributions to the arts and knowledge, noted Dr. Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Center.

Included, he said, are such names as Martin Buber, Einstein, Lion Feuchtwanger, Sigmund Freud, Erich Fromm, Heinrich Heine, Franz Kafka, Otto Klemperer, Gustav Mahler, Jacques Offenbach, Leon Panofsky, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weill.

Senior Curator Barbara Gilbert spent eight years in preparation for the exhibit, researching Liebermann’s life, tracking his works across Europe, and persuading museums and private collectors to lend some 70 paintings and drawings for the Skirball exhibit.

“We are trying to introduce the American public to the art of Max Liebermann, as well as to illustrate the politics of art,” Gilbert said. “Art became quite politicized during Liebermann’s lifetime and he used his position to speak out for the equality and broad inclusiveness of art.”

Underlining the point, museum director Lori Starr observed, “This unprecedented exhibition rediscovers Liebermann and illuminates how he leveraged his artistic talent and position in the Berlin art world to promote social change and campaign tirelessly against censorship, intolerance and injustice at a time when Nazism presented grave dangers.”

Accompanying the exhibit will be a series of concerts, lectures, workshops, family programs, German silent film screenings, courses in drawing and painting, an introductory video and a 220-page catalogue with 150 color images.

For information, call (310) 440-4500, or visit www.skirball.org.

 

Losing Faith


The disengagement plan from Gaza and the northern Shomron communities has not yet begun, and yet, Israelis witness daily TV scenes of right-wing teenagers, mothers with children and yeshiva boys donning orange hats and T-shirts and struggling with young soldiers and policemen as they show common cause with the settlers in Gush Katif — and attempt to break through to stand side-by-side with them.

If all goes as scheduled, this solidarity will not deter the government. The displaced settlers will have to move to new homes that could take at least a year to build. Many will have to start from scratch re-establishing thriving agricultural and economic enterprises. In the meantime, their former homes and gardens will be reduced to rubble, a sight that will be broadcast to them and to the world. There are legitimate concerns over how and how well these settlers will adjust.

But there’s more at stake than the fate of the settlers. Disengagement has become a trauma for the entire religious-Zionist community. Tens of thousands of young people, identifying with the messianic ideals of the settlers, have been drafted to protest the disengagement. They’ve marched against soldiers whom they see as the messengers of an evil government.

“We will overwhelm the soldiers by our numbers,” said Eli, an otherwise gentle engineering student, who perceives as “other” his fellow Israelis, once comrades-in-arms, who have been ordered to stop the penetration of provocateurs into Gaza. “What kind of Jewish army is it that shoots at Jews,” he declared.

The government, of course, insists that it has no plans to shoot at anybody, even if recalcitrant settlers and outside demonstrators have to be removed one by one. But from the standpoint of religious Zionists, how can there be anything but alienation toward a government and army that an entire sector sees as having betrayed it.

What then will be the ideological fallout among religious Zionists?

Influenced by the writings of the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, and the lightning capture of Gaza, the West Bank and the Sinai peninsula in 1967, many Orthodox Jews interpreted this era as hathalta d’geula, the harbinger of redemption.

A subterranean messianism undoubtedly already had existed in modern Zionism. But the emphasis was primarily on the miracle of statehood, the return of Jewish sovereignty after 2,000 years of the Diaspora. After the Six-Day War, however, many religious Zionists, perceiving themselves as the new pioneers, envisioned messianism almost entirely in terms of settlement of a greater Land of Israel.

“The religious-Zionist movement identified settlement with Zionism, forgetting that the primary definition of Zionism is creating a Jewish home in the Land of Israel,” said Ha’aretz journalist, Yair Sheleg. “It invested all its prestige in the settlements, and the connection to the Land of Israel. Destruction of the settlements is, for many religious Zionists, tantamount to the destruction of the State of Israel.”

For these Zionists, the Gaza withdrawal is, in a fundamental way, closing the door on the Messiah.

“We have heard the flutter of redemption but we have not rushed to receive it,” said Rabbi Yigal Ariel of the Golan Heights enclave of Moshav Nov in an interview in Eretz Aheret, a general-interest magazine that devoted an issue to religious Zionism.

The expressions of despair and disappointment with the State of Israel echo, in some respects, the disillusionment after false messiah Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam in the 17th century. Zevi’s betrayal brought anguish in its wake, with many Jews giving up on their dreams. Some turned away from Judaism to Islam, or transitioned to an underground messianism. Today, in the wake of a pullout from Gaza, the question is whether religious Zionists will be left with a diminished faith or whether they will abandon Zionism, or whether a latter-day underground messianism will foment among them.

Kook, the intellectual pioneer of religious Zionists, put emphasis on love of all the Jewish people, insisting on tolerance and acceptance of nonreligious pioneers, for he saw them building the physical framework, preparing the way for messianic times. But it is difficult for religious Zionists to perceive today’s post-Zionist, secular left-leaning Israelis, seemingly triumphant in getting the government to evacuate settlers, as harbingers of messianic times. There is fear that today’s religious Zionists, the heirs of Kook’s message of love, are becoming increasingly alienated from mainstream Israeli society.

Knesset member Yossi Beilin of Yahad-Meretz has expressed disappointment at this possible development.

“This is too important a community to lose,” Beilin said.

Signs of this alienation abound.

In Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe, a neighborhood stronghold of Rav Kook adherents, there were “fewer Israeli flags flying this Independence Day. Instead, orange banners protesting disengagement from Gush Katif had replaced them,” reported Rina Rosenberg, a psychologist who lives near Kiryat Moshe.

“There is disappointment with the state, and the way the Zionism has developed,” Rosenberg said.

Some religious Zionist rabbis declared that the recital of the Hallel prayer should be suspended. In the past, Hallel symbolized the sanctification of Independence Day, the attribution of religious significance to the establishment of the State of Israel after 2,000 years of dispersion. There are also rabbis who have called upon soldiers to refuse to carry out orders to evacuate settlers. But this is a red line that most religious Zionists will not cross.

The sense of disenfranchisement also derives from a sense of the inadequate Jewishness of the Jewish state.

“It’s about disengagement from all the Land of Israel, from Jerusalem, and from Zionism and all Jewish history,” said Rabbi Yair Kaminetzky.

Kaminetzky, who has lived in Gush Katif for 25 years, sees Israelis today as having lost their Zionist ideals. But more than that, he questions the very Jewishness of the State of Israel, pointing to the imitation of western lifestyle and music associated with the modern city of Tel Aviv, as un-Jewish.

There is much speculation that after disengagement, many religious Zionists will move toward ultra-Orthodoxy. In the early decades of the State of Israel, religious Zionists looked over their right shoulder to the ultra-Orthodox as the “truly religious,” while they looked over their left shoulder to the Labor Zionist pioneers as the “truly Zionist.” With disengagement, and the sense that secular Zionism has lost its ideals, a sector of the religious Zionist movement feels that it might as well give up on Zionism, and return to the old religion that the secular Zionists rebelled against.

This process has already begun. A group of Kook adherents have already turned away from secular study and other expressions of modernity. In the spirit of the ultra-Orthodox community, they are acceding to greater separation between the sexes.

In the coverage by the Israeli magazine Eretz Aheret, journalist Yair Sheleg noted that religious Zionism has lived with many tensions, trying to balance the values of halacha, Zionism and modernism. The movement to haredi sectarianism would deprive Israeli society of an important bridge to its traditional sources. Secular Israelis would lose a partner that shares the common language of modernity.

In the same issue of the magazine, Rabbi Yigal Ariel blamed the religious Zionist movement for bringing about the growing sectarianism.

“We were unable to settle in the hearts of the people, talk the language of Israeli society, and attract Israelis to our approach,” he wrote. “We lived in areas disconnected from the rest of the Jewish people, and talked only to ourselves. The issue of settlement should have been in the interest of all Jews, but it became a sectarian issue.”

There are those, on the other hand, who believe that the religious Zionist community will not give up on the State of Israel or the army. Its identity is far too enmeshed with the nation and its survival.

Former Knesset member Alex Lubotzky, a Hebrew University math professor, believes in disengagement, but bridles at the undemocratic way he feels it was carried out. He says that the liberal elite betrayed the religious Zionists by adopting a triumphal tone rather than one characterized by dialogue and mutual understanding. Yet he doesn’t think religious Zionists will give up on the State of Israel and the army. They will simply become more critical of government, and the elite groups that are running the country: “They will make finer distinctions, not seeing everything the army and government do as holy.”

“Young religious Israelis don’t only define themselves in terms of the territories,” said Hananel Rosenberg, a youth worker. “In contrast to the ultra-Orthodox they see Torah fulfillment as involvement with all of life and society. And there are many, many new expressions of religious life in Israel today. There are the ‘children of the hills’ who have been characterized as extreme, but are often simply anti-bourgeois. There are Hasidic yeshivot, New Age groups. There are those involved in religious dialogue.”

One of the important outlets for idealistic energies is the movement for social justice, the need to bring tikkun olam. The organization Bemaagalay Tzedek, “circles of justice,” took wing a few years ago. Thousands of religious Zionist youth, both from the right and left sectors of the religious community, for example, gathered on the 17th of Tammuz Fast Day to study Jewish sources and hear lectures about the Torah’s vision of social justice, including how people should treat employees, and help the poor and disabled.

Circles of Justice is a lobby fighting the widening economic gap, and society’s failure to prevent the spread of drugs, prostitution and child labor. Alongside kashrut certificates, it has created “social insignias” indicating that a business adheres to minimum wage and fair employment practices, and has access for the disabled. This certification has only begun, but Circles of Justice represents great hope for new directions in Religious Zionism — a reaching out to other Israelis, and reconnecting with them.

Rochelle Furstenberg writes on literary and cultural issues for the Jerusalem Report in Israel and for Hadassah Magazine.

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Foreign Oscar Hope High in Nom Run-up


 

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar finalists on Jan. 25, millions of Americans will be tuning in to learn who has been nominated for best actor, actress, director and picture.

But in 49 countries around the globe, from Afghanistan to Venezuela, local film buffs will wait anxiously to find out whether their country’s entry has made the cut by placing among the five finalists.

For most foreign movies, an Oscar nominations offers the best chance of attracting an American distributor for screenings in commercial U.S. theaters.

This year, four entries touch closely on the Jewish experience. They are Germany’s “Downfall,” Argentina’s “Lost Embrace,” the Palestinian Authority’s “The Olive Harvest” and Israel’s “Campfire.”

In face-to-face interviews, three directors and one actor commented on the making of the films.

‘Downfall’

“Downfall” recreates the last 10 days of Adolf Hitler and, for an instant, when Swiss actor Bruno Ganz makes his entrance, it feels as if the Führer himself has been reincarnated, such is the resemblance between the two men.

But this is not the ranting, strutting Hitler of 1,000 newsreels and photos. This is a cornered man, holed up in his elaborate Berlin bunker, with sunken eyes and cheeks, trying to hide his uncontrollably shaking hand behind his back.

In the streets above the bunker, Soviet troops, fighting the last die-hard Nazis and Hitler Youth, are reducing the capital city to rubble, block by block.

It is April 20, 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, and in a ghastly imitation of a jolly party, his still-loyal followers lift their champagne glasses in a toast.

The mood in the bunker wavers between frenetic fantasy and desperate reality. One moment, Hitler orders his generals to move nonexistent divisions to counterattack the Russian enemy. An hour later, he calmly discusses with his doctor the surest way to blow out his brains.

There are wild drunken parties among the bodyguards, with Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, jitterbugging on a table, counterpoised to a somber Hitler staring at the portrait of his idol, Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Leaders of the short-lived “Thousand Year Reich” drop by to pay their respects or farewells. Dreaded SS chief Heinrich Himmler swears undying fealty to the Führer and then consults an aide whether on meeting Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower for imaginary negotiations he should greet the American general with a Nazi salute or a handshake.

None is more fanatical than Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. She brings her six children to the bunker and, declaring that life is not worth living without National Socialism, methodically poisons them one by one.

In appreciation, Hitler confers his own swastika lapel pin on her and she declares herself the happiest woman in all of Germany.

Hitler’s paranoid anti-Semitism is unshaken to the end, and he takes pride that “I have cleansed Germany of the Jewish poison.”

He dictates his political testament to his secretary, concluding that “We owe all our problems to international Jewry.”

While Hitler hates and fears the Jews, he now has nothing but contempt for his Aryan master race. “I won’t shed a tear for the German people,” he declares, “They are to blame [for the defeat].”

Yet, the Hitler of the film is not a lunatic. He knows the fate in store for him if he is caught by the Russians, and he can carry on a fairly normal conversation with Albert Speer, his favorite architect.

“Hitler would not have achieved such power if within his crazy concept there hadn’t been a rational person,” said Ganz, Hitler’s film persona.

Interspersed in “Downfall’s” Wagnerian Twilight of the Gods are small homey touches. In gratitude to the loyal Eva Braun, he marries her in a brief, bureaucratic ceremony, in which both affirm their pure Aryan descent.

Just before the couple retires to commit suicide, Hitler formally thanks the cook for their last, delicious, lunch. And to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on whose recollection of the last days much of the film is based, he remains mainly a kindly father figure.

Such “normal” touches in a man who laid Europe waste have aroused fears and criticism that the film “humanizes” Hitler, especially among the post-war generations.

Ganz said he had no such concern when he accepted the role.

“The film clearly explains that Hitler was responsible for the deaths of 50 million people, including 6 million Jews, and even young people know of his murderous deeds.”

But Ganz wrestled with himself on whether to play Hitler for other reasons.

“I’ve been given more to playing thoughtful, even melancholy, characters, such as Hamlet and Faust,” the 63-year-old actor said.

“My son and friends advised me not to accept the role. They worried that it would affect me as a human being and that thereafter I would be known just as the man who played Hitler.”

After considerable reading and thinking, Ganz concluded that playing the part was just too big a challenge to pass up, despite the risks.

“Besides everything else, Hitler was an actor who fed off his audience and knew how to play a crowd,” Ganz said. “As an actor myself, I finally told myself, ‘I know how to get into that man.'”

‘Lost Embrace’

If the Nazi era has been endlessly researched and reported, little is known, outside of South America, of Jewish life in Argentina, except when terrorists or vandals strike at the community.

Yet Argentina has the has the seventh-largest Jewish community in the world, predominantly living in Buenos Aires, and it is a welcome sign that the Argentine film industry chose “Lost Embrace” (“El Abrazo Partido”) as the country’s entry in the Oscar stakes.

Written and directed by Daniel Burman, the grandson of Polish Jewish immigrants, the film is set in the Once neighborhood of downtown Buenos Aires.

At one time an all-Jewish enclave, Once, like similar semi-ghettos in New York and Los Angeles some decades ago, is gradually changing with the influx of other minorities and newer immigrants.

Burman, still only 31, grew up in Once and among the dozen films he has directed or produced, has twice before visited the old neighborhood in “Seven Days in Once” and “Waiting for the Messiah.”

“Lost Embrace” is set in a rundown shopping mall, where young Ariel (Daniel Hendler) helps his mother Sonia (Adriana Aizenberg) in her lingerie shop, when he isn’t indulging in some quick sex with the blonde at the Internet hangout or observing the noisy Italian and quiet Korean storekeepers and their families.

Absent is the father, who disappeared one day in 1973 to fight in Israel’s Yom Kippur War, for reasons Ariel’s mother and grandmother refuse to discuss.

In quick-changing segments, we get other glimpses of Jewish life. Mother Sonia dances in an amateur show at the local Teatro Hebraica; the grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, unexpectedly sings an old Yiddish tune; and the neighborhood rabbi announces that he is leaving for Miami.

Life in Once has a certain multiethnic warmth, but what the rather aimless Ariel wants is to get away. Like many other young men in changing and uncertain Argentina, he looks for his ancestral roots and wants to move to Europe.

In the end, when his father returns, Ariel finally gets the answers he’s been seeking and the paternal embrace he has been yearning for.

The problem of “constructing an identity” has long obsessed Burman and he says that “Lost Embrace” embodies that search in Ariel’s seemingly casual daily experiences.

Yet Burman, both of whose parents are lawyers, apparently doesn’t share Ariel’s problem. Sounding like many of his contemporaries in the United States, he says, “I have no hang-ups about my Jewish identity, but it is part of my background.”

Similar to many descendants of Lower East Side residents in New York, or the Fairfax district in Los Angeles, Burman has moved away from Once, has married a non-Jewish woman, but still draws on the Jewish experiences of his youth for creative sustenance.

‘The Olive Harvest’

Last year, there were raised eyebrows and scattered protests, when, under the Academy’s liberal rules, the country of “Palestine” entered the movie “Divine Intervention” for foreign-language film Oscar honors.

No such objection has been raised to “The Olive Harvest,” the current Palestinian candidate and an unorthodox production in many ways.

For one, director-writer Hanna Latif Elias, an Israeli Arab and graduate of the Hebrew University and UCLA, shot the film, in the midst of the intifada, with an all-Arab cast and an all-Jewish Israeli crew.

For another, the picture’s core is a love triangle, and although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms threateningly in the background, more tension is produced by generational and sibling rivalries among the inhabitants of a rural Arab village in the West Bank.

The villagers earn their livelihood by harvesting olive trees planted in terraces along the gently rolling hills, among them family patriarch Muhamad, his wife Samiah, and their daughter, the beautiful Raeda.

As the film opens, Raeda is scattering rose petals to welcome the return of her childhood friend, Mazen. He has just been released after 15 years in an Israeli prison for setting fire to a new settlement encroaching on the olive groves.

During Mazen’s absence, his younger brother, Taher, has been courting Raeda, but their engagement remains a secret in deference to the tradition that a younger brother cannot marry before the older one.

Given the slow, indirect and nonphysical courting procedures in the village, it takes some time before the rivalry between the brothers breaks out into the open.

The brothers also differ in their political outlook. The impetuous, hot-headed Taher works for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, tasked with warning of any new Israeli settlement activity.

In contrast to Taher’s militancy, the more sensitive and poetic older brother urges an end to the cycle of violence between Jews and Arabs.

Raeda’s dying father, exercising his absolute paternal authority on the ambivalent Raeda, chooses for her husband the brother most likely to remain in the village and care for the land.

As the wedding party assembles, the enraged losing brother torches a massive, 2,000-year-old tree, which symbolizes the villagers’ connectedness to the land.

“Olive Harvest” is in many ways, a beautiful film, both in the vistas of the biblical landscape and in the sensitive depiction of relationships between husband and wife, parents and daughter, sister and sister, and between the young lovers.

The excellent cast includes veteran actor Muhamad Bacri as the father; Raeda Adon, a Palestinian Julia Roberts, as his daughter; Mazen Saade as the older brother; and Taher Najeeb as the younger one.

Director Elias drew on his own childhood, growing up in an Arab village in the Galilee, for the atmosphere and social norms of the film’s farmers.

“My parents still live in my birthplace and the social life, the relationship between men and women, is the same as it has been for generations,” he said.

The movie has been screened before Jewish audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Arab audiences in Ramallah, Cairo and Dubai. Reactions have been generally favorable, but with one notable difference.

“The Jewish audiences questioned why the only Israelis shown were rude soldiers at checkpoints, while the Arab viewers complained that there wasn’t enough about Palestinian suffering,” Elias said.

One angry patron in Cairo confronted Elias about using an Israeli crew for the film, to which Elias responded that the highly professional Israelis made him look good.

Yet, the realities of Israeli-Palestinian hostility were never completely absent from Elias’ mind.

“When we were shooting in Ramallah, we needed guards to protect the Israeli crew, and when we filmed at a checkpoint, we had to protect the Arab actors,” he said. A projected scene of a confrontation between settlers and villagers was scuttled for fear of physical violence.

However, Elias sees it as a promising omen that during the filming a romance ignited between an Israeli makeup woman and a Palestinian actor.

“She supported settlements, he didn’t accept Israel’s existence, but once they got to know each other, they realized that the ‘other’ was also a human being,” Elias said.

Financing for the $1 million film came from producer Kamran Elahian, a Silicon Valley-based Iranian American venture capitalist, who said that he has invested some $10 million in Israel’s high-tech industry.

“I liked the idea of a film that portrayed Palestinians as normal persons, instead of suicide bombers,” Elahian said.

‘Campfire’

In “Campfire,” American-born Israeli director Joseph Cedar continues his unblinking exploration into the mindset of the religious Zionists who form the backbone of the settlers’ movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Cedar, himself an Orthodox Jew who grew up in the same environment as the film’s protagonists, earlier looked at the religious right in the acclaimed “Time of Favor.”

In “Campfire,” which dominated the Israel Oscar awards, the central character is Rachel (Michaela Eshet), an attractive 42-year-old widow with two teenage daughters.

A year after her husband’s death, Rachel is desperate for a communal support network and wants to join the founding group of a future religious settlement in the Samaria region of the West Bank.

Ideologically in tune with the movement, Rachel is taken aback when settler leader Motke doubts that as a single woman she will be acceptable, unless she remarries.

Toward that end, Motke’s wife casts about for suitable candidates. One is a cantor-singer (veteran musical star Yehoram Gaon), the other a friendly 50-year-old bus driver (Moshe Ivgy), who can’t seem to hook up in a lasting relationship with a woman.

Meanwhile, Tami, Rachel’s 15-year-old daughter, hangs out with her friends at B’nai Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement. Amidst the singing and dancing, Tami is sexually molested by some of her nastier comrades at a Lag B’Omer bon fire and then publicly slandered.

What has made “Campfire” such a popular and critical success in Israel is that Cedar, as screenwriter and director, has made his characters no mere ideological mouthpieces, but fallible and struggling human beings.

After “Time of Favor” and “Campfire,” many of Cedar’s former friends from the settlements and B’nai Akiva are now among his more vocal critics, but he denies that his movies are anti-religious.

“All the characters in ‘Campfire’ are religious, some are ‘good’ and some are ‘bad.’ But the critics just see the ‘bad’ ones,” he said.

The Oscars will air live on Feb. 27, at 5 p.m. on ABC. For more information, visit www.oscars.com.

 

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